and boss the locals around, albeit well meaning. That sounds harsh
but too many of the volunteers we have seen appear unaware that the place they
volunteered in existed before they arrived and would do so again afterwards and
they they are just a fleeting moment in the life of the community, albeit one
captured forever on Facebook with likes from their friends alongside comments
along the lines of "You're amazing!"
Why? You need to
think about actually what was so amazing. It may have been amazing for you, but
what about the community? What would have happened in their lives if you hadn't
gone? Would their life have stopped, been less? Probably, if not definitely not!
Be aware of the limited impact on the community if not yourself and assume no
importance will be attached to your visit for anything longer than 24hrs after
As a potential volunteer you also need to be aware not only of what you are
doing there and why, but also of the unconsidered consequences of actions. One
good example that occurred at a project in Africa where we were volunteering was
when a nine year old boy severely cut his foot on some broken glass as, like
many of the youngsters, shoes were out of the financial reach of the family.
two volunteers who had been present took him to his home and explained to his
mother the severity of the cuts and that hospital treatment was required to tend
to the wound. The mother agreed however was unable to accompany them to the
hospital as she had other children in the household that couldn't be left
unsupervised. As such she willingly consented for the two volunteers to take her
son, Amon, to hospital.
So far, so good. What could go wrong? Well, Amon had his foot properly
stitched and bandaged and then it started to rain. As one of the locals would
point out, "earlier it was too much dust, now it is too much rain"
as the untarmaced roads became sodden with the dirty mud threatening to seep into the
bandages and stitch work. Fortunately as they awaited a "special" (private) taxi
back to the village from the hospital they noticed some plastic shoes for sale
for less than a £1.00. Ideal. With the new shoes on his feet, Amon's wound
would be protected.
returned to the village satisfied that they had helped the child, had his
medical needs promptly addressed and all had been done with the full and open
consent of the child's mother. With that they returned to their volunteering
centre and set about having a drink. Or two.
What they weren't to know, nor could they guess, was that as word spread
about the episode the following morning before school, a dozen other children
would set about finding broken glass, then lacerating their own feet in the hope
of also being bought a pair of shoes with one of the children later getting a
severe infection in his blood stream. Their injuries and visits to hospital
prevented them collecting brushwood for their families fires for many weeks so later they
didn't eat properly and the cost of transporting them to the hospital drained
their families' already meagre budget. One well meaning incident all went
Another issue to be aware of is
that of faith with many Africans being deeply religious perhaps like people were
in Europe some one hundred years ago. Their faith in God may extend to believing
that God brought you into their lives and that "you" includes your
relative wealth; the type
of wealth they may never experience.
As such, they want a share in yours. Sadly,
especially in children, this scenario effectively reduces some in a community
where you may be volunteering, into begging. Again, it may have unintended
consequences and whilst is is tempting to think "you helped" if you
hand out money or items ~ the reality is you
didn't. You probably hindered as any financial problem is that of the family or
community, not for a well off muzungo (by local standards) to resolve. By
helping short term you committed to perpetuating an underlying and long term
You probably also created some
insane jealously as word would have got out that you helped one but not another
with the one you helped may well end up ostracised long after you have returned
home and bathed in the warm glow you received when you posted your generosity
and good spirit on Facebook and got so many "likes."
The best advice we can give about
volunteering In Africa is to remember that you are there for a very short period
of time and its not down to you to change anything rather to learn yourself;
after all, you wouldn't like it if someone visited your country and started
telling you how to run your life. The project where you will be
volunteering will be run by someone experienced; probably someone from the local
community. Ask and take advice from them before making assumptions and you'll
enjoy your volunteering experience so much more. And the community where you
worked will doubtlessly welcome you back!