Volunteering Abroad – Who Are You Doing It For?
At a family dinner in Norway, just hours before I was about to leave everything I knew behind and get on a plane to Tanzania, my home for the following months, my cousin – a kid a bit too mature for his age and a bit too fucking comfortable with it – asked me why.
He didn’t ask me the usual questions that I’d know the answer to by heart about where I’d live, how I’d live, or whether or not I was nervous. He asked me why I would get on that plane in the first place. He couldn’t understand why I would leave Norway, the home of the world’s happiest people and more oil money than we know what to do with, to go to a place where goats roamed free in the dusty streets, where basic facilities such as toilets aren’t always a given and where a majority of the people lived in poverty.
I could hear the sighs going around the table, the table of admirers, the table of supporters – both of me and my cause, the table of people who would smile proudly at dinner parties and tell stories of how their daughter/granddaughter/niece went to Africa to work with terminally ill children. I found myself completely taken aback by my cousin’s ignorance, his lack of empathy for the less fortunate, and the fact that he was completely unimpressed when I, as pretentious as humanly possible, told him that perhaps my purpose was larger than what he could comprehend and that I was going to Tanzania to make a difference, to change lives, to help people that needed it etc. – you all know that speech.
However, what struck me while battling an intense urge to throw my bowl of pasta in his smirking little face was that I couldn’t answer it. I didn’t know. I would wave goodbye to my parents, send long heartfelt messages to my friends, buy shitloads of tax-free chocolate (which would result in a rather severe case of weight gain) and get on that plane. But I had no freaking clue why. I’ve been raised to believe that immense value lies in contributing, in playing a positive role in someone’s life – be it a friend, an employer or a stranger. I’ve been raised to believe that the most noble human characteristics are kindness, tolerance and empathy and that you can judge a person on how he/she/they treats people with less power, or means, than themselves. I’ve been raised to believe that using your own fortune to improve the situation of the less fortunate, is what I should always strive to do.
And while I would gladly define myself by the principles above, and live my life accordingly, it’s just not true. And as far as leaving for Africa with the sole purpose of changing the lives of kids, kids so much braver, stronger and more impressive that I could ever dream of being, goes – that’s not true either. And my little know-it-all shit of a cousin knew it before I did. Obviously.
So why do we do it? Every year, thousands of privileged white kids flock to the third world, with bright eyes and charged camera phones, motivated by notions of being part of something bigger than themselves, the idea of making a change and, let’s not forget, the amount of likes they’ll get on Instagram when posing with a poor kid. As harsh as that may sound and as pure as our intentions may be, most of us deal with some form of expectations, whether it is from our parents, our friends or society at large. And most of us will live our lives trying to live up to them, perhaps not even intentionally. Perhaps the expectations pushed upon us have become so embedded in our minds that we think they’re ambitions.
Surely, deep down we know that our presence in an African village makes marginal change in the well-being of that village, we know that the people there will keep on living their lives with all of the challenges not even remember the white girl who got owned by a five-year-old boy in a dance battle (one of my top 10 humiliating moments). And we also know that our time there is limited, which makes washing your clothes by hand, eating dodgy-looking grey meat, and charging your phone only once a week because electricity is next to non-existent a whole lot easier.
I’m not saying that volunteering abroad is bad, I’m just saying we shouldn’t pretend it’s something that it’s not. It’s not a life-changing experience – well, maybe it is for us, but it’s not for the people we work with. And thinking that it is of equal value for both parties is both naïve and ignorant. It has been shown over and over again how grassroots organisations with native employees are more sustainable and successful. We’re merely visitors, but we are, however, incredibly lucky to be able to travel and see the world in all its different shapes and shadings. And that’s what it is really – it’s experience, something to take with us and think back on. It’s education, in the form of a little more knowledge about a new culture or a few new phrases in a foreign language. It’s friendship, in the variety of people we meet and the bonds we create. It’s memories, in the pictures we put on Facebook and those we frame on the wall. And it’s beauty, in the magnificent diversity of this world that can be known only through experiencing it yourself.
So I guess that’s my answer, that’s why I got on that plane. It only took me three years to figure out. And I still want to throw pasta in my cousin’s face.