It was finally spring break of my third year of high school. By the time I arrived at the train station, I had been preparing for my church’s trip to Mexico for months. We had learned songs in Spanish and committed a chapter of the New Testament to memory. Armed with matching brightly colored T-shirts and the best of intentions, we were on a mission.
What exactly was that mission? Well, even now, that isn’t clear to me. Was I going so that I could assist in repairing the church building? Was I being commissioned to go and make disciples of all nations? To see how people live without multistory houses, swimming pools, and hardwood floors? Or just to make friends?
Though I didn’t label it as such, my trip across the border was my first foray into what has come to be called voluntourism. Or, in uglier terms, poverty tourism. Since then, I have heard take-down after take-down detailing how volunteer travel does more harm than good. It’s been criticized as selfish, wasteful, and profiteering. Was my desire to travel little more than a thinly veiled manifestation of some White Savior Complex?
Before a recent trip, I read an article called “The Problem With Little White Girls,” by a young woman who traveled to Africa to build an orphanage. She wrote:
Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And every year, thousands of Americans travel down that road with the admirable and naive goal of changing the world. We arrive with bleary eyes and leave with new profile pictures. And in our wake, we often leave a burden on developing communities, having imposed for a week or two. In an average year, the volunteer travel industry generates $2 billion, but most of this money is spent on transportation and insurance rather than on helping the economic wellbeing of our destinations.
To be fair, under certain circumstances, volunteer travel can be extremely beneficial to communities in developing areas. Those with expertise in medicine, engineering, teaching, and translating clearly have skills that can be used to lift up those in poverty to a better standard of living. On top of having relevant know-how, the ideal volunteer traveler must partner with a responsible organization, one that is sensitive to the cultures of the developing world, one that seeks to understand the needs of the community, one that empowers locals and visitors alike. In an ideal situation, everyone involved not only has expertise, but also a fully formed conception of the specific intercultural practices required in international aid work.
When these conditions are not met, volunteer travel may devolve to taking advantage of a community for the sake of feeling good. For the sake of likes on Facebook profile pictures. For the resume, or for some juicy personal statement material on the next scholarship application. For the sake of other people thinking and talking well of you. Have you heard that so-and-so is volunteering at an orphanage in Latin America? What a charitable person she is. How adventurous, how loving she is.
I am not a doctor or a nurse. I don’t know how to pave roads, and I can’t design systems to purify drinking water or irrigate fields. I’ve never pulled a rotten tooth or performed a root canal. I have yet to discover within myself any special ability to pick up languages other than English. Even with the best of intentions, perhaps I would be of most use to the world if I just stayed home.
I have another proposition: Go anyway.
Years after my first volunteer trip, I returned to Mexico on a trip to Tijuana with my university’s campus ministry department. Among other things, we visited a home for people who had been deported from the United States, a place for them to stay until they got things in order, a job, a place to live. I met and shared a meal with men who spent decades in the states, who had their entire families in the states, whose entire lives were not in Tijuana, but in San Francisco, in Chicago. I met one man forever separated from his wife and children by a wall, unable to produce a valid ID when pulled over for speeding. These men were unable to ever return to the places they called home.
And yet, at the end of the trip, I went home. How can one possibly distinguish such a trip from a trip to the zoo? Can one easily drive away, smile, wave, and point at other human beings through in the confines of the border’s towering metal walls? Can one be confronted by the humanity on margins of society and not be changed?
Because of that trip, and others like it, I am changed. And that is the element missed by those who decry combining tourism and volunteering. Every trip I’ve been on, whether it’s to Mexico, Ecuador, or East Africa, I am unable to return as the same person. Traveling paralyzes conceptions of the world, breaks down ideas of foreign cultures, and opens us to a more authentic understanding of other communities.
Travel writer Pico Ayer once wrote:
We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home. … Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.
Rescuing the humanity of places. Saving them from ideology. This sounds like garble until it’s experienced.
When you think of Africa, it is likely that you’ll think of disease, of war, of poverty. You’ll think of AIDS, of genocide and warlords, of orphans with bloated stomachs. Maybe you’ll think of giraffes and lions, of tribal warriors and mud huts.
My dad moved to the now-defunct African nation of Zaire when he graduated from college. He was a member of the Peace Corps, an organization founded on the idea, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for life.” This mission was literal in my dad’s case; he was given the role of fisheries expert. During his training, he learned how to dig ponds, flood them with water, stock them with tilapia, and pull a net along the length of the pond when it came time to harvest the fish. When he flew from Oklahoma to Zaire – the second time he had flown in his life – he was taking on a two-year commitment to teaching a village to fish, feeding a village for life.
I grew up, therefore, with a vision of the continent that came through the lens of my father’s experience. To me, Africa was a land of eating caterpillars that had been roasted over the fire. It was a land of chaos, wilder than the old west. It was a land where people didn’t plan ahead, where survival came first, where they thought about eating today instead of eating when the harvest came. Why spend all day digging and filling a pond if I’m going home with an empty stomach? It was a land of sickness, sickness that left my dad unable to fulfill his two-year commitment, sickness that sent my dad home for medical care after a few months.
When I went to East Africa a few months ago, I discovered the region for myself. On some counts, I found the Africa of my dad’s stories. In ways that are difficult for me to understand, personal survival seemed to be a major driver behind behavior. From the few weeks I spent in Tanzania and Rwanda, I saw that parents are likely to abandon children with disabilities, that men are likely to leave wives who are infertile, that children are likely to leave home for another city if that means a better chance for income. As one community leader in Tanzania told us, “In our culture, when crisis hits a family, whether that’s disease or war, the men run away.”
But that aspect of East Africa is not the end of the story. On one of our first few days riding our old white passenger van through the red dirt hills of Tanzania, I met a man named Charles. Charles grew up in the rural northwest region, where most families live on less than one thousand dollars a year and have, on average, seven children. Most of these families are sustenance farmers, growing bananas, beans, and avocados in the rich dirt of the Tanzanian mountains, eating their harvest and selling the rest. If one of the children is lucky enough to leave town and go to college, chances are, that child – a son or daughter of the community – will settle in the city and never come back.
Charles, on the other hand, came back. He earned a degree in agricultural economics and came back. He bought a piece of land and started the Mavuno Project – a co-op for farmers, to teach them better agricultural practices, to empower them to negotiate with buyers. He got funding from organizations in Europe to give loans to the farmers, so they could buy new seeds and to buy replacement plants when a string warm winter allowed a blight to wipe out many of the region’s banana trees. At the time I visited, his current project was building a boarding school for girls, who are often ignored by the country’s chauvinistic cultural norms. Charles’ school, when it opens in 2016, will focus on science, technology and engineering, and will run completely on energy generated on site.
Traveling to Tanzania and meeting Charles rescued the humanity of Africa for me. Charles and his welcoming attitude, his insistence that I try another cup of his homegrown coffee, and his commitment to future generations of Tanzanians saved the region from the dehumanizing abstraction I held of Africa. Now when I think of Africa, I think of Charles.
In “The Problem With Little White Girls,” the author writes, “It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing … that long-term solutions will be created.” However, this understanding cannot be developed from a distance. No amount of donations or fundraising, no amount of blog-reading, no amount of socially responsible purchases can act as a substitute for immersing oneself in a community. The people I meet in developing communities inspire me and motivate me.
The personal changes experienced by those who volunteer travel have ripple effects. I can now advocate in ways that I couldn’t before. I can share my experiences, and I can serve as a witness to my friends and family of what I’ve seen. My travels have and will continue to inform my purchases, the words I choose to use, and the political decisions that I make. People who aren’t inclined to travel will perhaps be moved by the stories of volunteer travelers like me and make changes in their own lives. For me, traveling changes what I value, how I interact with people, and it will continue to do so for years.
I’m going to travel anyway. I continue to be lured abroad by the everything that cannot be captured by a photo in the National Geographic. The roar of a thunderstorm tearing through the Andes. The shaking of a train racing through the mountains in Spain. The feeling of, what kind of meat is this? and eating it anyway because that’s what the host gave you. The warmth of an invitation into someone’s home in a back alley of Beijing, a warmth different from the sticky air smothering the city outside. I’m going to travel anyway, and when I do it, I’m not going to ignore marginalized communities.
I’m not saying that volunteer travel should be done recklessly. Both good intentions and good analysis are required to forge a meaningful experience. Choose volunteer organizations that seek to address the needs of the community as determined by the people living there, organizations that are empowering people, organizations more concerned with the complexity of poverty than with the aesthetics of your journey, organizations that go beyond simply giving a man a fish for a day of easy eating.
Like any relationship, any experience of volunteer travel must be treated with care. Don’t expect to change your destination or the people who call that place home. Don’t expect to fix the place in a week, a month, a year, or really at all. More likely than not, we will find that there is nothing to be fixed. Don’t expect to come riding in on a chariot of fire armed with food, medicine, and Bibles. Recognize that traveling of any sort is an enormous privilege, a freedom afforded to very few people in this world. Recognize that being allowed into a community that is not our own is an even greater privilege, not something we are entitled to. Expect to listen a lot, expect to learn a lot, expect to love a lot.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But sometimes, that road leads us somewhere quite the opposite direction: to a place of discovery, understanding, and humanity.