Since we are both into travelling and development challenges, my husband and I went last year for the first time ever to sub-Saharan Africa. The aim was versatile: a mix of voluntary work, leisure time, honeymoon, visiting friends and family. I must admit that I wanted to do it as much as I was scared of it (you do hear different things!). Our trip didn’t turn out exactly how we planed it, yet it was still a lifetime experience, which I’m glad I made as it helped me put things into perspective.
We started with a local community-based organization near Kisumu, Kenya, which accepted our enrolment enthusiastically (in exchange of a fee of 220 € per person per month). We stated in the registration forms our areas of interest (communication, archiving, coordination, micro-finance, budgeting) and hoped for the best. Upon arrival, however, it became clear that we had to downsize quickly our expectations. There was a huge mismatch between our eagerness to help and the reality: we had the impression that talents, time and money of the volunteers were wasted or at least mismanaged, vision was lacking, private goals were pursued, mistrust was growing day by day.
Although the staff of this CBO – as well as of many, many others – probably meant well, the management of the resources remained cloudy to us. We left the project fed up already after two weeks (whereas the first plan was a cooperation up to three months!), feeling simply not welcomed anymore (staff not coming for meetings, blocking access to internet, giving us ten versions of the same story…).
Now, my aim is not to point fingers. Maybe I did not get everything, maybe at a certain point I stopped even caring about understanding what was going on (why does a team-leader who claims he has no time and no money go on a 9-day safari, leaving all of his organization behind?). I want it to be a positive experience; I want to focus on the lessons learned.
As I said in the beginning, I was afraid of going to Africa. And facing this fear is priceless – nothing bad has happened to us, none of the things I was dreading (malaria, Ebola, drought, security issues, you name it). Having this first bad experience near Kisumu helped us appreciate all the rest of our stay and also formulate our expectations accordingly. Instead of criticizing, we tried to empathize and focus on agreeable things, like the idea of extended families, of gatherings around a fire or business meetings literally under a tree, of the fair participation of women in the local economy, of the non-consumerism, of the eco-friendly solutions, of the street-smartness, of the will – for some – to move on.
Through our journey in six African countries, we asked around tons of questions, restraining from judgment. Now we know it was nothing personal but it was just their way – their way of surviving. We don’t know how we would react if it was us who had less than few dollars per day, who were uncertain about tomorrow, who had family members starving out of hunger on top of political leaders who build themselves villas in European countries instead of caring for their children.
We understood that to function there, one needed to embrace their point of view, to seize their reality, to get substantially out of your comfort zone. Volunteering is therefore a two-way process, for which not everyone might be ready. For me volunteering is not so much about helping others, but discovering the other as a whole, in their genuine selves, with all the flaws and blessings. I also believe that as long as we’ll try to understand them instead of accepting them, dialogue is not possible. As long as there even is a “we” and a “them”, there is a gap; and where there is a gap, there is inequality.
In Africa I was shocked by many things but specially by myself, by my western, clear-cut need of understanding, categorizing, naming. For instance, in Africa, the words “orphan” and “trainee” or the phrase “we agree that the fuel is included in your price” do not mean orphan, trainee or “we agreed that the fuel was included in the price”.
Before going to Africa, I thought “ok, they don’t have much, but they go through the day with a big smile on their face”. Well, it’s not totally true: we met a lot of unhappy people, whose only dream was to leave the continent. My stay in Africa deconstructed a lot of preconceived ideas and made me more cautious in terms of expressing my opinions. At the end, my African volunteering experience made me grow – which is exactly what I was looking forward to.
I have been volunteering with a Belgian NGO that promotes the culture of peace through voluntary work and international work camps on different topics since 2011. I started with short-term work camps in Europe and finished last year wandering through Africa for almost 6 months. The first project (a Kenyan CBO supposed to empower local communities) that we – my husband and I – assigned ourselves to turned out to be however a big fiasco in terms of international cooperation. I’d like to reflect on the reasons why and also outline the possible positive outcomes of something that could be considered as a failure.