In numerous classes, we discussed the controversial idea of “voluntourism”. As the world becomes more global, it is imperative to address “voluntourism” in greater depth. At first glance, it may seem simple and innocent: Fortunate people travel to other countries to help those less fortunate. In reality, “voluntourism” is much more complex. Who truly has the right to declare one less fortunate from another? Those who disagree with voluntourism use the argument that the “help” given to those who receive it, is ultimately useless. They also believe that those who take part in abroad volunteering trips are doing it for the wrong reason. Rather than doing it out of the kindness of one’s heart, it is common for people to take part in volunteerism in order to have a versatile resumé or simply to have an interesting story to tell. On the other hand, people who agree with it believe that it culturally enriches both sides. After being educated further on “voluntourism”, I have made a variety of observations. In many cases, people are quick to either assume the best or the worst. While people encourage “voluntourism”, others completely discourage it all together. The topic seems to be regarded as an issue that is rather “black and white”. In order to gain a broader understanding of “voluntourism”, my roommate kindly agreed to answer some questions about her experience as a “voluntourist”:
What made you interested in becoming a “voluntourist”? What Program did you volunteer through?
I have always wanted to travel, so I figured if I wanted to travel, why not do it in a way that is productive to society. I feel like that is the best way to get immersed in a culture, through hands on work and interaction with the actual people. I volunteered through the program Global Leadership Adventures.
Where were you a “voluntour” and what were some of the things you were doing? Do you feel you were qualified to be doing those things and were you prepared?
Arusha Tanzina, it was a pretty small town. We were at a primary school. We did various things like scraping lead paint off the walls, planting trees, painting the school, and in groups of we taught English. We also studied the culture and the school system. It was very difficult because going in we didn’t know any Swahili going in. I was prepared to learn and serve but not necessarily to teach. We didn’t have a white-savior mentality, but we went in knowing that we will learn more than they would learn from us. I wish I could have learned more Swahili before hand so I would have been better equipped to teach them. In that respect I think I was unqualified.
How long were you there and how old were you?
18 years old (The group consisted of 15 to 18 year olds). We were there for 23 days.
Do you think you benefited from this experience? Do you think the host community benefitted?
I benefitted in so many ways I can’t even describe! From this experience I think that the community benefitted but, I don’t think that we necessarily changed the kids lives. Although I don’t think we impacted them as much as they did us, we gave them business, and served them. My friend, went as far as saying that he wouldn’t have a job had it not been for the program. At the end we donated most of our clothing too.
Do you thing voluntourism can be negative?
Yes, If you have the wrong type of people who are completely unqualified and in it for the wrong reasons. Or if you are just doing an isolated project and not interacting with the community I don’t think it is a good idea.
What was the most important thing that you learned from your experience?
I learned a lot about being humble and that you can create a family for yourself anywhere. You have to go with the mentality that you are going to learn something.
Were there many cultural differences that you noted/had to adapt to? What was your favorite part?
There were many cultural differences. The sexes played completely different roles and dressed differently. All females had to wear long skirts, only when we were going to bed we could wear shorts. The households and economy was traditional, and the community was close-knit. They weren’t a global community. One of my friends that I met there, Lotha, didn’t know who hitler was! It was strange being somewhere that wasn’t as global. My favorite part was getting to know the locals. They were so kind and welcoming!
Would you volunteer again if you had the opportunity?
What are your tips for those who intend on volunteering in the future?
Don’t go into it thinking you are above anyone. See it as a learning experience and have an open mind.
“Voluntourism” is something that is gray rather than black and white. When executed properly, volunteering abroad can be very beneficial. “Voluntourism” will continue to be controversial and negative if it is approached in the same way. As long as we continue to educate ourselves and others around us, it can be a positive experience for everyone.