Written by Sarah on behalf of The Original Tanzania Team
The act of volunteering has always conjured up images of 'giving your time' to a good cause and 'helping others'. What is rarely focused on is what the volunteer gains from their experience. Particularly in relation to international based volunteering in countries that are considered 'poverty stricken', there is not nearly enough emphasis on what volunteers learn, instead of the other way around, ie. how much they need help. It is however important to distinguish between humanitarian focused volunteers and those who go to relatively safe (often absolutely beautiful) destinations to offer their care, support and financial help if they wish. This may be in projects such as orphanages, community centres, schools etc. The former entails an entirely different focus and is not the focus of this page and the latter has become more of a commercial industry for some time.
I first volunteered in Tanzania and Kenya in 2007. I was unfortunate to be fairly naïve in that I didn't search in-depth enough to avoid the bigger organizations that offer a 'holiday with a conscience' and, essentially, the opportunity to 'voluntour'.
I am pleased to say that many individuals have become aware that there is simply no need to pay high fees to volunteer but there are still many companies that charge upwards of £1500 to volunteer before you even pay your flight or cover personal/living expenses. It can be a very confusing choice to make and particularly in current times when building up life experience to try and boost your career potential has never been so important in such a competitive environment. Often, companies offer a package where you are buying into a bit of security and the knowledge you will be part of a bigger structure. In fact, like any competitive business infrastructure, it's simply impossible for independent, sincere "not for profit" organisations to stand out above those with more marketing power and presence. Unfortunately it means that the right kind of support and action needed, takes longer to reach its target and be effective.
Therefore, in this section of our website we really just want to highlight the need to give real thought to, and research on, what you really want to achieve and get involved in that will actually have a positive impact.
At this stage, I'd like to make a point based on my own experience. In the case of Africa, I found myself asking the following questions:
- Why do we not see African people coming over to the West (Global North) to 'hug' our children and teach them different customs/values when we have our own social issues to contend with?
- Why is it such a one way street?
- Why do nearly all volunteers return home saying "African children are so happy; they are a joy to teach/be with" etc.? Yet we are constantly reminded by media and some charities that developing countries always need our help.
Essentially, the children are happy. I was certainly happier when I had simple toys to play with, could stay outdoors and not worry whether I had the latest computer game or mobile phone. Of course I am not saying at all that every single child is happy but those are global issues that every corner of the world faces and cannot be tackled without addressing much bigger political, social justice and economic issues. When we go over to continents like Africa to 'play with' the children and read them stories, we are assuming they are not already looked after and this has been the image presented by media for as long as I can remember.
There is often one major issue that is always overlooked and that is that we view the world from our own experiences of life. If another's lifestyle is different to ours, we often choose to decide it's 'unacceptable'. A very strong memory of this for me came from when I wrote an email during my time as a volunteer after visiting an orphanage. I described there being 'no smell of (a well known brand of) baby powder' or other such nice smells we associate with a baby being clean/looked after. This is because I have grown up in a very commercial, consumer based society. Since when was soap and water not enough?
Of course I realize there are absolutely heartbreaking images when we see that children are abandoned or there are simply not the facilities to provide for children but this runs so much deeper than believing another country's citizens 'don't know what they are doing'. In line with this, many local, professional people do set up projects but they simply do not have the funding available to them or a government sector to which they can apply for funds for social based projects. This leads to more reliance on international support which is just unsustainable and, for many local people, it is frustrating.
I can say that on most occasions, volunteers rarely want to return home. When talking to volunteers, their reasons are varied but some relate to enjoying a more simple way of living, the socializing of people and commonly, 'freedom' from more extensive rules and systems of society. Also, if someone is working for free and feels more motivated in this line of 'work' than others in a more 'structured' system, it is clear to understand there is huge intrinsic reward in this type of activity. Unfortunately, organizations capitalized on this and started charging ridiculous amounts of money for people to work for free. From my own experience, no funds are kept for specific projects to really build on them and volunteers are moved through projects, repeating the same level of teaching as if on a conveyer belt. Plus, and most importantly, there has become an industry around poverty.
Again, taken from my own experience and therefore not meant to be taken as applicable to all volunteering projects across the world, local people now know how much the international community love to visit and experience their culture and look after their children and, with this, bring money. Therefore, 'projects' are readily available more so than ever before. Even if children are at home with parents, there is more money to be made from making them homeless so a new project can be started. The major issue is that these projects are unsustainable, often badly managed and it is children who suffer. This also detracts from the huge progress made on genuine projects that have run in areas for a long time. There are also professional based exchange projects where both parties stand to gain from those that receive specialist advice/training and those that provide it and grow professionally and personally.
At Original Tanzania we would genuinely like to advise truthfully and be able to work with you on providing an opportunity to really make a difference. If you want to donate your time, let's find a way that benefits everyone involved.
For Original Tanzania there are some core values that form such a part of our companies operations and passionate belief in promoting the incredible African continent:
- If you choose to volunteer in areas of the Global South (often referred to as 'developing countries'), as with when you choose to explore a country, know you are privileged to be in someone else's country, especially when it is highly likely those same people will never get the chance to visit your country.
- The world is socially, economically and politically unjust. By visiting other countries and doing the research before you go, you can bring an amazing amount of knowledge and the right attitude to not only make a difference but adapt well and maybe even influence others. The sometimes negative influence of longer term "voluntouring" (combination of holiday and volunteering) is evident in the amount of modernization to certain towns; including social activities, food and, worryingly, driving up the cost of living for locals that cannot reach it, which results in a societal 'division'. The key is finding the right balance.