I’ve spent a large proportion of the past three years researching something that has come to be known as ‘voluntourism’. Many people don’t quite understand what the term means, but I’m going to explain, from my own experiences. When I left university in 2012, I had no idea what to do professionally so I decided to go travelling and see what happened. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I might like to be a teacher, but that was only because my BA was in English.
So I turned to Google and typed in something like: Africa, volunteering, travel. Within one minute I discovered an organisation in Uganda that offered a 12-week teaching package. It included 9-5 teaching in a local primary school, accommodation in a custom built lodge, freshly prepared food and transportation. They also offered, for an additional fee, Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi NP, a safari in Queen Elizabeth NP and white water rafting on the River Nile. Oh and there was also a visit to a beautiful lake available for an additional fee. The package didn’t include flights or visa; the customer was to sort out and pay for this themselves.
Now don’t get me wrong, I spent time in Uganda with some amazing people and we had loads of fun. I met people from the US, Australia and the UK and we had a really great group dynamic. In our chilled out, hilltop lodge, the beers were flowing and watching the sunset around the fire every night was awesome. The team leaders, to their credit, organised everything superbly and the trip was everything I imagined it would be.
Then I returned to the UK.
I reflected on my experiences of Uganda with my friends and family and I noticed a pattern: I hardly mentioned anything about teaching, about learning about Ugandan culture or even about the Ugandan friends that I had made whilst being out there. To be honest, what I was reflecting upon was a great holiday. The ‘teaching’ delivered in the classrooms by myself and some of the other ‘volunteers’ was totally pathetic and had nothing to do with the Ugandan curriculum. The only Ugandan people that we spent a considerable amount of time with were teachers, who spent day after day telling us how difficult it is to be a teacher in Uganda and that they were grateful for our help and support. It seemed totally superficial.
After our day of teaching at school, we weren’t encouraged to integrate with the people in the villages in which we ‘volunteered’, we were simply driven back to our comfortable little camp to drink more beer and get to know each other better – our fellow ‘volunteers’. I realised I’d done something truly amazing, but not in the way the website promised I would. I spent twelve weeks in Uganda; I hardly met any Ugandan people, learned nothing about the local culture of the region and taught terrible lessons at a school where the teachers spent the afternoon sleeping instead of teaching. This, I thought to myself, was an amazing thing to achieve. How could I possibly spend so much time in a country and not learn a single thing about it? I made no impact and gained only paltry experience of teaching abroad, realising in the process, that I was a terrible teacher.
What is deeply concerning, is that my experience is not an exception, but the norm. I paid in excess of £4,000 to a UK based organisation for this experience and what did I get out of it? What positive contribution did I make? I think you get my point. I had no relevant teaching qualifications, no experience and no passionate desire to be a teacher. How on earth does that make me a suitable candidate for a program just like the one I participated in?
There are organisations like this popping up all over the world, encouraging more and more young people to sign up to projects that will ‘change their lives’ or help to ‘lift communities out of poverty’. What a sham. To this day I deeply regret participating in a voluntourism project, but from a positive viewpoint, alongside a local school we have been developing a pioneering approach to locally led tourism, where young adults don’t go to Africa to save it, but to learn from it. ‘Saving Africa from poverty’ and ‘Giving something back to people less fortunate than ourselves’ are ridiculous, out-dated and simply serve to re-enforce the ‘White Saviour Complex’.
It’s about time that we started treating Africans with respect. People might be poor, but their children don’t need to be taught by un-qualified teachers with questionable integrity in regards to their involvement in the project. They don’t need their babies picked up off the street to make the perfect selfie for Facebook. Think about it from your perspective – if a young African man walked down your local high street, picked up your baby and took a photograph of him/her, I can imagine you would be totally mortified. So why is it any different in Africa? It isn’t, it’s still offensive, it’s still demeaning and it’s still suggestive that people of wealth are better than those who lead more difficult lives.
I’ve been asked many times by young people if we have voluntourism type projects that they can get involved in. The answer is always no. And it always will be. Voluntourism exploits the very people it is supposed to support, and enriches the lives of those that have offered their time and money to ‘make a difference’. It is a totally flawed system that needs to be re-adjusted. Ugandans, for example, are the most entrepreneurial people I’ve ever met. They don’t want our charity. They want our respect. They want our support. They want our co-operation and the opportunity to collaborate.
Please, I implore you, before signing up to an expensive voluntourism project, think about what you are getting yourself into. If it’s a piss up with other travellers, then I recommend a different continent entirely. If you truly want to make a positive contribution, voluntourism is very unlikely to provide you with one. That’s why everyone at The Zuri Project encourages people to visit the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and see just what an amazing place it is. There is no need to meddle in people’s lives just because you want to enhance your CV or get some great holiday snaps.
If you are planning a trip to Uganda, East Africa or perhaps somewhere else in the world, then please do some due diligence before you sign up for projects that are dividing communities and re-enforcing negative stereotypes across the world.
Ugandans are people. They live real lives. Treat them with respect.