Have you ever thought about doing a ‘good thing’ by flying over to ‘somewhere’ in Africa to offer your time and skills to help some of the world’s poorest countries by volunteering?
I wanted to write this post to explain what a lot of people have no idea about when it comes to something that sounds like you’re doing more good than you actually are. Below is an insight to what I’ve learnt from others and first hand experience when volunteering in Africa.
Steve and I had this desire to travel Africa. We hadn’t met anyone who had done it previously and we loved the idea of stepping out of that comfort backpacker travel zone of travelling around obvious areas like South East Asia and South America. We knew in our hearts that travelling around Africa was going to be incredible let alone a huge learning experience about the volunteering system over there.
As usual, all we had was one plane ticket and this time it was to Nairobi, Kenya. We had done a tiny bit of research and decided that travelling from Kenya down to Cape Town, South Africa was going to be our best bet. Not really knowing whether to do an overland tour or to make our own way down, we decided to wait until we arrived in Nairobi to decide what to do. It was clear when we got there that it was completely safe to travel so we started visiting lots of place and countries. (There will be a post in more detail about travelling around Africa coming soon).
Not long after we arrived in Kenya, we started meeting other backpackers. A lot of these people had offered their time and MONEY to volunteer at different places around East Africa. It was really interesting the stories they would tell us and it gave us a real insight to what is actually going on. What I mean by this is many backpackers told us that they paid over $1000 for a few weeks volunteering and a lot of these people ended up walking out of the placements. They did this because they could see that firstly, their $1000 (which is a ridiculous amount of money over there) wasn’t being put into the right areas and was obviously going to one man’s pocket. I heard stories like people saying they had paid so much money only to get there to hand mix cement which they found frustrating because it would have been more beneficial to spend the money on buying a proper cement mixer with their volunteering money and plane ticket. Other people said they were asked to ‘paint chairs’ which they didn’t understand because surely you could at least employ a local man to do that?
Then you get the Peace Corps. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s basically an American organisation where a lot of just-out-of-school teenagers will spend two years living and working in a village. I met quite a lot of Peace Corps and overall I thought it was incredibly brave what they were doing even though most of them weren’t really doing it for the right reasons. You see Peace Corps are trained for three months in a specific country by learning of how to live in a village on their own with the locals and by developing teaching skills to teach the local people in sustainability. They then move to a village on their own to live with the Chief and his family. There is no electricity and it’s really back to basics such as fishing water out of a well etc for 2 whole years. I personally couldn’t do that. Now the weird thing is, Steve asked some Peace Corps what developments had been made in just the country we were in at the time (for instance Malawi) and they couldn’t tell us. Don’t you think if you had committed to spending that amount of time of your life trying to do something good, wouldn’t you want to know what beneficial developments has been made? I thought that was weird. Anyway, it turns out pretty much every Peace Corp I spoke to (and I always did with an open mind) told me that the main reason they were committing two years of their life as Peace Corps was purely because it would look good on their CV to get into going to grad school or for getting a job. Where do we draw the line of being selfless to being selfish? It’s an interesting point.
Another point is that not only backpackers but film makers, actors etc told us stories of mind boggling things that global organisations did in Africa. Take for instance, a huge global charity went and planted a certain crop for the local people to grow and eat. This company spent a whopping 2 million Euros on this and two years after they planted this certain crop, one of the people working for that company comes back to Malawi only to find that the local’s have ripped that crop out of the ground and continued on growing the previous crop, Ensima. The guy from the company wonders why did they do that? And the answer was, because the local community didn’t like that specific crop. So basically the global organisation didn’t think to ask the communities if they would like that crop, they just go and plant it nonetheless. This is the problem with a lot of stories I have heard, there isn’t a lot of communicating going on between Western organisations and the local people in these poorer countries. It seems that people from the West just assume what the African’s want which just comes across as arrogance and egotistical. A lot and I mean a lot of money is wasted on this way of thinking.
One more story on this topic, another company came over to Malawi with 70 volunteers from around the world to build ‘Earth Ships’. These were supposed to be sustainable housing for local families. These 70 people paid $1000 each plus air fares on top, obviously that works out as at least $70,000. Now the tools that they used to make 8 of these Earth Ships included tyres along with other materials all mounting up to be some of Malawi’s most expensive and sought after materials. The volunteers built 6 of these houses in the week they came over and left the other two for the local’s to build. Because the research wasn’t done properly, it will more than likely result in the 6 already built houses being torn down and all the materials being sold off for profit. It was a real shame as a lot of the volunteers I met were really enthusiastic and hopeful of doing something good for the community.
So Steve and I decided after all of the backlash you hear about with volunteering that if we met the right people, then yes, we would offer our time to help them purely as a selfless act. We have both always wanted to help people and with the freedom of travelling independently we had all the time in the world to stay as long as wanted in each place.
We ended up bumping into two British women, Alice & Josie who owned a Backpacker Lodge with a good 15 volunteer community projects on the go. These two women both had a love for Malawi and had been in the country for a god few years. They randomly met each other and found out that a backpacker lodge was for sale. Two weeks after they met, they decided to buy that property. That was 7 years ago. Imagine that?? 7 whole years has gone by after meeting just two weeks before they made that commitment. I think that is incredible and shows a lot of strength for anyone making that kind of commitment.
Anyway, Alice and Josie’s Lodge called Butterfly Space was in desperate need of some help. Alice had started a school for 4-7 year olds as a way to teach her eldest daughter Ezmeekie who was 5 years old. Alice’s current teachers were leaving to return back to Sweden so Steve ad I decided to help. I will whole heartedly admit that at first it was a bit of an ego thing opting to do it as Steve & I had planned to start a new life in Vietnam teaching English after our travels in Africa ended. We thought it would give us a bit of experience before going there but we also didn’t want to let Alice down as she was struggling to find a replacement.
When we committed to teaching for 2 months, we realised that obviously teaching for 2 months wasn’t going to help in the long term. So as well as teaching, we started thinking about beneficial long lasting effects and that’s where we brought in our own skills from The West. I used to work in Marketing and Steve is a whiz at IT so together we thought it would be best to build them a new website. Now, their old website was terrible. The previous person who they paid to build it looked like it had hardly been started on and so we decided to start from scratch by picking a new template, designing a new logo and I wrote all their content while Steve took new images. This was quite a stressful time teaching the gorgeous kids and building the site as the internet was extremely slow but, we got it done in time.
Our thinking behind building a new website meant that by it looking professional meant more future volunteers would want to go over and help these two amazing women who are literally living in Malawi, trying to help the local community. We even added simple things like a donation button to increase a bit of revenue to help sustain the projects and a Wish List for future volunteers to bring over anything that was needed that wasn’t accessible in Malawi. I felt really proud of helping Alice and Josie because they were just trying to do a good thing and by increasing awareness for them meant their projects would be more sustainable for the future.
If you are thinking of volunteering in Africa, really do your research first. Try not to book with global organisations because at the end of the day that huge amount of money you’re going to fork out isn’t going to the local community. We didn’t pay anything for our volunteering as Alice and Josie just charge for your accom and food for a month or however long you are there for. It is pretty incredible where we were. Imagine overlooking the most beautiful fresh water lake which is massive, it’s literally like the ocean but has the clearest water I have ever seen. We even had our own private beach and it’s literally like paradise there.
So its not all bad about volunteering, there are some amazing people out there trying to help throughout Africa with their smaller charities that they might need a little bit of help with. Think about how you can use your skills to really make a huge difference, not just opting for an organisation to help hand mix cement. Look at the bigger picture and you could really be onto doing a ‘good thing’.
If you are interested, check out Butterfly Space’s website that Steve and I built for more information with helping Alice & Josie like we did.
Thanks for reading
PS Apologies for the blurred images, my camera was on its way out while we were travelling there so this is the best I could produce for you.