In Part 1 of this incredibly intriguing series, I shared the amazing experiences I had and some of the incredible things I saw on my two-week volunteer trip to Tanzania. I also forced down your throat mentioned that, as with most experiences in life, there were tough lessons to be found throughout the excitement and the fun.
Let’s get into it.
I had hopped on my overnight flight to Africa with the expectations and giddiness of a movie character who has just set out on a journey to fulfill her destiny. Because that’s what I thought I was doing: taking the first step on my life’s mission to alleviate the sufferings of the world through charity and service. My two weeks in Tanzania would be filled with fun experiences and new friends but, more importantly, it would be an opportunity to volunteer for children and a community in need of so much.
I was so proud to be providing valuable help and affecting positive change.
Until I realized that I wasn’t.
There was no distinct moment that my dreams for the trip suddenly fell apart; no single experience that shattered my expectations. It was a culmination of the entire two weeks and, especially, the time I spent teaching children in the classroom.
Within the first few days of arriving, my fellow volunteers and I were separated into smaller teaching groups. Each group was responsible for creating their own lesson plans and mapping out a schedule for our 2 weeks at the local primary school. The children in the school varied in ages and English abilities, but even the most advanced in English knew no more than a handful of phrases and basic words. The idea behind our volunteer project was that the kids would be more excited to learn English from exotic, energetic young people like ourselves than from the local teachers they were used to and familiar with. We would spend several hours at the school each day, with teaching groups rotating between classrooms so we could all spend time with each of the grades. I embraced this well-intended plan wholeheartedly and threw myself into the task of creating fun lesson plans that would excite and inspire the kids to quickly improve their English skills.
By the end of the first day, I knew that my hopes of advancing the children entire language levels within two weeks was not going to happen. By the end of the first week, I spent most of my time wondering what the point of our volunteer work even was.
We were not teachers, we had no formal training in education or childcare, and most of us were not even legally adults yet. Our “lesson plans” were messy and overly-ambitious lists of words we hoped to teach and classroom games meant to be both fun and educational. Each day in the classroom, my teaching partners and I struggled to explain the carefully-created activities we wanted the kids to try. With the few words of Swahili we had managed to learn and the limited English that the kids understood, communicating even basic instructions was a game in itself. Occasionally, a teacher or administrator would check in on our group and, seeing our struggles, would quickly explain to the children what we wanted and remind them to pay attention and do as we asked. By the time we had finally gotten into the swing of our lesson, it was time to switch to a new classroom, where the communication struggles began all over again.
The children were incredibly respectful and well-behaved and I think they were genuinely excited to be taught by a bunch of goofy, energetic outsiders who wanted to play soccer and hopscotch with them during recess. But, our timeframe and communication barrier and general lack of skills and preparation made it painfully obvious that what we were doing was neither efficient nor effective. It did not take an education professional to realize that, in terms of actual English skills, these kids were learning next to nothing from us.
By the end of the two weeks, my teaching partners and I had found that the only activity that was easy to communicate and that the kids seemed to love was drawing. We would spend large chunks of class time sketching animals, body parts, and objects and writing the English words for ‘tiger’ ‘ear’ and ‘book’ next to them as the kids drew along in their notebooks or on the chalkboard. This would soon turn into a free-for-all drawing session, as I would stare in awe at 10 year old boys sketching carefully shaded pictures of tigers, and shy, smiling girls drawing painstakingly detailed self-portraits (or one little boy who spent most classes drawing incredibly accurate images of fancy sports cars).
This was beautiful and stirring and I loved sitting in the dusty quiet of our little classroom and watching the concentration of tiny faces as they drew and erased and redrew over and over again.
It was magical.
But it was not the point.
The “point” of my volunteer work in Tanzania was to teach valuable English skills to students, a task that I knew I was failing to do. I cherished my time in the classroom but I knew that it was not me inspiring these kids; it was the other way around.
It was confusing to feel this sense of helplessness and even phoniness in the classroom because we did help out in other ways outside of teaching that felt much more genuine. We sanded and painted the inside of one long-neglected classroom – a task that we were able to do a good job on and that otherwise would likely have been handed to an already overburdened school employee. A fellow volunteer, upon seeing the amount of litter left around the school buildings, suggested we spend a day picking up trash. This turned out to be a brilliant plan as the kids, seeing us collecting trash instead of joining them at recess as we normally did, began picking up the trash themselves and proudly helping us dispose of it in garbage bags.
These small acts were successful and I’m sure they were genuinely helpful and appreciated by the school. But, the more I examined what I was doing, the more clearly I saw that this “volunteer” trip was really about me. I had been given the experience of a lifetime, but that was all it was: a personal growing experience, an exciting adventure, a gift to myself and not to the people or the children in the town that I had thought needed my help.
The idea that overseas volunteer trips are often more beneficial for the volunteer than for the recipients of their charity is not a revolutionary one. Nowadays, most people are familiar with the term “voluntourism” and have at least a sense of how these types of trips can have negative repercussions. But, it is one thing to read an article about the “Western Savior” complex and think “yes, we should change the narrative around developing countries and their needs” It is an entirely different thing to realize firsthand that you are feeding into that narrative; that the work you thought you were meant to do may actually be a part of the problem that you wanted to “solve.”
I absolutely do not think that every voluntourism-type program is “bad” or that there are not wonderful things that can come out of these trips, both for the volunteers and for the people they are trying to help. The organization that ran my trip was in fact very aware and open to the criticism that programs like mine received – our group leaders encouraged us to discuss the deeper impacts of our work and we spent time reading articles and reflecting on how we saw ourselves within the cycle of poverty, charity, and dependency. If nothing else, I think these trips can be the catalyst in young people like myself, who may take experiencing something firsthand to realize how little they know about the problems of the world and how much deeper they must go to truly make a difference.
At the time, realizing that I was no longer confident in the sort of surface-level charity work I had always dreamed of doing was incredibly disheartening. In hindsight, though, it was one of the most important experiences of my life and is what has led me to the subjects I have studied, the countries I have visited, and the constantly evolving worldview and sense of self I have now. Realizing my own flawed assumptions about what charity means forced me to re-examine the entire plan I had mapped out for my life and start asking the harder questions about poverty, development, and my place in the world. It’s often hard to see and even harder to admit when your mentality or actions are a part of the problems that you condemn. I had gone into my trip with a sense of entitlement – genuinely thinking that I was wanted and needed in the Tanzanian community – and unconsciously perpetuating the narrative that societal development comes from the outside rather than from within.
The inspirational movie that I had envisioned my trip to be was not the mental film that I ended up making. It’s strange to look back at 18-year old-me and think of how simply I viewed the world’s problems; how naive and assuming I know I was. I have no doubt that I will look back at 21-year-old-me in the future and think the same things. There are so many global issues that I am still unaware of and so many views of the world that I have never experienced.
I still want to leave my mark on the world, I still want to work in Africa and other countries outside the US, and I am still an (often stubbornly) idealistic person. But Tanzania, and so many other experiences I have had since, taught me that the easy narrative is not always the right one and that we must constantly examine our own assumptions and push ourselves to see the world through others’ points of view.
It is our own experiences and adventures, outside of school or TV or what our family and friends can tell us, that shape our unique view of the world. Tanzania was my first trip into the great wide beyond and it challenged my entire identity and perception of myself.
This is a good thing.
It also introduced me to what I’ve come to think traveling is really about: forcing you to tear off your masks and your ego and your perceptions of “self” and “other” and simply take in the world as it is, without judgment or expectations. As I have explored more of the world in the past few years, I have had countless identity-challenging moments. And, just like in Tanzania, it is often not until much later that I have realized the full weight of an experience – how much one moment or one person or one conversation tore at my outlook or my goals.
I think that’s part of the beauty of life: being able to look back at your journey and see how each connection and even each mistake shifted the path you were heading down and led you in the direction you’re walking now.