My Journey to Re-Thinking International Volunteering
Part 1 of a 3-part blog originally written in 2014 for the KickStart Ghana blog.
Standing on the veranda of the new volunteer house in Ho, I look out over lush green bush and the Adaklu Mountain which dominates the skyline. It’s been nearly 3 years since I was last in Ghana and I’m surprised at how immediately I feel at home. From my first visit to this incredible, West African paradise, as a young and fresh-faced 18 year old back in 2010, the spirit and dynamism of the country has never left me. It’s in the music, the food, the smiling and welcoming people you meet at every turn, even the sweet and aromatic air you breathe – everything about Ghana is intoxicatingly addictive and I find myself immensely happy and deeply contented at being back.
It was a thorough lack of knowledge of football and a good dose of luck which originally brought me into contact with KickStart Ghana and what a pleasure and privilege it is to have seen and shared in the many successes of this passion-driven charity in the years since.
During my first year at the University of Exeter, like many other young Brits yearning for adventure and a change from normalcy, I decided that I’d like to volunteer abroad. Ignorant of the rising debates around the ethics of volunteering overseas (debates which have since erupted and rightly so!) I naively and somewhat sceptically took to Google, hoping to find an opportunity which would not break the bank.
I wanted to go to Africa to volunteer with children. The fact I knew next to nothing about Africa, apart from the BBC spoon-fed images of bloated tummies and crying babies, with forlorn looking mothers, occurred little to me. The emotive language and images used by the big aid charities, rife throughout the UK, spread the notion widely and deeply that‘Africans’ needed help from ‘Westerners’ and that this help was indeed something that everyone could quite easily provide in a truly effective capacity. It is unsurprising then, with this pretext, that I felt I could pay a few thousand pounds, jump on a plane and go off to Africa to “make a difference” – an attitude I now struggle with hugely and actually work full time trying to alleviate.
I also had a deep desire to explore this exotic continent for myself. For as long as I could remember I’d had a fascination with Comic Relief and other high profile, awareness raising campaigns, with their great marketing, gimmicky slogans and celebrity endorsement, but I felt the time had come to dig a little deeper. I wished to know what lay behind the lens of the journalist, behind the gaze of the well-intentioned fundraiser. I wished to see life in all of its complexity, the good as well as the all-too-well-documented bad, and see for myself what ‘normal life’ meant to everyday people in Africa.
Stupid mistake number one! Africa is a continent not a country! Anyone who has attended at least one geography lesson at school should know this – it is not in itself a surprising statement. However, it seems to be that the West is saturated with the notion of “Africa” – the ever-exciting ‘other’, with its widespread corruption and disease, war and poverty. It seems to us that all the individual countries are the same, believing in things like witchcraft that we cannot comprehend nor do we try to. This hugely simplistic, patronising and narrow-minded understanding of the most diverse continent on Earth, is not only hugely dangerous in terms of perpetuating stereotypes and a broad-brush approach to people, their beliefs, values and customs, but also fuels an even more perilous attitude of superiority – whether conscious or not – that all countries and people can be easily understood, their needs assessed and their problems solved by outside powers. In the same way that the UK is different to France, that Sweden is different to Italy; each and every African country is beautifully unique. Africans are different in the same way that Europeans are different – an idea which I long to see seep into the consciousness of Western society.
Having said all this, only 4 short years ago, I fear my ideas and understandings were just as simplistic as the notions I now scorn – I had no clue what African country I would like to visit, nor did I think to research them in any detail to learn more about them and counteract my ignorance. All I knew was that I wanted to volunteer in Africa and I figured, although rather subconsciously, that this experience would be the same no matter where I went. So, blindly typing in “volunteer with children in Africa”, into Google I found an opportunity which seemed to suit me, being run by a big, well-established volunteering organisation that seemed to have good reviews, a good safety record and a good price – the only things I thought to consider. My customer-centric attitude led me to sign up to one of the world’s largest – and I would argue most corrupt – voluntourism companies, exploiting communities the world over to make millions and millions of pounds in profit each year, by playing on the often well-intentioned emotions of would-be volunteers.
Not stopping to consider the role and rights of the local community I might be working alongside, it did not cross my mind that the project may do more harm than good. Stupid mistake number two! Volunteering, whether in the UK or abroad, is not always and in every circumstance ‘good’. It will not always result in the intended aims and make all interested parties happy. More often than not, international volunteering projects are developed to appease the desires of Western volunteers, not to add capacity to local development initiatives, communicating with residents to discuss what need in the community exists and what they’d like to see done about it. Due to the widespread assumption that volunteering in all its varied appearances is always good, companies are not only able to get away with this horrific behaviour, but are actually alarmingly popular, especially amongst young people. These unresponsive, unsustainable and down-right unethical projects feed in to the bigger idea that foreigners can fly over and ‘solve’, or at least make a significant lasting positive impact upon, problems faced by a particular country – problems which, for some reason, we seem to consider locals unable to solve themselves, although they know an infinite more about their community than we do. Adding insult to injury, we actually think our naïve, unskilled and inexperienced young people can bring this change about although they might have the best intentions at heart.
But there I was: 18 years old, completely oblivious to the way of life in South Africa where I was due to go and volunteer, utterly unqualified to be working with vulnerable children, but tremendously excited to embark on my adventure. Luckily, my complete and utter lack of knowledge of football was soon to change all my plans and put my life on a very different path.
To most people, if I mentioned ‘Summer 2010’ and ‘South Africa’, a knowing grin would sweep across their face and they would fondly remember memories of the World Cup being held in an African nation for the first time. I, living under a football-free rock, had no idea one of the planet’s biggest celebrations was due to be full swing the week I arrived in SA and so was subsequently outraged to find out the extortionate price of a plane ticket. I had to cancel my trip that summer with a heavy heart, but little did I know that life had something much better in store.
I’d signed up to the Community Action mailing list during my first week at University, promptly ignoring all their emails until one caught my attention – they were looking to recruit students to travel to Ghana during the summer to volunteer with a charity called KickStart Ghana. After my disappointment over South Africa, this seemed like the perfect substitute. I applied and, very luckily for me, got a place on the team. I was going to Ghana.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
I learnt a phenomenal amount in those short 4 weeks and gained an interest in international development and sustainable volunteering which has never left me. Upon graduation, having travelled out to Ghana with KickStart a subsequent time, I actually made the decision to move away from teaching, the profession I had always thought I would go into, and instead pursue a career in the Third Sector instead – a decision I consider to be the best I’ve ever made.
On my third trip to Ghana, this time as Volunteer Coordinator, I’m looking forward to supporting a new group of young people as they learn more about the country and experience the amazing way of life here for themselves. Although hugely different from the UK, I hope they see the beauty of Ghana in the same way I did, relaxing into the culture and working hard to learn from the local stakeholders that they’ll be volunteering for. Ghanaians never cease to amaze me with their warm hearts, welcoming natures and ever-happy attitudes – they are a privilege to be around and I feel very lucky to be here once again.