Volunteering from my perspective

As promised here is the next instalment of volunteering information, please bear in mind this is all purely from my perspective from my own personal experiences and therefore not to be used as a hard and fast guideline for volunteering. Whenever you are thinking about volunteering you should always research the companies and see if they are reputable, where the money goes, what impact they have had etc.

I have had few experiences of volunteering, my first as I wrote about previously was in Tanzania in 2012 with a company called ‘Original Volunteers’ to be honest I don’t think it is very easy for me to review this company, it was such a long time ago, it was a brand new project and I have had no dealings with them since. In fact, I have just googled them to find a link but it appears they are no longer running. What I will say it at the time their pricing was fair, there were a few hiccups but there was always someone available to discuss issues with and most things got resolved in a timely manner. In this volunteering experience, I assisted teaching in the local school and helped dig foundations for a new orphanage that was to be built. I also had a bloody good time getting to know my host family, going on adventures and experiencing new cultures, food and traditions.

My next experience of volunteering was in Honduras  2013 teaching in a bilingual school. The interview was a skype interview with an 18-year-old who was in charge of the school, he was not a teacher but was in charge of hiring, teaching and running the summer school. The emphases of the summer school was to improve the students English, as it was a summer school it was optional for the students so the classes were not full and I guess what was being taught was not part of the curriculum but an ‘added bonus’. I mention this as I am assuming this is the justification behind having an unqualified teacher in charge of the school. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the guy in charge, he was a great guy, whose heart was in the right place, but he was not qualified to be in the position he was in. There were a number of other volunteers there at the same time as me, some qualified some not. However all of them put their heart and soul into the school, we walked or got a tuk-tuk to school every weekday, we taught lessons, we played with the kids at break time, we ran fundraisers at weekends to try and get more equipment and resources for the school, we discussed lesson plans and how to tackle difficult situations in class, we bought resources from home or made them, we helped each other and we all gave it our best. My point here is that despite the fact that we were basically left to our own devices, we were headed by an unqualified teenager, we were of course not getting paid, some of us didn’t even speak the language, I still feel like we made a positive difference. Those kids learnt more English that summer than they would have had we not been there. Of course, we also gained from the experience, we made strong friendships, we got to know the locals, we were invited into the homes of the students for dinners and celebrations, we experienced situations that you wouldn’t get if you were just a tourist passing through, we went on adventures including white water rafting, jungle trekking,  we ate local cuisine and again became part of the community. After the summer school ended another volunteer and I got a (very rocky) boat to Utili and did our PADI diving course. So yes, we did gain from the experience but importantly I feel like the students did too and it was not all in vain.

The point I am trying to make here is that I think there are two types of volunteering placements. The ones where you have to go through strict interview progress, meet lots of minimum requirements and qualifications, jump through lots of hoops, and usually pay a substantial amount of money all for the privilege of being able to work for no pay. Or the type of volunteer placement where they accept basically anyone, including fresh out of school students without the right experience or qualifications and leave them to it and hope for the best. While it would seem the former type is the better, I still believe that the latter can be of use and beneficial if the volunteers themselves are passionate and dedicated.

Throughout my time in Honduras, I had no communication with anyone from the volunteer company, to the point where I can’t even remember the name of the company. I remember we had a volunteer house to live in and someone organised pick up from the airport but in all honesty, I can’t think what else they might have done. I do remember the police coming to the school one day demanding our passports and to see our volunteer permits which I don’t think we had. This leads to my next important point, this type of volunteering can also be potentially dangerous. On that day we said we didn’t have our passports and they eventually left, it could have very easily gone a different way. This is where the first type of volunteering comes in useful. There are people who organise that for you, they know the laws of the country and make sure that you abide by them all, there is someone on hand to help you should you have any problems, you usually have meetings or training prior to the placement to discuss any issues, meet people and have your questions answered. However, as always this is not always the case. While I lived in Malawi I spent some time volunteering. This was different to the other previously mentioned volunteer experiences where I went to the country specifically to volunteer. In this case, I already lived and worked in the country and just volunteered in my spare time.

My time volunteering in Malawi was my best experience. From 2014 – 2016 I lived and worked in a private school in Kasungu, north of Lilongwe. The school was a boarding school a long way from any big towns so was quite isolated. A few other teachers and I found ourselves spending a lot of our free time at the local orphanage. It was not formal volunteering, we would just go and play with the kids, help bath and dress the babies, chat with the older kids, we even started bringing students from our school to the orphanage, we literally just spend time with them giving them some attention and the mama’s (ladies who worked there) some time to wash the clothes and the rooms etc in peace. I worked at the school for 2 years so I spent a significant amount of time at the orphanage, I knew every child and mama by name and character and really became part of the community. Over time we wanted to do more to help and eventually, we set up a nursery school at the orphanage, employed a teacher, bought in resources, did some training with the teacher and the mamas and with time had a fully functioning nursery school so that the youngest students could start learning at home to get a head start before they went off to school. I still get updates from the school and see how the children and mamas are doing.

When I moved to Blantyre in 2016 – 2018 I again found a local orphanage and would go and help out, help kids with homework, play sport and just generally spend time with them. While there I met a lady who had come to volunteer, she stayed at the orphanage and help out where needed. I got chatting to her about her volunteer experience and what she thought about it ect. the long and short is that she spent over $2000 to be able to come and volunteer, on top of that she had to pay to go to a 2-week’ training camp’ prior to her volunteer placement and still had to pay the orphanage directly to assist with costs towards her food and lodgings. When I asked the owner of the orphanage if any of that $2000 goes to him he said he didn’t know anything about the money.

All of this leads me to describe my next volunteer experience and one that I think is the best model I have experienced. Having already been living in Malawi and casually volunteering in my spare time, I felt like I was aware of how things generally worked in East Africa (a huge generalisation, I am aware) and didn’t feel the need to pay a company sitting in their posh office in London a large amount of money to organise my next volunteer placement. I had some friends who wanted a new experience (coming to Africa) and wanted to do something useful while they were there. Both friends and I are teachers and so we had a long summer holiday to use. We decided on Tanzania as our destination and set out looking for a worthy cause for us to input our efforts into. That was when we came across The Greenhouse Hostel.

The concept behind the Greenhouse Hosel is great, at its most simple it is a friendly, affordable place to stay with like-hearted others, in simple dorm (there is one private) rooms, where food is also provided within the rate. But it can also be so much more than that. If requested the owner Benson can also organise day trips and excursions, or multi-day safaris or hikes. He welcomes you into his home as if you are family as well as the other staff who throughout my stay also became good friends. Even more that, if requested, he can organise suitable placements for your to volunteer in during your stay. He personally vets each and every placement including schools, hospitals, orphanages and general community projects to ensure that they are suitable for volunteers. Within this vetting process, he ensures that they are above board and transparent with all of their dealings including what is expected of their volunteers and where all donations go. He has regular meetings with the placements to ensure that he can best place volunteers in the most suitable placements to ensure their needs are met. Benson also personally checks up on volunteers throughout their placement to ensure that everything is going smoothly and that the volunteer is doing well and doing what is required of them. Benson is always on hand if anything is needed and both the placement and the volunteer can speak to him if they have any problems. For our trip he organised pick up for us at the airport,  a suitable school and orphanage for us to volunteer in, transport for us to get to placement, volunteer permits, a welcoming home,  weekend activities and we woke up to breakfast already prepared and came home to an evening dinner ‘family style’ every evening. We became good friends with Benson and the other volunteers and hung out frequently throughout our stay, giving us a locals perspective on Arusha.  There were no extra costs for him to organise all of this, we paid for our volunteer permit ourselves and of course, any weekend activity costs (including trips to the hot springs, and hikes up Meru) but other than that the costs were only for the accommodation which included meals. What I love most about this concept is the fact that it doesn’t take advantage of the volunteer or ask for anything extra of them. This model allows tourist to visit Tanzania, give back to the community and experience the real Tanzania all in one trip without paying an extortionate amount of money in order to do so. It also allows you to build real connections with people who live and breathe the experience every day instead of an abstract person somewhere else being your point of contact. If people have a positive experience volunteering it can have endless opportunities, it can lead to lifelong connections and continued support. I remain friends with Benson to this day and hope we can continue to support each other if needed. Of course like many other businesses that rely on tourism Benson’s is suffering and he hasn’t had many volunteers this year due to covid. His business supports schools, orphanages and hospital in his community as well as supporting other community projects like planting trees. He and the projects he supports are in need of donations and volunteers so if you are able and willing please do have a look at what you can do to support, whether it be physically going to volunteer or assisting with donations. Here are a few photos from my recent trips to revisit the school and orphanages I worked with when I volunteered 5 years ago.

So as you can see I have has a few experiences with ‘cowboy’ volunteer placements and others with more reputable companies. My problem is I am in the camp of not expecting to pay through the nose and jump through tones of hoops to enable me to ‘help’ others for free. Alternatively, I do get that sometimes what we do is not really helping, a bunch of high school kids coming over to Africa to play with the orphans and post photos on their Instagram about how much they are helping these poor kids can indeed fuel the ‘white saviour’ mind frame. My way of overcoming this is to always volunteer in a field where I think I can actually be of use and bring some experience and knowledge that will actually help. I have always volunteered in the teaching sector where I feel that as a teacher who trained in England I have had more extensive training than teachers in the countries in which I have volunteered, but also just different experiences so that we can have discussions and share experiences. This means I can also, of course, learn from them as much as they can learn from. Isn’t that also the point. To share experience and ideas, to have discussions and try and do something positive.

So there you have it, my thoughts and experiences of my volunteering, despite some of the experiences not being the most organised or official, I still loved all of them and I would recommend it to anyone.

If you have any comments or questions please feel free to post them below or if you want more information about the projects at the Green House Hostel or of the other mentioned projects please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

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