Reflections on Uganda – From Voluntourism to Volunteering – Balloon Ventures

Reflections on Uganda - From Voluntourism to Volunteering

This post was written by Sara Ramos, a Balloon ICS volunteer based in Iganga, Uganda.

As I sit in my local café and scroll through my Facebook newsfeed plagued with photo albums under the flashing names of ‘Ghana 2017’, ‘Summer in Cameroon’ , or ‘Volunteering in Kenya’, a feeling of discomfort strikes me. Beyond the absurdity of posting 200 pictures – half of which feature children, and the other half, selfies by the pool clutching cocktails –profound questions arise surrounding the misconceived attitudes towards volunteering. Voluntourism, the market which capitalises on Westerners feeling guilty over their own privileged lives, is a rapidly growing industry. Within it, we witness the clumsy attempts of eager travellers with philanthropic ambitions who are compelled to help those in need overseas, but naively choose a 2-3 week volunteering program that too often ends up causing more harm than good to the community.

There is nothing wrong with embracing a love for photography in a new environment. The problem arises when those pictures do not reflect the realities of volunteering abroad, and do not go beyond that initial, idealistic notion of doing good alongside a suitcase – a suitcase often stuffed with more self-fulfilment than true commitment to a cause. In fact, behind the smiles captured in those school or orphanage photos often lies the untold misery experienced by those children on a daily basis. It soon becomes evident that these ephemeral visits to schools are, for the most part, futile. Indeed, it must be questioned whether good intentions alone are enough to transform a child’s reality. Can misery vanish with a game of hide and seek?

Voluntourism programs generally suffer from a short-sighted tendency to neglect long-term sustainability. They usually involve three or four weeks building half a school, a few orphanage visits and perhaps a couple of brief talks on women’s rights. Sadly, these short-lived projects fail to fully understand the education system in a given community, the role of parenting in that society or the customs that entrench power relations between men and women in different countries. In this way, such misplaced idealism is patently holding back the true potential for development in the community by only addressing superficial matters. Indeed, repairing the brick face of a school will not fix the gender inequalities within a broken education system.

Voluntourism is arguably appealing – it offers a gateway for ‘free spirits’ in the name of solidarity. Reflecting on this as I embark on a 3 month volunteering project in Uganda, I cannot help but ask myself whether I am part of the industry which I so strongly condemn. How is the project I’m involved in any different from the many voluntourism schemes currently causing harm to communities globally? Have my motivations to volunteer abroad always been as pure and altruistic as they are now? I certainly have to question this as I am reminded of recent comments from my loved ones at home emphasising ‘the amazing experience I was about to have’ before my departure. As these memories resonate, they inevitably evoke a certain feeling of guilt. Perhaps too often, us Westerners tend to transform volunteering into a self-fulfilment mission of moral affirmation. After all, although well-intentioned, my friends and family were unconsciously perpetuating such notions, and I did not stop it. Voluntourism’s marketing is undoubtedly effective but it does not mean that voluntourism is the only option, and there are alternative paths to follow when thinking of helping others.

Alleviating poverty is undeniably a complex task, yet it is not unachievable – heartfelt efforts to help can create an impact if pointed in the right direction. In fact, it is nearly impossible to survive as a voluntourist on a Balloon Ventures programme, and it only takes a couple of weeks to realise this.

Living with a local host family, and experiencing the total cultural immersion that comes with it, forces you into an unfamiliar lifestyle with plenty of challenges. Met with the challenges of this new environment, our conscious actions often betray our perceived image of ourselves as modern, open-minded people, and we become inundated with snap judgements and cultural comparisons. Adding to this, you start to feel sorry for those around you, as if your own reality was somehow superior and that subsequently they are missing out. Inevitably, we tend to feed our ego and praise ourselves – deeming ourselves heroes in our own story when we fetch water at the well in the early morning, or shower with a bucket, or hand wash our laundry. However, the truth is that a patronising attitude does very little to create impact or transform the reality of those who need it.

This conclusion only became apparent to me when I first hand-washed my clothes. While sitting on a rather uncomfortable stool and rubbing the wet clothes in the basin, I told my Ugandan counterpart: ‘I am actually enjoying this, it is making me appreciate a lot more what I have back at home’. It was only after she remarked – slightly offended – that washing by hand was a very precious custom within her culture and that it had been her favourite activity at school, that I realised how arrogant and ignorant my comment was. Once again I had completely missed the point of the experience – I was still taking pity on her lifestyle while unconsciously praising mine, without challenging the underlying foundations of either. I was still drawing a condescending line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It became evident to me that although an hour of hand washing might indeed not be convenient, convenience can be worthless weighted against a meaningful hour of time to converse, to enjoy silence, or to reflect.

Adopting a new lifestyle is not the only valuable aspect of the program. Working with young passionate entrepreneurs plays a vital role in transforming common but erroneous perceptions of ‘poverty’. These preconceptions are often perpetuated by portraits of Africa found in ignorant Western imagery that ultimately motivate the misguided voluntourist’s urge to volunteer abroad. There are however some invaluable lessons to learn from 9am-5pm working days, hand in hand with local entrepreneurs. One begins to appreciate that where money and possessions are lacking, the roots of innovation and creativity grow. There is no scope for pity whilst working with a capable generation that has big aspirations and works restlessly (yet, happily) in the least favourable conditions. Ambition is latent in the entrepreneurs’ words as they proudly explain their businesses. Failure fades away into fallacy as they share their dreams with us.

What is ‘poverty’ then, if not a field of energy, enthusiasm and keenness where potential is abundant and fear vanishes? Poverty had never before been so rich in my eyes and its passion so palpable. This, I believe, is the value of working with local Ugandans – it encompasses a strong commitment to defeat the condescending attempts to teach and impose new ideas onto others by stubbornly embracing Western ideals.

The line between offering selfless help and seeking a self-fulfilling experience is indeed extremely thin and often blurs the efforts to eradicate poverty. Voluntourism’s marketing is powerful and well-targeted, and is thus hard to resist. Nonetheless, just as Balloon Ventures has developed an awareness of the negative impacts of voluntourism, so too can anyone else considering volunteering as an option. Development cannot serve the interests of voluntourists but it does eagerly await the efforts of those devoted to a selfless cause, which starts by finding the right route to canalising one’s willingness to help appropriately. Think twice about your motivations to volunteer. Once you move away from the voluntourism path, you will almost instantly become aware of the other options out there which truly make an impact. There is an alternative to ‘good but empty’ intentions. Just as I chose Balloon, anyone can choose to make their own little difference.