Where are you Volunteering?

This is a tough question. It’s something I get asked on a daily basis. It comes mostly from Ghanaians, which seems pretty perverse to me. It’s less a question than an assumption. Many Ghanaians have been conditioned by hoards of well-meaning voluntourist westerners to assume that their culture only merits a humanitarian visit. That’s an inferiority complex if I ever saw one.

I’ve met many volunteers here. Almost all of them have either worked in healthcare or education. Some have had a fulfilling time. Many have not.

Thus, I think a more appropriate question is:

Why are you Volunteering?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with foreign aid. There’s also nothing inherently wrong with volunteering. But many people come to Africa expecting some sort of moral clarity, given their gifts of western knowledge and experience, and end up feeling shorted. Inexperienced volunteers in healthcare and education are often surprised at how little they’re able to offer. Inexperienced volunteers in manual labor often end up surprised at how much they’re undermining local economies by providing free labor.

There are plenty of amazing organizations in Ghana doing innovative, necessary work and approaching problems holistically. However, they’re all run by experienced aid workers.

Though I can only speak intimately of my own experience, In meeting fellow volunteers, I’ve come across a common complaint. They feel like their tenure not so effectively masked a greater problem: their school or hospital needed money and a more effective administration. It didn’t need a poorly trained, inexperienced westerner trying to “make a difference.” In fact, when I volunteered at a school in Anloga, that’s the last thing it needed, because all I did was reinforce the fact that rural Ghanaians apparently cannot effectively teach themselves English. For the record, this is not true.

In my next post, I’ll talk about my experience volunteering at the school.  For now, enjoy these pictures of puppies and a warthog.

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