Monday, February 3, 2014

Volunteer reflections: Shattering volunteer skepticism

It seems like a growing fad nowadays, to volunteer abroad and help the underprivileged. To give them a school or a house, and change the world. But this troubled me, and continues to do so. The idea that “first world” individuals who have “immense resources, astounding knowledge and a great gauge of the world” can go in to less developed parts of the world with a sense of entitlement and responsibility to help the poor troubles me. This troubles me because it isn’t true. It strips those in “poor third world countries” of their voice, of their individuality and their stories. It creates this asymmetrical relationship between the volunteers and the locals, where the volunteers feel a sense of power, whether conscious or not, over the locals as if they have the “responsibility” to help them because they cannot help themselves.

Having no idea what Africa was like except for the arguably exploitative commercials guilting viewers into donating, I wanted to see for myself, what “Africa” was all about. And so I wanted to go abroad. But I was held back by my previously mentioned suspicions of such endeavours. I was worried I would be patronized for doing more than I actually did. I didn’t want to be applauded for changing the world when I know I didn’t.

But writing this nearly nine months after I returned from Rwanda, I still have nothing but wonderful feelings from my experience. I am glad that my volunteer experience to Rwanda was anything but my expressed concerns, and I applaud Developing World Connections for making their volunteer experiences anything but that.

And I am so glad I did not let my fear or negative beliefs about this form of volunteerism stop me from embarking on this long and incredibly empowering journey.

On May 3rd, 2013, I set off to Rwanda for my first ever-travelling experience. The project took place in a rural village Gashora. Our team was responsible for helping with construction work on the Covaga Innovation Centre. The innovation centre was a cooperative that was started up by Building Bridges with Rwanda and Developing World Connections. Rwandan women who joined would weave baskets and then sell them through the centre. The women kept 90% of what they earned and 10% went go back to the cooperative to continue to help it grow. Our job was to help with the construction of the left wing of the innovation centre.

As we learned early on from the founder of BBR, malnutrition was the biggest problem in Rwanda. It was a combination of many things – many people couldn’t afford to eat nutritious food. For some, they worked such long hours they didn’t have time to eat. An underlying factor that made this malnutrition such a hard problem to fix was the fact that Rwanda does not have a food culture. For example, a country like Germany is famous for it’s bratwurst sausage, a place like South India for it’s dosa and sambaar. Rwanda in turn, does not have a “staple food” and events such as “dinner time” or “eating out” aren’t fads as they are in Canada, or other parts of the world. Therefore, most people eat just to feel full so they can continue to work. They are therefore less concerned about consuming nutritious food.

The left wing was going to be used as a restaurant as well as a place to hold cooking classes where locals could learn which vegetables were nutritious, how to cook food without losing all the nutrients and how to make kitchen gardens.

I realize that the money I spent on this trip could have been donated straight to this project. Skilled labourers could have been hired to do the construction instead of novices such as our group who were plastering for our first time ever on this project. They would have probably been faster and better at the work.

I also realized that the part I was playing in the development and rebuilding of this country was very small, very minuscule.

I knew I didn’t have the privilege of feeling good about myself for helping these people, or doing something worth applauding. I wasn’t physically capable of doing the kind of skilled labour the professionals could, I wasn’t smart enough to come up with definitive solutions to help with malnutrition or economic redevelopment.

I decided the biggest contribution I had to give was to dignify this nation, to bring their stories back home with me and keep them alive, to do the most I could with everything I had by making my eight hours a day on the work site count.

So that is what I did. I didn’t change the world. I didn’t fix Africa. I didn’t do anything worthy of recognition. But I opened my eyes and got everything I could from my time in Rwanda. I learned as much as I could – whether it was construction related such as building scaffolding, plastering walls, and mixing cement. Or about things deeper, such as the heartbreaking struggle many of my new Rwandan friends experienced due to the 1994 genocide. I did as much construction as I could. Listened to as many stories as I could and told my own stories whenever I was asked. I shattered this homogeneous image of "Africa" for myself that many North Americans continue to hold. And all I can say is I dignified this group for myself and whoever else I speak to about my trip. I brought memories of my friends back with me. I spoke of the work ethic of all the skilled labourers, the innovative ways our project manager made use of the resources, the intricate and complicated past that meshed into the present, the powerful souls of the local Rwandans, and the warm comforting love from all the Covaga ladies.

I was more than impressed with DWC and everything the program offered. I appreciated the transparency from the coordinators; they were very open with a breakdown of our donation and trip. They didn’t patronize us, or make us feel like we had “saved Africa”. They were aware at how important it was for us to learn about this population and hear people’s stories and tried to give us the most opportunities possible to meet and interact with locals.

So I have DWC to thank for opening my eyes to great initiatives that believe we have just as much to learn from others, as we have to teach them. That believe that our job is to connect with people from all over the world in a symmetrical and deeper way in order to learn from them as opposed to help them. And that you can’t change the world or save the poor in a short month, but you can do something, something small. And this small gesture of love and vulnerability that you can offer to another is a step in the right direction.

Nilum Panesar
DWC U30 Volunteer Participant
Rwanda, May 2013

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