Lending a helpful – not hindering – hand as a global volunteer

Thembi Mutch looks at the reality of volunteering in Africa and gives advice on how to make it work for all parties involved

The hand-painted signs on the roads up to main Kilimanjaro gate vie for space: endless orphanages and baby homes, the words in English, not the native Swahili which we speak here in Tanzania. There’s something unnerving about the sheer number of homes clustered together on the main tourist routes.

In Arusha, Tanzania’s climbing centre for Kilimanjaro, the local supermarket heaves with fresh-faced individuals. The checkouts reverberate with Swedish, American, English and Spanish chatter. They’re volunteers, and whether there is in increase in people wanting to help others in today’s globalised society, or whether the economic recession in North America and Europe or a desire for an enhanced CV is to blame, Africa has never seen so many.

According to the Red Cross, it has 13.1 million volunteers globally, all performing vital work such as vaccinating over two million people against polio in Rwanda in 2010. A European study in 2006 said that an impressive 80% of Europeans have volunteered at some point in their lives, although only 2% of these took the plunge to volunteer internationally.

Undoubtedly there is much good to be done when volunteering abroad, as the Red Cross literature states: “Voluntary service is at the heart of community-building. It encourages people to be responsible citizens and provides them with an environment where they can be engaged and make a difference. It enhances social solidarity, social capital and quality of life in a society.”

“Simply ‘wanting to help’ was not enough. Volunteering, gap years and ‘voluntourism’ is big business, but it’s also very complicated”

Organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas – which has over 50 years’ experience in advising people how to volunteer well and symbiotically – work closely with local partners on projects that are targeted and clear. For example, a crab farming project in Zanzibar is an endearingly simple idea: Muslim women with many existing responsibilities (children, cleaning, growing vegetables) are taught fast and cheap ways to fatten up their crabs, and supported to make new relationships with hotel owners and earn more money.

As chairwoman Saada Juma explains: “Our aim is to bring more wealth to our village, to eradicate poverty here.” The role of the Kenyan volunteer Maurice Kwame is to network on their behalf, and teach marketing and budgeting skills to the women.

Are good intentions enough?

When I began my volunteering adventure when I was 18 – in a pre-mobile phone and pre-Facebook world – the experience proved a mixed bag. Based in India, it was six months of delirious excitement, isolation, awe, introspection, confusion, enthusiasm and, ultimately, a burning desire to find out more about the world, about global inequality, the legacies of colonialism and development.

However, in retrospect, it would have helped to have been more aware of the issues and pitfalls of volunteering. Simply ‘wanting to help’ was not enough. Volunteering, gap years and ‘voluntourism’ is big business, but it’s also very complicated.

In 2010, a study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) concluded that Aids orphans were becoming commodities. Firstly, many of the so-called orphans surveyed in Southern Africa were not technically, or legally, orphans. Secondly, the paying volunteers from the global north are usurping qualified and keen local workers who, understandably, cannot afford to work for free let alone actually pay to help. Thirdly, as prominent child psychologists Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby have indicated in their respective papers, The Family and Independent Development and The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, consistent emotional bonds for children from birth to early teens are key to their emotional stability and development of life skills. People coming in and out of a child’s life at an early stage are detrimental to their long-term ability to form emotional bonds.

“Do your research, have a viable and good reason for volunteering. Be honest about how much you can commit” – Diving centre manager Isobel Pring

To put it bluntly, according to the research it’s unlikely a school leaver volunteering abroad for a few months actually does any long-term good to an orphaned baby or child.

In Tanzania, like many developing countries, there’s an added complication: while it’s legally necessary to register any NGO here, no standards of child protection are enforced, there’s no obligatory worker training, and certainly no police checks for staff or visitors, occasional or not. There is no register of child abusers or sex offenders here. All these things are non-negotiable in Europe and North America where many orphanages are private affairs, whose ‘success’ (both psychological and actual, in terms of finding homes for children) is entirely dependent on the goodwill, integrity and skill of their management team and staff.

Here in sub-Saharan Africa, many NGOs are, according to the Institute of Social Studies’ report Politics of the Queue: the Politicisation of People Living with HIV and Aids, little more than “vanity projects or suitcase NGOs,” overseen and run by people with spare time and cash, but no training whatsoever.

Yet there are many ways to volunteer productively. Farasi Safari Tanzania is a project managed and run by former street children just outside Moshi in Tanzania. In a typical Swahili ‘shamba’ (a compound with houses made of soil and clay) and with limited electricity, they offer authentic treks into the foothills of Kilimanjaro on ‘happy horses’ – horses that are cared for, well-fed and loved. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the lush vegetation and the mountain scenery make for an intense experience.

Former street child Eric, who works for the project, has mixed feelings about the volunteering situation: “We do like people who are not tired out by practical things, who are open to us and curious about who we are. People who come with a desire to help, but have their own personal problems to solve or who feel sorry for us, are not so good really. People who speak Swahili are a real advantage!”

Over a thousand miles south in Mtwara on the border near Mozambique, diving centre manager Isobel Pring is more direct: “Don’t rock up here expecting a job for two weeks or a free dive course. What I need is people who come with a clear plan, say reef monitoring or specific marine research, and a well thought-through proposal of what they can offer.”

“Resilience and common sense count for a huge amount,” she continues. “We flush the loo with buckets of water, it’s very hot, and you should anticipate getting sick: medical facilities are limited and far away.”

Isobel is also sceptical of some of the larger organisations (she won’t name them) that “push people through like a sausage factory, in the third world experience.”

“Voluntary service encourages people to be responsible citizens and provides them with an environment where they can be engaged and make a difference”

She cautions: “Do your research, have a viable and good reason for volunteering. Be honest about how much you can commit. Be very clear that you understand what the organisation wants from you, and what you can offer.”

Elizabeth Mosha, director of Women in Action, a Tanzanian NGO that supports women in matters of education, domestic abuse and sexual health, endorses this. “We welcome volunteers who really know this sector, and have worked in it already. We have one computer, thousands of clients who use our services, and our internet is expensive and unreliable. In the rainy season it’s muddy and difficult. We need ‘can do’ people who find ways around these problems. And it’s really essential they are emotionally strong and stable.”

The reality of volunteering is a harder one than many gap year organisations would have their audience believe, but those up to the task will reap tremendous rewards. At 68, Elizabeth looks like a woman in her thirties. Smiling, she says: “What is so surprising and wonderful for me is how much this changes people. They don’t want to leave. Often our volunteers return, more educated and with more knowledge, more skills, really committed to helping us change and develop.”