I must admit, I didn’t know anything about voluntourism before going to South Africa. After all the research I have done on the topic, I still don’t feel comfortable with it. To me there is a very clear distinction between volunteering and tourism. That’s why, at the beginning of my stay in South Africa, I just couldn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t know how to react when I was repeatedly encouraged to travel, enjoy myself and relax. However, my main and only reason to go there was to volunteer and help as much as I could. I had volunteered before in other countries and cultures, so I was aware that I would have some time off during weekends. I just wanted to use all my knowledge and skills to support the different projects and give all I could to those using the services. Having fun was secondary to me.
The first two weeks the children were on their winter holidays and I had been told there wouldn’t be much for me to do. Yet, I decided to get involved in anything I could. That’s how I ended up organising activities and games for the winter camp. In the mornings I went with the leaders, who were local teenagers, walking and singing around the township to let the children know that the fun and games were about to start. It was a great experience to leave with a bunch of teenagers and come back surrounded by dozens of children who had appeared and joined us on our way. Everyday, we did different activities, played games and danced. The children were brilliant moving to the music!
The next few weeks I had to make sure I would be allowed to do what I was supposed to do. They didn’t make it very easy, though. I soon realised that what they really wanted from volunteers was people who did what they were told without even questioning the purpose, reason or effectiveness of the task. I’m a curious person and like to make the most of my time. Going all the way to the most southerly part of the world I had ever been to, there was only one thing on my mind, to work as hard and as much as possible doing anything and everything I could to help.
I know that people do things differently in certain parts of the world, and that the pace at which some things move is not always what one is used to. I am also aware that there are regulations and ways of doing things that are quite unique in certain cultures. But this was something else. I wasn’t getting any information about my projects, when I could start, who to ask in case I needed help or support, or even how to access the basic materials that I would need. I was even told by one of the local managers, that the project I had gone to volunteer for was the “least important and relevant for him” so he wasn’t going to do anything about it! Another manager kept insisting on me taking some time off and enjoying myself skydiving, whale-watching or swimming among sharks! Not that any of those things didn’t sound interesting, but that wasn’t why I was there!
Therefore, I soon realised that if I wanted to do something, I had to take the initiative and overcome all the obstacles. What I couldn’t comprehend was that attitude and lack of consideration for the local people and the programmes that were, supposedly, implemented to help them improve their lives. It was quite frustrating, to say the least. Nevertheless, I didn’t let all that get the better of me or discourage me while I was there. I just wanted to be with the children and play with them!
During my stay in Kayamandi, I also had the chance to meet other volunteers, some of whom had been there before. I know I can be very intense. I usually ask too many questions and try to help and get involved in anything I see happening around me. This is not only to lend a hand, but also so I may learn something new. But I could see that most volunteers didn’t seem to bother much about taking the initiative, they just wanted to be told what to do and, in the meantime, they just sat and waited for things to happen. I simply couldn’t do that, I like rocking the boat and keeping active! So let me tell you a couple of examples of what I mean by this.
One day two girls appeared in the kitchen and said they were there to volunteer, so I explained the whole process of giving food to the children and showed them what to do and how. While we were busy in the kitchen, they started telling me about their plans for the rest of the week and all they talked about was the places they wanted to visit and the things they wanted to do, but there was no mention of volunteering, so I asked them about it. It was then that I learned that they were in South Africa for a week, which I believe is not enough time to adapt and integrate into the community, but that’s another story. Moreover, they were going to volunteer only that day for a couple of hours and that was all! Yet, they kept saying how much they loved helping others and providing for the ‘needy,’ another very ugly word in my opinion. Once the meals were ready, they both disappeared and went to one of the rooms to have their own copious meal, nothing like what the children had, without interacting or mingling with the boys and girls outside. Before they left, though, they had a whole fifteen minutes photo session taking selfies with all those children they had previously ignored. I don’t believe that doing some free work for a couple of hours while travelling in a foreign country counts as volunteering, but then again, it may just be me.
For a week or so, there was also another volunteer in the centre who had actually been there before the previous year. I told them about my views and experience so far. At the time, I had been waiting for things to happen for nearly three weeks! I was frustrated and unsupported by the local organisations and managers, so I wasn’t in a very positive state of mind. Therefore, when I heard about them coming back I wanted to hear more about their story and the reasons why they returned. I soon realised that they were more concerned with feeling good about themselves than anything else. I mean that they did things without even analysing the purpose or outcome of what they were doing. They just did what they wanted to do, but no one there seemed to care about it and, definitely, weren’t going to keep it up once they were gone. In fact, at one stage, we were planning an activity for the toddlers in the creche and we used some materials that they themselves had brought the year before. To my surprise, those colour pencils hadn’t been used in almost a year! And I say to my surprise because they didn’t seem to be bothered by that fact. They were delighted to be there and do their thing, no matter what. I believe that’s not the best approach to volunteering, as you’re not there to give money or spend it on what you want, you’re there to support people with what they need in a sustainable way so the project can go on for as long as it’s needed. Yet, they kept bringing stuff, even knowing that it would never be used by the children, as their teacher couldn’t care less about them.
Which brings me to another very important point, concerning the local teachers, leaders, managers and staff. Many of them just went to the centre and spent their time doing literally nothing! Like the creche teacher, who used to spend the whole morning in front of the stove with her back to the children. Many mornings, when I arrived at the creche, she wouldn’t even turn to say good morning. She didn’t do a single thing on her own initiative and, when I suggested anything, she would just nod and leave me on my own with the boys and girls. She didn’t want to work or learn anything! It was very sad to see, but even more to think that, when there were no volunteers, those children would spend the whole morning unsupervised when they could be learning and playing. Therefore, I got this idea that what would probably be much more beneficial for local communities and programmes, would be to bring volunteers to train local employees and volunteers rather than spending time trying to instigate changes that no one would follow-up once the volunteers left. I know that this issue is, at least where I was, endemic and very difficult to change but I believe in change, so anything is possible if people, local and international organisations get together and work for the betterment of everyone’s life.
Once back at home in Cork, I spoke to a friend with years of experience in the voluntary sector, who told me about “voluntourism” and I had to learn more about it. There are many people around the world talking about this from very different perspectives and with different aims in mind. There are pros and cons to this new industry that seems to be spreading all over the developing world. But there are also risks connected to this approach to helping others in remote communities that some of us are not aware of. Spending a few hours or days in a different country is not enough. Try to be open minded and consider their needs rather than yours. You are there to help, but you must look and listen attentively first to analyse the situation and decide where you can help and what you can actually do that will have a beneficial impact on the community.