When Professor Julie Young shared her thoughts on volunteering abroad, a wave of relief swept over me. This sentiment is probably not the usual response to her time in Honduras. However, her precise dissatisfaction with the nature of volunteer trips, the state of Western charity and development aid, the underlying racial power dynamics, and her inability to immediate voice her anger can be directly translated to my volunteer experience. In the following texts, I will share my story on voluntourism. It was May 5, 2016. With a hiking backpack the weight of a small child, I joined a group of twenty university students at the Pearson Airport. Wearing hideous cargo pants, a plain T-shirt, and dirty hiking shoes, I was amused that we were all dressed in the same stereotypical Western fashion I now like to call “I am heading to the wild wild Africa.” Nonetheless, ugly outfits were not the only thing we shared. Congregating from all over Canada, we were filled with anticipation for our twenty-five-day volunteer trip in Kenya. Unplugged from the world, we were guaranteed a life changing experience in which we get to contribute to the developing world and gain a wealth of hands-on knowledge on how Western charity work transformed the local community. Despite these seemingly altruistic promises, I felt a constant nag in the back of my head. Am I there to make an impact? Or am I just another arrogant Westerner who thought voluntourism can change the world?
My concerns were answered within the first three days. Amongst a group of young “change-makers,” I have never experienced the degree of loneliness and suffocation. We stayed in a state-of-the-art resort camp, being served quality food three times day; meanwhile, we were a five minute lorry ride from a community where $5 USD was the average weekly income for a family of five. Some days, we chiseled away at rocks on the construction site for an upcoming secondary school, which could be done in less than an hour with professional workers rather than a few frail university students. Other days, we visited primary school children where we only remember the kids not by their name but by the photos we took on our overpriced iPhones. Every night, our team leader, Jodi, gave us a pep talk about how much we have contributed to the community and we all went to sleep wrapped within our ignorant hero-complex.
It would be an absolute understatement if I were to describe my experience as uncomfortable. I felt guilty, ashamed, annoyed, hopeless, and useless. Walking into a local mama’s home, I was embarrassed of my T-shirt I once called old and ugly, knowing that it could provide two weeks worth of food to her family. The privileges I carry, be it my identity or my possessions, were baggage I desperately wanted to toss away.
As the days passed, my disappointment slowly faded away as I realized my purpose on this trip. I am not here for a month to be an immediate forerunner of global change. Rather, I am present to share, to learn, and to appreciate the beauty and resilience of the Masaii people. I am present to see how organizations are using their inherent ‘privilege’ to create a positive impact. Guilt can be turned into something productive, and I felt inspired to do so. Today, my guilt is channeled in a positive way when I share my stories to those around me. I speak of the Masaii – their culture, their struggles, and their strength. I tell of the beautiful grassland, the amazing hospitality, and the clear night sky. I speak of the power of $1 USD in a family’s income, a child’s education, or a woman’s business. Just like Professor Young, I believe in sharing these stories because, despite the powerlessness we feel in the moment, experiences like Kenya and Honduras give us the strength to travel down the path of being the change-makers we want to be. This is the power of voluntourism.