Challenging our perceptions of Orphanages and Africa. Key Learning and advise on Responsible Impact & Volunteering.

 

My biggest fear with giving to charity has always been not knowing exactly where the money goes. I feel this is the same for most of you, wanting to do some good but not sure what the best way to go about it is. So I started with offering my time directly to a local project in hackney (London) that cooks for and assists people that are homeless or do not have the means to buy/cook food themselves. Some of the best moments were listening to the locals funny stories and, whilst not offering advice that I am not qualified to give, listening to their troubles over a cup of tea and being a sounding board from them to vent to. The interpersonal nature of this volunteering made me feel there is a more valuable impact that we can make working directly with people or an organisation close to people.

This fuelled my decision to quit my job and head out to Uganda to help a friends charity who’s goals are to place Orphans in families and give families the resources and support to prevent family separation in the first place. Social learning theory suggests that our beliefs and behaviours are shaped by what we see, and what we see isn’t necessarily under our direct control nor do we completely understand it. So I want to share some of the pre conceptions I may have had before my experience, some of the biggest learning moments that shifted my mode of thinking and give any potential volunteers the tools to make their best possible, responsible impact…

Doing the right research:

Learning number 1: Do not underestimate the complexity of issues you are un-familiar with.

Most people think to volunteer abroad is easy, but once you look into it there is a lot to think about, and also a lot of options to choose from.

Being an event manager by profession, my role at the Child’s i Foundation was to support their fundraising team by gaining corporate support and creating fundraising events. I was very excited and tried to do as much research as I could. My research however was mainly based on the culture, cultural norms, the city and the country itself. As I was there to support fundraising I also researched some information on local businesses and the corporate sector. I already understood the purpose of the charities goals; why would we want Orphanage’s to be full of children when we could find them loving homes, it seemed pretty simple to me.
What I failed to research was the cultural norms around Orphanage’s, understanding the history of how they began, how they are kept running, why they had become such a normality in society both in country and outside. This would then go on to help me understand that breaking a normality that people are used to, was not going to be easy. Had I researched a little more information on the social issues around orphanages, perhaps I would have stumbled upon more information prior to my visit. But in a world where there is so much information online, including orphanage volunteering glamorised on social media, no wonder these things go under the radar to most of us!

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office has recently amended its official travel advice, to warn about the risks of orphanage tourism and volunteering and to help advise on volunteering abroad, here’s why…

There has been an increase in the demand for volunteering abroad from both sides of the beneficials, the organisations that can abuse this for monetary benefits, and the side of the Voluntourist who seeks a sense of purpose and appraisal for their actions of wanting to volunteer abroad. Some common issues include people applying for jobs they have no experience in; evidently becoming a burden on particular projects, and volunteering with unsustainable projects by not researching well enough.

Wanting to make a difference in the world is a great thing but we know deep down that volunteering is not one sided, whether short term or long term, you are still going to feel good about what you are doing, learn from the experiences and most likely grow as a person. Therefore you are benefiting from this experience, and the first step is to accept this and make sure that we give 100% to making sure that your time given is just as beneficial as your gain; that the projects are sustainable and empowering communities to be able to work without support in the future. Start by researching organisations that need specific skills that you can offer, and ensuring that the choices you make match your values and passions.

 

Taking yourself out as the central narrative:

Learning number 2: Do not think you are going to ‘save the world’

One thing we need to realise, is that volunteering is not about us. We are small segments in a complex network all working towards a similar goal. If saving the world was that easy, it would have already been saved, make sure that this is how you portray your experience to others too.

Common mistakes made by volunteering / voluntourism is the need to shout about what we are doing on social media. Of course we understand the importance of social media, and advertising what we are doing in the hope to raise both awareness and perhaps funding, but this can be done wrong so easily, so here below are some lessons I took from my experience.

When documenting our stories, we are giving a fresh perspective or not contributing to stereotypes and generalising of particular demographics. Our small actions can easily inferiorise other cultures, contribute to the exploitation of vulnerable people & children’s rights.

A small difference of being a volunteer vs a voluntourist can be how you communicate your experience to others. We should be empowering the communities we work with, and not degrading or disrespecting them. Taking pictures of ‘slums’ or peoples homes makes them into tourist spectacles.

I had to ask myself, why was I wanting to take pictures and post, were the intentions based only for myself? Was I looking for a sense of achievement, or to make myself look good? It’s so easy to exploit the stories of others, and rather than honestly engaging in cultures, just wanting to show to others that we are engaging and doing something new. I never really thought much about images mainly negative portrayal of Africa, starving children and war. I really didn’t pay much attention to it, as I always just thought it was used to gain sympathy and help people to raise money. Until I stepped into the community and worked with Child’s i Foundation, they started to open up my mind to a world of issues, the impact of these images on children, and allowed me to research the impact on the communities and all the diverse countries in Africa.
 

One Narrative of Africa & Orphanages in the media:

Learning number 3: Help let the world know why orphanage tourism is bad

I’m sure by you visiting the responsible travel section of Backpacker Bible, you are aware of the negative impacts of volunteering in an orphanage and short term visits damages on children creating or worsening attachment disorders. Yet how many of us have seen a photo on instagram of typically blonde haired western girl holding an African baby or westerners surrounded by young African or Asian children. How could we miss it when there are 216,000 photos hash tagged on Instagram under #orphanage. Would you let a random person come and take photos with your children, little brother/sister, nephew or niece and post them on social media? With absolutely no consent from the parent/guardian how it this acceptable? Children are also not tourist attractions or spectacles.

It is very common to see people over social media sharing pictures of them volunteering in orphanages, worse organisations creating media advertisements such as ‘visit a slum’ ‘visit an orphanage’. These types of organisations should not be visited and do not empower communities and in essence exploit them and encourage tourism and child trafficking. Instead we should be doing our research on the source of family separation, the causes such as poverty, crisis, health and disability issues, and research organisations that support communities to prevent separation and deal with these issues.

So, in summary…

The media is so powerful, its’ estimated that 4.4 billion people use the internet and 3.4 billion active on social media.
In the media we see lots of things that create a perception of a place, and normalities abroad that we would not accept in our place of residency.

Media can create perceptions and assumptions of other cultures ,thus creating one narratives for other countries, cultures or in some cases a depiction of a whole content, i.e Africa.

The narrative for Uganda/Africa from others prior to my visit was the following: – What if you catch Ebola or Aids? You can’t travel Africa it’s too dangerous! They will chop your hand off for that engagement ring! Will you be living in a mud hut? Do they have shops there? What do you mean they have corporate businesses?

I decided I wanted to share my story about Uganda through it’s culture, its beauty and the people I was blessed to meet and be able to work with. I started posting about the nature and its landscapes, the food, the people, touristy trips you can do and the fun places I was introduced to. The hip nightclubs I visited on my weekends off and the beautiful markets and boutique clothes shops. Bit by bit people following my pages were absolutely amazed by Uganda, with comments such as ‘ I didn’t know Uganda looked liked that’, ‘ I never thought I would want to go to Africa but your trip looks beautiful’. Little by little I realised I was helping to show Uganda in a new narrative to my small audience.

Instead of the narrative they once connected my trip with, “Leia is going to work with the poor starving children in Africa’ it turns into “ Leia has had an amazing opportunity to help build a structure for a social care system in Uganda, have you been, it looks beautiful.’

I luckily inspired 5 of my friends and family to come out to East Africa and enjoy its beauty with me towards the end of my volunteering. The only posts I would share about my work would be my team and I working on projects to promote our organisation, the local textiles we bought from the local markets that we dropped off to businesses to promote our project, pictures of us at exhibitions, talking on radio shows and events showcasing what we do. I finally understood how I could share my journey with a good impact.

After realising the common misconceptions of Africa and my trip, I decided to write a blog, www.control-yournarrative.com and also create a video about my volunteering opportunity.

Research your trip before you pick an organisation, Learn the facts about damages around Orphanage tourism around the world, the statistics and help spread the word about how we can volunteer abroad responsibly. Things you should ask yourself are the below:

  • Why do you want to volunteer?
  • Looks good on the cv
  • Want to travel and get free accommodation
  • Want to experience another culture
  • Want to learn and be exposed to new cultures
  • Want to see and understand how less fortunate people live
  • Want to build up your skills.

If any to the above apply to you, then volunteering isn’t something you should look at, at the moment. There are work abroad options available, off the beaten track adventures, internships and projects to do home stays with families within communities.These options along with travelling can give you experience, access to cultures and skills. However you should not volunteer with projects that impact peoples lives unless you have a skill that can contribute, and does not take away a job of a local person in that community.