The volunteerism phenomena worldwide is so popular and acceptable these days, that it rarely raises any eyebrows when someone decides to spend so much time, money and energy volunteering in a developing country.
But it also seems that it is time we admit that more often than not it is more problematic to the community who the volunteers work with then advantageous.
The President of Ghana Nana Akufo Ado caused a lot of interest last year when he stated that Africa must learn to stand on its own feet and stop being dependent on humanitarian help from the outside world.
We at Project TEN also agree with this statement.
An article that shocked the international volunteering world was published a few months ago: An American citizen who disguised herself as a qualified physician caused the death of many children in a hospital in Uganda because she wanted to “save Africa”. It flashes light on the idea that white skin people in Africa can do almost anything he or she desires without having to prove they are the best for the job.
That is why we in Project TEN are extremely cautious in our work in developing countries.
Our volunteers are privileged to be invited by the Ugandan people to work in their schools and education systems. We are cooperating together with the local teaching staff and we never “bite off more than we can chew”. Project TEN tries to match the qualifications of our volunteers to the actual job that they are doing in the field. Our volunteers are not qualified social workers, doctors or engineers, they cannot work with children, youth or adults in extreme situations and do it well. Project TEN does not save lives! We do what we know and what the community can benefit from. Nothing else.
We specialize in informal methods of education. Our Israeli and Jewish diaspora volunteers have lots of skills and good background in making each lesson interesting, each topic exciting and promoting the importance of thinking out of the box.
Our volunteering work might not be as “attractive” as feeding orphans or saving lives in slums, but it is appropriate work for our skills and in the international world of volunteering abroad, that is the way to go.
We are sharing 21st century skills joyfully with the kids and youth who welcomed us in to their hearts. We never see the results in a few days, but this is part of the education process, no matter where it is taking place.
The real message that we are trying to convey to our volunteers and to the local community is that “saving Africa” is not our role (and Africa is not in need of saving anyway!). We will never treat Africa as “a petting zoo” we do not lift the kids we teach or meet, we don’t hug them or give out candy (you will be surprised how many volunteers and tourists do!). These behaviors are not common behaviors in Uganda, so there is no reason that we should let the kids get used to it or think that it is ok. Who will hug and lift them up when we are not there? Would we do these things in our own communities? Would we want foreigners doing this to our children?Imagine a tourist coming into your yard, lifting up your nephew, taking selfies with him, posting them all over social media and walking away.
Imagine twenty of these strangers doing the same every three months.
At Project TEN international development centers around the world we don’t give out things the community can’t buy or make themselves. You have balloons and glitter at home and want to bring them on this international development trip? You have cool stickers that will make the children happy? The truth is that its better if you don’t.
When we go back home, these things go back with us and what did we really teach the children and youth Project TEN works with? That they have to get gifts from white people in order to have fun and play? That their teacher or parent will never get them anything as shiny and cool?
We combine 21st century skills and using local materials to teach with, and it’s the best thing we can do! We make wire-bound cars from materials we found in junk around the school. We prepare thinking games from trees, leaves, carton boxes and our imagination. There is no official garbage disposal services in Uganda so loading children with cheap Chinese plastic is far from ideal – for themselves and for the climate.
Oh, and to be even more “annoying”, we never ever give out sweets and food. What was the first thing we were taught when we were little? Never take candy from strangers. So why do we give candy to other people’s children? Plus, who will fund the dental care? One of the common sights in Uganda is a line of children behind visitors asking for food, candy or money. Why? Because the past visitors already gave these things out. Or some reason they thought that was what these kids were missing – Toffee candies. And tomorrow, who will continue feeding these children? And how does their Mom feel about never buying them sweets? And how do they feel about their local sweets (fresh mango and pineapple)? After all, are they are less tasty?
I can’t help but mention the orphanage traps in Uganda. Project TEN used to work in orphanages too until with enough research we learned that it is normally the wrong way to go.
Uganda is flooded with orphanages full of beautiful and charming childrens. These institutions are a strong magnet for white tourists and volunteers who want to love and save the orphans. But, the children in the orphanages are usually (more than 85% of the time) non-orphans. Institution owners have discovered the huge economic potential of bringing cute children to these homes, letting them live in substandard conditions and bringing white tourists to visit. Its a gold mine.
It took us a while, too, but we understood the reality here and today we avoid working in “orphanages.” In tribal Ugandan culture when a parent dies, the extended family, like the uncles, grandmothers or neighbors, take the child and share what little they have with him. The orphanages are very atypical to African culture. So yes, volunteering with Project TEN is not so glamorous. It is far from the image most people have of volunteering in Africa. It is daily routine work job of walking to schools or Books and Things centers in the sun and rain, with back packs stuffed with educational sustainable supplies. Our work is hard, energetic, planned and beautiful. And I am so proud of it.