To volunteer or not to volunteer? Who has the answers?
It’s where we go, and what we do when we get there, that tells us who we are
~ Joyce Carol Oates
Over the last 20 years, an increasing number of people have began to spend their time and resources on opportunities to volunteer abroad. Some say they do it out of moral obligation or a desire to alleviate poverty; others are in pursuit of a life-enhancing experience away from their own backyard.
Yet despite these noble notions, volunteer tourism, commonly known as ‘volontourism’, receives a lot of criticism. At best, it is perceived as a failing attempt at international development, at worst - a rise in neo-colonial pursuits. Popularised as a “gap-year-must-do”, it is, like everything else, becoming more and more industralised, with private companies pocketing the profits while sending volunteers to dissatisfying, purpose-built placements. Viewed from this perspective, it is hard to believe that volunteer tourism can do more good than bad.
But is it really as clear-cut as this?
Are there any good reasons for volunteering abroad?
The truth is, my own experience has been a bit of a “hit and miss”.
In January last year I was packing my bag. It was a beautiful new rucksack, black with orange, reliable, confidence-inducing, a birthday present from my dad I received only a couple of months before. We both knew the day was coming when I would turn countless years of day-dreaming and enthusiastic research into a concrete travel plan. A time when I would need such a rucksack (which was everything I was not these 12 months ago) to accompany me on the first of many long-haul trips half-way across the world.
When you’re in your twenties and the world stands wide open before you, you often get the privilege of a choice. You get to choose what your next step is going to be and where it is going to take you. My step, a year ago, took me out of the comforts of my family home to Heathrow, onto a plane bound for Africa. I was to become a volunteer.
The desire to go volunteering took seed in my 18 year old head when, still in school, I got inspired during a career evening. Browsing through the “Oyster” booklet outlining their education programmes and conservation projects, I was immediately hooked. The idea that I could travel to a far-off land and spend my time in an exotic environment, teaching English to the local kids or helping care for elephants in a jungle made my spine tingle. Logically, none of it made any great sense then. I was young, I had huge ambitions but very little knowledge about what it actually meant to be a responsible volunteer. Volunteering abroad was a dream, but choosing a project turned out to be a bit daunting.
Over the next six years, I would regularly look up various projects; I compared commercial companies with independent organisations, debated on the length of an ideal placement, listed all the skills and abilities that I could potentially share with a local community. By the time I graduated in Tourism and Social Anthropology, I had a clearly defined interest in sustainable development, a passion for equal rights and some teaching experience under my belt. All of these resulted in an application to a singular project: HIV and AIDS support for women.
Offered by a locally-run NGO in Tanzania, it was the only project I felt I would be genuinely suited for. It presented an opportunity for women empowerment, creating sustainable ways of life for those women affected by HIV or AIDS, who struggled to find employment and support their families.
I had never been to Africa before last year- I think it’s only fair to admit that straight away.
I knew little of Tanzania’s culture and customs, had a vague recollection of the hardships her people were facing, and I had a skin-deep understanding of gender inequality. Reading and researching could have hardly prepared me for the day-to-day reality of the following weeks.
“Positive Love”, my destined project, was located on the lush green outskirts of Arusha, a ten-minute walk from the quaint, yellow volunteer house in which I shared a room with eight other people. It was, as I soon learned, a relatively new undertaking, barely a year old. Inspired by a similar idea in Kenya and set in motion by the two incredible directors of the local NGO, Nelly and Angella, it had one simple aim: to equip the participating women with new skills, thus allowing them to start up their own independent businesses and become self-sustainable.
You have to admit, presented this way it all sounds rather wonderful.
It’s when you get down to the nuts and bolts of such a project, you understand just how out of your depth you really are.
My first day at the placement, on the 2nd of February, found me in a semi-constructed, one-room house with a roofed porch, where I met four out of six members of ‘Positive Love’, all dressed in colourful clothes - Maasai Ruth with the most contagious laugh; sweet-faced, kind Flora; Welu, who kept everyone in check with a strong hand and a big smile; and Grace, the best local cook. I wasn’t really sure what was I expected of me. To tell the truth, I was homesick, wracked with nerves and feeling a budding sense of responsibility for the people I’ve only just met. I was, after all, supposed to teach these women new skills and help them become self-sufficient.
And yet on that first day, as on every day of my five-week placement that followed, I joined the ladies and other volunteers on the porch. In the rising heat, we sat around a garden table laden with plastic tubs full of round beads in every imaginable colour: vibrant red, dusty yellow, striking white, sparkling black, deep blue… And we set to work making traditional Maasai jewellery.
I remember how proud of myself I was on that first day, how peaceful I felt. I remember how the crafts instructor, Amani, praised me in English on my quick work and my very first blue and white Maasai necklace. I remember how I was so enraptured by what I was doing and all the new people I’ve met that it took me a while to realise there were two separate camps working next to each other that day: the English-speaking volunteers and the Swahili-speaking women of “Positive Love”. And it was the women who were teaching us, the volunteers, to make the jewellery. I was learning a new skill, making bracelets, necklaces and earrings, while hardly exchanging a word with my teachers.
You can imagine my quandary. I knew that the more beaded pieces we’d make, the more would get sold and support the charity. Simple. Straightforward. And I really couldn’t complain. I had beautiful surroundings with Mt. Meru in the background. I had kind hosts who, despite the language barrier, made me feel incredibly welcome. And, most importantly, I had this wholesome feeling resulting from making something of use. I was falling in love already; with the place, the people, the work. As the week progressed, however, it got me thinking: am I truly needed here?
Are these people gaining anything from my presence? Other than the obligatory fee, have I really contributed anything of value to this project? Who is gaining more: me, my altruistic ego stroked, or these women who's needs are so great? Isn’t there anything more I could be doing for them?
Had it all finished there, it would have been clear that my volontourism experience had not necessarily been one to get repeated.
I needn’t have worried though.
Because nine days later I taught my first English lesson.
As they say, be careful what you wish for.
That first week was also the last for the rest of my fellow volunteers. Until new participants arrived in a fortnight, it would just be me and the local ladies. I felt at ease, having settled into my bracelet-crafting routine and often conversing with Grace, the only one of the “Positive Love” ladies to have a basic command of English. But my peace of mind was promptly shattered that sunny Friday afternoon as the project manager, Alex, approached me. He had returned from a meeting with the NGO directors and announced that it was time for the women of “Positive Love” to learn English. It had, after all, been a year since the project took its initial form. I was to start teaching them on Monday. The joy these ladies expressed at the news is difficult to describe in mere words. I could see that they couldn’t wait to get started. They soon started calling me ‘teacher Paula’ and repeating ‘English every day!’
We had nothing; no textbooks, no paper, no pens. I immediately grasped that it would be down to me to supply these things, as the ladies could not afford such “luxuries”. Alex brought a small whiteboard and some marker pens, which we promptly placed in the corner of the porch, wished me luck and left me to my own devices from there-on-out.
It was only then, thrown into the deep end, that I began to comprehend just how much of an impact can the role of a volunteer really have.
I began to panic. Slightly.
I had a mere month to establish some solid English foundations; foundations which would aid my pupils in leading a better life. Since that first day, two more ladies have reappeared at “Positive Love”: beautiful Margaret, the unquestionable star of the show; and Veronica who always measured me with a careful eye. I now had six sweet, eager to learn women.
Six mothers trying to provide for their children.
Six HIV-positive individuals who couldn’t find jobs due to their illness.
Six people I felt incredibly responsible for.
Six different levels of English.
Truthfully, I had no idea where to start. I had never before taught English to people who didn’t at least have a basic grasp on the language. More importantly, I had never taught English to someone who’s native language I didn’t already speak.I was wracking my brain for ideas, but in the heat of the setting African sun, nothing came. I just knew I couldn’t let them down.
The whole idea of volunteering had never been a mere ‘another CV tick’ for me. I honestly wanted to contribute. I wanted - as cliche as it sounds - to make a difference. And I got a chance to do just that.
I just never imagined I would start equipped with nothing else but three marker pens and my best intentions.
I can’t say it had all been smooth sailing. Despite my pupils’ unwavering enthusiasm, our days were often marred by frustration and exhaustion.We started at the simplest of basics, drilling numbers and endlessly reciting the alphabet, but we kept pushing for more phrases, more sentences, more things to talk about. In the first week of lessons, I would turn to Grace for help in translating instructions or emphasising pronunciation. She, along with her warm smile, became my assistant, teaching me as much about the Tanzanian hospitality as much I was teaching her English.
That first week, I also began my Swahili classes. I didn’t believe we could move forwards fast enough if we were limited by the language barrier. Thus, whatever I would learn with my teacher Mary, I would often teach in return. Rain or shine, after our jewellery making session, me and my six students would sit in the shade of the porch, pens in hand, studying introductions, talking about our families or what we enjoyed doing.
I’ve learned more about them in that month of teaching than I could have ever imagined. I found out about Grace’s two sons who lived miles away because she couldn’t afford their upkeep; she only got to see them once a month.
About Margaret’s daughter ran away from home in anger when she discovered she was HIV-positive as well.
About Welu’s deteriorating health…
The more time we spent talking together, the more involved I felt in the project. I started to approach our lessons not with a feeling of dreaded responsibility, but with a desire to do more, to teach more. By the end of my stay with them, my treasured students could tell me all about how they felt each day, how they were spending time with their families or where they wished to go in the future. I could notice an almost tangible difference in them, a sign of a soaring confidence. I felt immense pride in helping them speak English. For me it was second nature, but for them it represented a chance of simply attaining a better life.
I cannot tell you whether I’ve done everything I could have done for them then. Pressed for time and short on supplies, I tied my teaching experience to a whole lot of improvisation. I knew that once I was gone, new volunteers would take over from where I left off, yet I wanted to make sure I left them with something concrete and useful. When a couple of weeks ago, “Positive Love” celebrated its second birthday, it was obvious they had reasons to rejoice. From the time I’ve been gone, the project expanded beyond crafting jewellery into making clothes, as well as educating children in local schools about the HIV/AIDS prevention. I know that volunteers, directors and the ladies themselves are continuing to work tirelessly towards a better future, towards a life of independence and empowerment.
The other day I woke up to a recorded message on my phone. Grace’s beautiful English rang brightly in my ear, saying ‘Teacher Paula! How are you? We miss you so much!’
Her voice immediately reminded me of the bright red letters on the wall which I saw every day during my stay in Arusha: ‘Positive Love. Knowing who you are. Loving who you are.’ These brave women, belonging to one of the most ostracised social groups in Africa, live by those words every day. They face adversity, struggle and hardship on a daily basis, yet they never give up. They welcome help arriving from all over the world, trusting that a better life is about to come. They know who they are. They know who we are. They know that together we can achieve so much more than alone.
I don’t believe that there is only one straightforward way to perceive volunteer tourism.
I believe we all ought to try to make a change.
By Paula Adamek
For more information and possible donations please visit: http://www.positivelovetz.org