Category Archives: Voluntourism

For the love of God, STOP: On stereotypes, the church and Africa

It is too early in the year for the type of ignorance being peddled about Africa by some church affiliated folk in the name of missionary work. In this era of Google and social media, why do people insist on clinging to that false image of Africa? You know, the country ravaged by disease, poverty and war where people live in anything but buildings? In a time when information is literally at people’s fingertips, is it that difficult for one to educate themselves about African countries? Sure, you don’t have to know everything about all 54 of them but knowing that Africa is NOT a country is a solid first step. It’s not a hard concept to grasp guys.

I came across an article titled “First Presbyterian Church recreates rural African town.” The church, which is in Gainsville, Georgia, was scheduled to have a “Life in an African Village,” event this past weekend. According to the article, the event was geared towards teaching children in the area about daily life in a foreign country and missionary work. Because life is the same in each and every village across the continent…ha! The children would “build makeshift huts, listen to African drumming and sing African tunes…” How would they build the huts, you ask? Well, when I initially read the article, there were pictures of cardboard boxes open on the side with hay on top. I think that is how they were planning on doing it. The pictures have since been taken down. I wonder if it’s because they finally did some research and realized that that is not how huts look. Or maybe not. A girl can hope.

If that’s how they think huts look, you can only imagine what they told the children about living in a village. Only heaven knows what they said about the African culture that people love to define in ways that align with their personal interests. The guest speaker and performer at the event was a Zambian man who was also in attendance at the same event last year. Ala! Didn’t this depiction of Africa bother him!? Or did he say something about it last year and the organizers just didn’t listen? But then again, there is always that one African patting these we-will-misrepresent-Africa-because-we-have-decided-that-our-version-of-Africa-is-more-accurate-than-reality types on the back.

Then there is an American woman who went to Kenya on a mission trip and didn’t fall in love with the country. Why? Because she didn’t see poverty nor encounter people who don’t speak English, as she had expected. Yes, this happened, as written on her blog. Her entire post is condescending and made me question the motives of her mission trip. I guess we now know what happens when savior complex and superiority complex thrive in an individual.

The woman’s post will make you believe that people go on mission trips to delight in seeing poverty and feel good about waving their invisible alleviate-the-suffering-of-the-locals magic wand.  Seriously, how else can you explain this excerpt from her blog post?
My heart was prepared for dirt floors.
For dirty laundry hanging everywhere.
For kids that were half naked and covered in bug bites.
People who couldn’t speak English.

not this.

Eh!? You would think that when someone plans to go on a trip to a country they have never been to before they would do research on said country. Isn’t that just the common sense thing to do? Clearly she couldn’t be bothered with all that. She had created this image of Kenya in her mind and that is much more important than the reality on the ground.

Who gets discouraged by not seeing poverty!? Shouldn’t that, I don’t know, ENCOURAGE  you!? Shouldn’t it make you realize that the images you see in movies and commercials are completely distorted to push a certain agenda? Shouldn’t it make you want to change that and present accurate images of the country? That could become your mission, no?

It seems that this lady was so set on jetting in, tiling the dirt floors, washing the dirty laundry, clothing the half naked kids, putting balm on their bug bites and of course teaching Kenyans English.  While we are at it, why would dirty laundry be hanging anywhere? Because cleanliness is only reserved for wealthy folk and those from the West or? Oh, where would we be without her blessed heart and those of others like her?

Why spend all the time, money and effort to go to a country if you are hell-bent on forcing it to fulfill your stereotypes? How much good can you do for people if you are struggling to accept the fact that their circumstances are not as you expected? Is it not possible to spread His message where dirt floors and half naked children are not involved?

That blog post is both ridiculous and disturbing. This had been said before and evidently, we need to keep saying it. Kenya, and Africa as a whole, doesn’t need to be saved. What we need is non predatory partnerships, among others, to fuel our socio-economic growth and political development.

So, if you are going to teach children about mission work and Africa, please present the continent accurately. It’s the least you can do given all the resources available at your fingertips. Perpetrating stereotypes is lazy and a disservice to all involved. Avoid the reenactments too. There are plenty of pictures of huts online…no need for hay and cardboard box tricks. If you are going on a mission trip, research on the country you are going to. Leave your ignorance, prejudice and pre-determined uninformed solutions at your house. Interact with people, find out what their community needs and how you can be of help.

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Voluntourism – Helpful or Harmful?

I have been following this debate on Twitter about voluntourism. Yes, I know, amazing how much people can do with their 140 characters. As I read people’s two cents I couldn’t help but wonder – Who really benefits from voluntourism? Is voluntourism helpful or harmful?

There are several things about voluntourism that are simply bothersome. For starters, voluntourism has become a booming profit-making industry, particularly in Africa. I mean who could resist the opportunity to explore the “mysterious country of Africa” and take photos of ever-smiling children who have no idea where their images will end up? But I digress. Travel and tour companies have taken advantage of voluntourism’s popularity and incorporated it into their business models. A quick Google search for “Voluntourism in Africa” yielded a good number of such companies. Their websites highlight the different ways in which they can incorporate a traveler’s leisure trip with volunteer opportunities. They claim to blend the economic benefits of tourism with the social impact of volunteering. Sounds enticing, no!? Other than the travel and tour companies, there are organizations that are solely dedicated to voluntourism in Africa. One of them even goes so far as to state that, “Your mere presence in our city will change your world, our world and the world of our partner projects.” Apparently all you really need to do is show up and a change chain reaction will begin immediately.

Secondly, many a voluntourists make it about themselves rather than the communities that they are volunteering in. They are more interested in how their lives will be changed than how they can be of assistance in the communities transformation. People want to “find themselves” amidst the poverty and disease. They want to experience the suffering firsthand so that they can become compassionate. Does one really need to slum it for a few weeks in order to gain compassion for the poor? Some of the younger voluntourists are looking for an out-of-the-box experience to add to their resume. They desire to be known as the person who spent time transforming Africa. It’s as good an icebreaker as any. For some who are still in school, it’s a way to gain cool points with the professor who specializes in Africa. Some even hope to make their way into a chapter of the said professor’s next book. Well, at least according to an article written by a voluntourist who spent a summer in Africa. While we are at it – why do people use Africa as a synonym for (insert any African country)? Yes, you were in Africa but where in Africa?

The thing about voluntourism is that it benefits tours and travel companies, voluntourism organizations and voluntourists more than the communities that are involved. Volunteering and tourism are both good and can have numerous benefits depending on how they are leveraged.

When it comes to volunteering, I think we need to make it about the vulnerable communities. If your reasons for helping are purely selfish, then maybe you should consider doing something else for example, reading an inspirational book, planting trees, hiking and recycling. These are just some of the alternative activities that can make you feel good about yourself, give you a different perspective and help you find yourself, among others.

Many people wonder how volunteering can be harmful. Well, in some cases, it can create a cycle of dependency. This is especially when organizations send in volunteer after volunteer to perform tasks and duties that can easily be done by people within the community. Volunteers are typically assigned to communities for brief periods where they engage in activities ranging from coaching soccer to invasive plant removal. These are all things that can be done by people within the community but it makes it difficult for them to actively engage and take ownership of such processes if there is always someone being sent from outside to do it.

Take the case of volunteering at orphanages as another example. Many voluntourists do it and it’s one of the most popular activities among them. According to research, by Linda M. Richter and Mary Norman presented in their paper “AIDS Orphan Tourism,” it can be harmful to the children. Children build attachments. While living in orphanages, they experience a series of abandonment due to the high staff turnover rates and good-intentioned voluntourists who come in for a few days, weeks and months and then leave only to be replaced by another group.

Before embarking on voluntourism, it is important to ask some key questions. Am I doing this purely for personal gain? If your honest answer is yes, then you are better off engaging only in the tourism aspect. It will give you a chance to travel, experience different cultures, meet diverse individuals, take in the sights and soak up the weather. Additionally, it keeps people in the industry employed and they are better able to provide for their dependents. You could also donate to a local organization that is effective in fulfilling its mission.

Will my skill contribution provide long term benefits? If the answer is no, then refer to the above paragraph. If yes, then it is important to work in partnership with the local communities. Please do not go into a community with a superiority complex. Collaborating with local communities ensures that one is able to understand their needs. As they say, it is the wearer of the shoe that knows where it pinches. After establishing the needs then it is easier to work in conjunction with community members to come up with an efficient and effective plan of action.

If you have very particular skills that are not available locally, then you should probably offer those rather than the ones that are already there. For example, if your expertise is in development, then you could work with a local organization that needs to keep track of donations received and better manage their funds. If you are an entrepreneur, you could work with individuals in the community to come up with business proposals that ensure they are able to secure loans so that they can participate in sustainable income generating activities. If you are a web design guru, you could help aforementioned individuals create and design webpages to market their products and services. Also, work with community members so that they learn those specialized skills and are able to carry on the work once you leave. These are just some of the ways to ensure your contribution adds value to the communities.

Another way for well-meaning individuals to help is by pushing their governments to get rid of the unfair and exploitative policies that they have with regards to developing countries.