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Voluntourism: Am I making a difference?

16th October 2011
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The building was of an average size for a classroom, it was roughly the same size as the ones that you would find in the UK. Yet this is where the similarities ended. The roof was made of tin; which meant that it was impossible to teach during the Monsoon season.

VoluntourismAnother major difference was the teaching resources provided; there were no textbooks, no PowerPoint software, and no fancy state of the art interactive whiteboard, just a piece of chalk, a blackboard and my voice (when the rain stopped). The most obvious and challenging difference was the number of students in the classroom - in England this would be a room for a maximum of 20 students, but in Malawi, the country where I spent seven months teaching English and History, there were over 80 students cramped into this tiny space.

I knew at the time that I did not have the knowledge or the maturity to deal with this situation, the prospect of being responsible for the education of all of these students was daunting. The one week training course that I had attended now seemed insufficient and I was beginning to feel completely underprepared. What made matters worse was the fact that some of my students were the same age or even older than me, which made me feel uncomfortable as I felt like I was patronising them. I found that despite having been sent by a UK registered charity that had provided pre-departure meetings, where I received an abundance of information about the placement, I was already feeling overwhelmed and disillusioned.

It was when I was fourteen that I first realised that I wanted to take a year out and so I began my search for a ‘worthwhile’ project. I was blinded by the desire to ‘change the world’ and ‘make a difference’ and was completely ignorant of the fact that this was without a doubt not the most effective way to help. Originally I found a gap year company which offered a special programme combining travel and volunteering at an extortionate price. I decided against this after further research into the program as it seemed that the overriding aim of the company was to make money and take advantage of foolish idealists such as myself. Unfortunately, there exists many organisations such as this one; VSO asserts that such companies only inflict damage upon the communities that they claim to help. Therefore before embarking upon a gap year project people should give a lot of thought as to whether the program is well run and really helpful to the community and whether your presence there could lead to job losses amongst the local population.

Some reputable organisations with culturally sensitive projects include VSO’s global xchange project that lasts for 6 months and engages the volunteers in various community projects to do with issues such as HIV and AIDS, education and climate change. Alternatively, the British Council sends people to China, Latin America and Europe for placements as language assistants at local schools. In many cases this is exceptionally beneficial for people who want to learn languages, but it is also a cheaper alternative to volunteering that will still enable you to explore the world and develop an understanding of a different culture.

When done properly, volunteering can be an amazing experience enriching both the local community and yourself with the cultural and linguistic exchange. I found that although Malawi was nothing like the dream that I’d had when I was 14, in many ways it was much better as I learnt so much about another way of life which helped me to develop my own views and opinions. Many people have high expectations of their gap year, which can only lead to disillusionment, so if you plan to embark upon a volunteer project, be realistic about the contribution that you can make so that you can truly appreciate every minute of it.

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