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What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

American-flag-and-ghanaian-flagIn three days I depart for Ghana, bound for a rural village with no running water or internet access, to work on a construction project for two weeks. I acquired my mosquito net, anti-malaria meds, and a large packet of pre-departure materials. This is how I plan to spend my annual “vacation,” and right now I’m questioning my sanity.

The first time I ever left North America, I ventured to Duran, Ecuador on a high school volunteering trip. My Catholic school had a partnership there and groups visited annually to help out in schools and a soup kitchen, and embed themselves in the local community. In retrospect, we didn’t accomplish much of anything, but the value lay in exposure to the reality of life and hardship in a developing country. As a teenager, it opened my eyes to water and electricity shortages, unsanitary conditions, infant mortality, and other struggles experienced by the warm and welcoming people we met. Perhaps the experience sparked my interest in travel to off-the-beaten-track regions, and service abroad.

Over the years my passion for travel grew, and while working at a college, I spent several years co-leading service-learning trips to Nicaragua and Mexico. In that academic environment, surrounded by faculty well-versed in social justice issues, I questioned the benefit of these endeavors at times, and in many ways changed my point of view regarding volunteering.

Some circles have expressed a backlash against “voluntourism,” or “volunteer vacations,” on the grounds that they promote a “savior complex,” undermine local expertise and activism, and produce accolades and social media photo-ops without making a real difference. Some feel that any charity work must be better than nothing, but with increasing awareness of privilege and economic disparity, the debate continues. An excellent documentary available on Hoopla entitled H.O.P.E. Was Here profiles a group of college students traveling to Peru and insightfully exploring these conflicting perspectives. In my opinion, ethical volunteering abroad is surely possible. But if you’re going to do it, do it right! Here are some rules I try to follow:

Learn about a culture before entering it for the purpose of “helping.” I knew nothing about the history and politics of Ecuador before I went, very little about the people, and had zero Spanish language skills. How can one “help” people without understanding them? I urge anyone to read up before traveling anywhere, whether for pleasure or volunteering. Reading individuals’ stories including The Country Under My Skin before going to Nicaragua, Enrique’s Journey before Mexico, I, Rigoberta Menchu before Guatemala, and Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom prior to South Africa enhanced my experiences to these countries immeasurably.

Learn at least the basic greetings in another language before traveling; the library has free resources that make this easy. In addition to travel books and CDs, why not try our Mango language learning program by logging in from anywhere using your library card? Norwood’s library and the Minuteman network have hundreds of travel guides by Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Moon, and others, which in addition to travel recommendations include primers on history and politics, tips on cultural differences, and useful foreign language words and phrases. I’m currently scouring the Bradt Travel Guide: Ghana, and borrowing Pimsleur’s Twi language CDs.

Regarding volunteering in particular, seek out programs that are locally led and administered. Rather than traveling with preconceived notions of how you may improve another community, respond to the citizens’ own identified needs. Make sure a project demonstrates sustainability; don’t start something the community cannot maintain after you leave. Do not engage in work for which you are not qualified. I used the book Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others to select my upcoming Ghana placement. I chose the program because Ghanaians run the project and have an infrastructure set up for an ongoing flow of short-term and long-term volunteers coming and going, working alongside locals. Additionally, I had to be accepted to the program, submit to a background check, and sign off on a strict code of conduct agreement very attentive to cultural sensitivity.

The village also has medical and school projects that require participants to have some credentials in either field. Lacking these, I will do manual labor instead, mixing cement, bricklaying, and painting, from 8:30 – 4:00 Monday through Friday. Is it too late for me to change my mind?! It may seem obvious that volunteers should have qualifications to do certain types of tasks, yet I’ve heard of undergraduates on service trips helping to deliver babies, and seen high school students spending time in orphanages where they make bonds with already-traumatized children, only to depart after a week or two. I aim to avoid doing anything that would not fly at home, including things like picking up children and taking photos with them without an adult’s permission, or posting photos online that do not portray the subjects with accuracy and dignity.

In four days I will land in Accra, and transfer to a dormitory with bunk beds, outhouses, and intermittent electricity. For reading material I will carry The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade, since I plan to visit the infamous slave port on a weekend excursion. I’ll also read a fiction selection, Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, which tells the tale of Ghanaian half-sisters, one of whom marries a colonial Englishman and lives a privileged life, while the other becomes a slave sent to the U.S. My contribution to the small village as a volunteer will be a drop in the bucket, but at least I will do no harm, and I will benefit immensely from a difficult but transformative experience and immersion in another culture. Although I may question the wisdom of my vacation choice, in the thirty years since that first trip to Ecuador, I have yet to regret a single volunteer travel experience.

Lydia Sampson is the Assistant Director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the September 26, 2019 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.

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