The hand painted signs on the roads up to main Kilimanjaro gate vye for space: endless orphanages and baby homes, the words in English, not the native Swahili that we speak here in Tanzania. There’s something unnerving about the sheer number of homes, clustered together, all conveniently on the main tourist routes. In Arusha, the centre in Tanzania for Kilimanjaro climbs, the biggest mountain in the world, the local supermarket, Shoprite, heaves with fresh faced volunteers. The checkouts reverberate with Swedish, American, English and Spanish chatter. Whether it’s the economic recession in North America and Europe, or the desire to get an enhanced and quirky curriculum Vitae, Africa has never seen so many volunteers.
Statistics are hard to find. Allegedly there are 13.1 million volunteers globally[i]. However whether it’s due to Madonna’s adoption of Malawian boy David, and the ensuing attention to orphans that resulted, or a peculiar guilt from living a saturated consumerist lifestyle, volunteering is increasing. The plethora of websites offering a chance ‘to make a difference’ are all glaring in their similarities: none of them quote the ‘recipients’ of this volunteering (those of us who live and work in Africa, full time, or citizens of the countries) for our views and opinions on what we might need, or the actual benefits for us of volunteering.
Now don’t go jumping to conclusions. Once upon a time, over 20 years ago I was a bushy tailed idealist who thought I could single-handedly sort out a small village’s weaving co-op, and eradicate leprosy (I am being sarcastic here) in India. I was 18 and I left London for a Catholic mission working with people with leprosy: the experience did change my life undoubtedly. Pre-internet, no facebook, the days of poste restante, and no landlines, let alone mobiles, ensured six months of isolation, introspection, confusion, enthusiasm and ultimately a massive desire to find out more about the world, about global inequality, the legacies of colonialism and development.
There are ethical and productive ways to volunteer, and some organisations that take it very seriously: for example The Red Cross utilised volunteers to vaccinate over 2 million people in the Congo, in 2010[ii], and to quote them further, “Voluntary service is at the heart of community-building. It encourages people to be responsible citizens and provides them with an environment where they can be engaged and make a difference. It enhances social solidarity, social capital and quality of life in a society. It can serve as a means of social inclusion and integration”[iii].
Before you tearfully kiss the family goodbye, get the vaccinations and don the safari suit, it’s prudent to be aware of the issues. “Wanting to help” is not enough. Volunteering, a gap year, or voluntoursim (an afternoon, or a few days in a school, children’s home etc.) is big business. In 2010 a study[iv] concluded that aids orphans were becoming commodities. Firstly many of the so called orphans surveyed in Southern Africa were not technically, or legally orphans[v]. Secondly, the paying volunteers from the Global North are usurping qualified and keen local workers, who understandably, can not afford to work for free, let alone actually pay to provide a long term, committed relationship to traumatised children and young people. Thirdly, As Willacott[vi]and Bowlby[vii], the doyennes of child psychology point out, consistent emotional bonds for children from birth to early teens are key to the emotional stability and skills that will inform him or her in later life. People coming in and out of a child’s life at an early stage are detrimental. To put it bluntly, it’s highly unlikely a volunteer, on a gap year for a few months, actually does any good to an orphaned baby or child.
In Tanzania, like many developing countries, there’s an added complication: whilst it is legally necessary to register any NGO here, there’s no standards of child protection that are enforced, no obligatory training of workers, and certainly no police checks for staff or visitors, occasional or not. There is no registry of child or sex offenders here. All these things are non-negotiable in Europe and North America. Many orphanages are private affairs, their ‘success’ (both psychological and actual, in terms of finding homes for children) entirely dependent on the goodwill, integrity and skill of their management team and staff. Now, brace yourself, because this is going to sting. Many NGO’s here in Sub Saharan are, according to academics[viii], little more than either vanity projects or ‘suitcase NGO’s’. Overseen and run by people with spare time and cash, but literally no training whatsoever.
On the other side of the coin, there are ways to volunteer productively. Farasi Tanzania is a project managed and run by former street children just outside Moshi, in Tanzania. In a typical Swahili ‘shamba’ (compound, the houses made of soil and clay) and with limited electricity, they offer authentic treks into the foothills of the Kilimanjaro, on ‘happy horses’- horses that are cared, well fed, and loved. The young men too, shine with conviction and focus. Ronaldo, 24, is philosophical “This can be demanding for Wageni (visitors) they need to be strong in their hearts and their minds, and open.” The atmosphere is relaxed, and the lush vegetation and the mountain make for an intense experience. A former street kid remarks “We do like people who are not tired out by practical things: who can light a fire, happy to camp, to cook and to collect water, who are open to us and curious about who we are. People, who come with a desire to help, but have their own personal problems to solve, or who feel sorry for us are not so good really. People who speak Swahili are a real advantage!” There is a general consensus that people with real ‘skills’ (carpentry, motor mechanics, photography, knowledge of horses, people who can cook) are warmly appreciated.
Over a thousand miles South, in Mtwara on the border near Mozambique, Isobel Pring is more direct: “Don’t rock up here expecting a job for two weeks, or a free dive course. What I need is people who come with a clear plan, say reef monitoring, or specific marine research, and a well thought-through proposal of what you can offer.” Isobels’ dive centre, Eco2, is for some a dream location: palm fringed beaches, a tight knit village community, and a glimpse into a world where advertisement hoardings are few, and laconic afternoons pass playing draughts and sipping coffee with Muslim Wzee (old men) in the main street. Below street level, the Indian Ocean is bulging with exotic wonders: sea horses, clown fish, geometric morays, and titan triggerfish. She continues “You need to be able to get dirty, and use local restaurants here: resilience and common sense count for a huge amount. We flush the loo with buckets of water, it’s very hot, and you should anticipate getting sick: medical facilities are limited and far away.” Isobel is also sceptical of some of the larger organisations (she won’t name them) that “Push people through like a sausage factory, in the third world experience.” She cautions “Do your research, have a viable and good reason for volunteering. Be very clear that you understand what the organisation wants from you, and what you can offer.”
Elizabeth Mosha, Director of Women in Action, a Tanzanian NGO that supports women in education, domestic abuse, and sexual health advice, endorses this. “We welcome volunteers who really know this sector, and have worked in it already. We have one computer, thousands of clients who use our services, and limited word processing skills. Also, our internet is expensive and unreliable. In the rainy season it’s muddy and difficult. We need ‘can do’ people, who find ways round these problems, even if their Swahili is not so good. And it’s really essential they are emotionally strong, and stable.”
More Information on Volunteering:
[ii] The Value of Volunteers, Red Cross 2011, http://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/volunteers/IFRC-Value%20of%20Volunteers%20Report-EN-LR.pdf
[iii] Ibid, page 8
[iv] Richter, L. & Norman, A. (2010) ‘AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care’, in Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, Inside the Thriving Industry of Aids Orphans, Vol 8, no. 2 Aug 2010 HSRC, http://www.hsrc.ac.za/HSRC_Review_Article-195.phtml
[v] “In Ghana, just as in South Africa and Cambodia, there has been a boom in unregistered orphanages. Last year, police investigated one after the rape of an eight-month-old boy and discovered 27 of the 32 children were not orphans. A government study found up to 90% of the estimated 4,500 children in orphanages had at least one parent and only eight of the 148 orphanages were licensed. Unicef officials said children’s welfare was secondary to profits and it is thought less than one-third of income goes on child care.” The Guardian newspaper, 14/11/10, Ian Birrell.
[vi] D. W. Winnicott, The Family and Individual Development (London: Tavistock, 1965)
[vii] Bowlby J (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London: Tavistock Publications.
[viii] See Beckmann, N, politics of the queue: the Politicisation of People Living with HIV and Aids. Development and Change, Insititute of Social Studies, The Hague, 2009