Voluntourism: is all this doing good…good?

TANZANIA, WEEK 3: The days are going too fast.

This is what I think every morning and every night, as I try to gather the hours in between as close as possible, to stay present while thoughts of goodbye loom and home seems an echo of a distant, alien life.

This is the week my friendship with Harriet, the social worker at Cradle of Love, will blossom and I will meet Aston and Juma, two men with an inspiring commitment to orphaned and abandoned children, all because of her. Making my daily treks to and from Usa River, where I volunteer at Cradle and Save Africa, I begin to feel a fragile rooting, as if I am finally becoming more than a passing footstep through this stunning, heartrending land.

With Juma and Harriet

With Juma and Harriet

Dala dala conductors start to recognize the other volunteers and me and are always hustling us into their mini buses, calling “Mount Meru, Mount Meru” — the stop where we disembark every evening — unaware that when we leave Save Africa we aren’t immediately heading back to town. The women we buy bananas and other food from for the children start to depend on us for their sales, and even when I walk to the produce stands a few streets away from our volunteer house on evenings for my mango fix, the same vendor is always ushering me to her selection as soon as I appear. In town, a few locals call out to me, remembering my hair or face or some other feature that they’ve seen before. And one afternoon, walking back to the house, I am surprised to hear a robust “Mambo, Naila” from across the street. I look up to find Martha, one of the artisans from the Maasai market who offered me a stool beside her when I grew tired of browsing the stalls, waving vigorously at me.

This vendor starts getting my corn, my daily lunch after leaving Save Africa, ready as soon as she sees me.

This vendor starts getting my corn, my daily lunch after leaving Save Africa, ready as soon as she sees me.

I know I am still very much a stranger here, a traveler whose presence isn’t appreciated by all, or even welcomed. On the first weekend when I arrive, a man I meet at a barbecue wonders why I traveled all the way across the world to volunteer with children. “Don’t they have orphanages in America?” he asks. I honestly don’t know, believing those institutions to have long been dismantled and perhaps replaced by the foster care system. But neither can I fully explain my desire to journey here, the unshakable longing that has been a steady, if at times subtle, propellant in my life these last many years.

Still, even I am aware that my benevolent intentions are precarious, questioned even before I arrived the good of dropping into these young, traumatized lives to bond with them only to be absorbed back into the security of my own. Beyond that, the more time I spend here, despite my belief in the restorative powers of love and tender affection — and the very real and basic needs I’m helping to meet — are the concerns that I’m feeding a culture of dependency. Rather than promoting sustainability and self-reliance and engaging with the children and the orphanage staff in a way that empowers, am I part of the booming “volunteer” industry that makes a small fortune on perhaps misguided idealism?

Worse, what if my desire to help plays some role in the staggering proliferation of orphanages? I hear the stories of corruption, of facilities that pop up seemingly overnight, their founders lured by the funding of volunteers, trapping the very children they’re supposed to help in circumstances of exaggerated squalor to make their plight more acutely heartbreaking. Some eventually close down, but others continue, preying on the do-gooders and innocent lives in their care.

A village tailor happily invites us into her shop.

A village tailor happily invites us into her shop.

For those who are genuinely committed to providing for these children, the “business” of volunteering can be frustrating. They see us taking up residence in homes created strictly for our comfort, signing on with organizations that charge exorbitant prices to students, retirees and anyone in between for a “volunteer experience” — yet never funnel any of that money into the programs and institutions they’re promoting.

Not every organization is guilty of such profiteering. My volunteer coordinators are personally involved with every placement they send us to, supporting them with food, monetary donations, and more. The two other volunteers from the U.S. who work with my group at Save Africa have come through an organization that donates a hefty percentage of the fees they charge to the orphanages where they place their students.

Still, the role we inhabit can be complex and unsettling.

“What do you do? You come and play with the children?” Harriet asks me one day, her words not a personal attack but the voice of the poverty-stricken in need of education, employment, medical care, daily nourishment — a vast and more tangible relief.

The church in a local village

The church in a local village

The day she takes me with her to one of the local villages, I see up close a different kind of indigence than what I’ve come to know at the orphanage: women who ask her if she can get them work when they learn what she does, a pharmacy with too many empty shelves, a makeshift movie theater barely bigger than my galley kitchen, an open-air church slapped together with sheets and scraps of metal and wood…

I also see joy, the kind that is a surprising billow here alongside such hardship, as women gather chatting on front stoops while their children play in the yard; with the kids that run out into the street to greet us, proffering shy smiles; with the businesses that welcome us in, eager to show off their goods, or in the case of a local tailor, her artful handiwork.

These children run out to greet Harriet and me in the village.

These children run out to greet Harriet and me in the village.

I see, too, in Harriet a passion for what she does, a reservoir of kindness that sparks a light in any room. Her own future ambitions include being able to provide some structure of support to women and the elderly. But on this day, she is making inquiries about young girls in the village who may have been abandoned or neglected, children whom she can refer to her friend Juma, who runs Small Steps for Compassion to shelter and educate Tanzania’s most vulnerable population. When I meet him later that afternoon, he tells me his orphanage, unlike those that shuffle kids from one location to another, will be these girls’ home for as long as they want it to be, and my eyes fill with tears.

It is the same when I meet Aston, another friend of Harriet’s, who at only 30 years old started his own orphanage, prompted by his faith and a desire to help others — but also by his own experiences running away from a violent home to become a street child at the age of 8. He was rescued by a soldier who took him in, and Aston lived with him and his family until he was 23. Now he works to help and protect the children who may otherwise never know such compassionate intervention. And Aston Vision Orphanage is as much a manifestation of his generous spirit as it is a labor of love — his and his volunteers.

Together, what they have accomplished amazes me. From the separate bathrooms for boys and girls, including their own individual shower stalls, to running water in the fully functional kitchen, to a fairly spacious classroom apart from the main house and the planting of a vegetable garden, his facilities are a world apart from what I’ve seen at Save Africa. Of the 75 orphans in his charge, more than half have been sponsored to attend a government school.

With Aston, a former street child who founded his orphanage in 2009 at age 30.

With Aston, a former street child who founded his orphanage in 2009 at age 30.

This, I think, is what is possible with the support of dedicated and invested volunteers. Though he tells me there is still much to be done, what he’s achieved so far, as is the case with many of the better-run orphanages, has also materialized with the help of a Western backer and support team.

Still, he, like Juma, is one of the true crusaders, a genuine advocate for the betterment of these precious children’s lives.

And I — I am still a volunteer. Yet I have not come seeking self-fulfillment or the soothing of my too-comfortable conscience. I am a champion in my own right, for a brighter future for the ones I interact with every day, for a home that makes them feel safe, for a love that will endure. It is just that my role beyond these four weeks is still being defined — a purpose I know has called me here even if it may not crystalize until I am back on familiar shores.


2 thoughts on “Voluntourism: is all this doing good…good?

  1. I love reading about these amazing souls who ARE truly loving and helping the children. And it is no surprise that you find in them company. Perhaps you silently, and in an unspoken way, understand the river of purpose that mutually runs through your souls. Bless you all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps you are right, dear friend. Before I even walked through the gate at Aston Vision, I had tears in my eyes, as if I knew I would find something, and someone, remarkable there. One of his volunteers a few years ago lost her life in a piki piki (motorcycle) accident, and her parents made a donation in her name that allowed him to build the girls dorm, which to me spoke volumes about his kind and generous heart, and the good people recognize in him. He named the dorm after their daughter.


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