A plethora of recently published articles have panned “voluntourism” as little more than salve for bleeding-heart rich folks (here’s one example, and another). The problem is, it’s rarely that simple.
Most volunteers want to do good, but whether or not “good” results from their efforts is up for debate. In fact, the scale can be tipped by so many factors that committing to a trip can feel like a shot in the dark.
No matter the intention of the traveler, the tour organizer, or the people on the other end, the intersection of one human being with another always has an effect.
Our cultures, experiences, and personalities — good, bad, and ugly — bump up against each other in the coffee shop and on the playground when we’re at home, and the same is true when we travel.
I’ve found that the farther you are from home (and the shared point of view that comes with it), the less certain you can be of what effect you’ll have.
Recently I was in Kenya on assignment with Free the Children. Before leaving home I asked if there was anything I could do to help the kids I’d be encountering. Were they in need of something that I could supply? Pencils, books, clothes?
They said there wasn’t. The purpose of this trip, the organizers said, was to see and meet, not to hand out gifts or solve problems. They wanted me to come home and sit with the experience — to give it the time it deserved to be digested and absorbed — and then to consider helping from home.
So off I went to Kenya, empty handed.
After interviewing a group of girls about how a new all-female secondary school in their rural Kenyan community would impact their lives, I was approached by a second group of girls (ages 14-17) who aspired to be journalists. That’s when the lightbulb moment came.
These were kids who, only a few years earlier, had struggled to find food and shoes. Now, thanks to educational opportunities and a host of alternative-income projects in the region, they were standing before me impeccably dressed in their black, red, and gold school colors daring to dream of a future career.
They peppered me with questions about everything from how I balance family and work and what it was like to be a “real” writer to how they could find mentors themselves. I fell in love with their ambition and promise. About an hour later when other obligations forced us apart I was overcome with emotion.
Here they were thanking me profusely for being “helpful and inspiring” and presenting me with a gift from their school, when the truth is the benefits had been mutual and the privilege had really been mine.
In my conversations with them I found my hope for the country gaining momentum. I was inspired again. These girls, who could so easily give up on a world that seems, at times, to have forgotten their humanity, weren’t apathetic or jaded or defeated. They were focused on the brightness the future held in store and enthusiastically making their way.
In that moment I wanted to offer them everything they were working so hard for — opportunity, equality, stellar careers.
Instead I gave them what I hope were tangible bits of information that they can use to further their dreams… and my business card with the promise that I’d help them if I could.
In the year my family and I spent traveling around the world, I constantly wished I could do more. I wanted to paint a wall, build a school, lend a hand.
Especially in Africa, where volunteer efforts always seemed to fall short of fruition, I’d been torn apart to the point of tears with a desire to “do something.”
But this trip to Kenya taught me that it isn’t about the number of bricks you lift or the amount of spoons you fill. It’s about the interactions you have.
Some people who volunteer abroad will struggle with the experience for a lifetime. Some will take away only photographs to be filed alongside shots from other trips they have taken.
But if you enter into the experience knowing that human interaction, compassion, understanding, and shared knowledge is far more valuable than your pencils or physical labor, you are far more likely to do good while you’re “there.”
It’s about connection, and putting faces to places. It’s about mutual respect.
You go to these places with the honest, ambitious belief that maybe you’ll make a difference. And you come away realizing that, just like any other travel experience, the experience changes you, too.