Volunteering has become a fast growing industry, a very profitable business fed by well-meaning people, who for various reasons devote some time of their life to helping others. Africa seems to be predestined for such endeavors. During our many trips we learned that the continent is swarming with volunteers, working at schools, villages, game reserves, hospitals, with blind people, handicapped people, you name it! Most of them are young, spending anytime from a day to a year for a good cause.
Why? Some believe being born into a privileged life obliges to giving something in return. Some feel guilty living on the bright side of life and others have learned it looks great on a resume. Then there is the fun factor, especially if an entire group spends time in a remote place. This is the case in Gweru, Antelope Park, where no less than 44 volunteers stayed at the time of our visit, most of them for three weeks. After paying they got to do fun things: they walked with lions, rode on elephants and most likely they were assigned some kind of task. Some even “worked” in the surrounding villages, they told us. This left us wondering what these kids could possibly teach villagers who have learned to eke out a living from little to nothing…
If this sounds very cynical, it has to do with what we have observed over the years. All these young people have great intentions and expectations and what they find is often rather sobering. For giving their time, know-how, heart and soul they pay, often a lot: always for their long distant flight and other transport and quite often for accommodation & food. Who profits most is usually the agency organizing the stay.
In Uganda, we accompanied an ambitious, well-educated Ugandan English teacher to her class in a village generously supported through an NGO. None of the adult students showed up for her lesson! Not unusual she told us. There are so many offers: hairdressing class, English class, IT class and what not… that the villagers are often overwhelmed or simply don’t have the time to use all these offers.
Volunteers often arrive completely unprepared: a young German girl in Mozambique was sent to work with blind people without speaking any Portuguese!
In 2007 we met a young Swiss girl in Peru who worked with handicapped children and lived through the Peruvian winter with a fisherman’s family in a home without warm water, paying 2.000 Swiss Francs up front. No matter what, most return home feeling proud of having coped with often very basic living conditions, a different culture and language. The experience, also the hardship they endured will certainly have a lasting positive influence on their self-esteem.
What we find so disturbing is that organizations are profiting from it financially.