Volunteering in Africa: Part One

by Millie Montiel

‘A-TEACHER, A-TEACHER, A-TEACHER!’ is all that can be heard in Vision Trust Nursery School as the gates are opened to allow in three volunteers. The kids crowd them and pull them in. They will emerge new people, wiser people- they will have seen real poverty, they will have changed

For a month this summer I was volunteering in Moshi, Kilimanjaro region, in Tanzania, with the organisation Art in Tanzania. In the mornings I was a teaching assistant at Chem Chem nursery school, helping to teach and calm down a group of incredibly loud 2-6 year olds. In the afternoons I taught English to adults (and anyone who felt like it) at Kilimanjaro Women’s Development Centre. A familiar story, then: a young, white, middle class girl heading to Africa to help the impoverished- saving the world and changing lives. The truth is that’s exactly why I saved up my pennies and went, as soon as my first year at university was over. I wanted to see for myself whether the trend amongst (mainly) young people for, what has become known as, “voluntourism” was actually helpful in any way, or whether it was a patronising extension of colonial rule and Empire. Westerners heading over to Africa to impose their culture, their language and religion, on the less “developed” world, in the belief that their way, our way, the “Western” way, is superior to all others. I wanted to investigate this trend by immersing myself within it and, whilst it was rewarding, my opinion ultimately went unchanged.

One problem is that English is the language of power, as Venceslaus (who worked for Art in Tanzania) told me. Tanzania is an ex-colony and thus English is spoken by those in positions of power in the country. English holds a prestige: in order to gain a “respectable” job in Tanzania you must speak English, and so there is always space for English-speaking volunteers. The students who came to my afternoon project came voluntarily. When I asked them what they wanted to do in the future the answers were, invariably, a doctor/vet/banker/lawyer, and this was the reason they wanted to learn English. Neema coordinated this project, a very bubbly woman, constantly laughing at herself, and everyone else. I asked her why she had set up the project and she explained that she wanted to give people a chance to move away from poverty and develop links with the wider world, knowledge of English was what she felt could achieve this. Initially, I thought it was sad that English had such a strong presence in Tanzania, I felt it was because Tanzania had once been ruled by the powerful British Empire and so displayed continued British dominance over parts of Africa, but, speaking to the Danish, Finish, Swedish, Dutch (etc., etc.) people that I have met on my travels, I realised that English is the link to the wider world for most places, not just “weaker” countries where the British can still impose a large influence.

But why is it that people feel the need to travel thousands of miles to Africa to teach English, whilst it is taught in so many other countries?

Because Africa is poor and people want to feel good. What’s the point in teaching English in a developed country, such as Sweden? People want to go home to their nice houses, with their nice gardens and show everyone pictures of them surrounded by poor little African children who are just so helpless and thank God they went there because now these children will certainly live a better life and the world will certainly be a better place and people just don’t understand what it’s like out there and isn’t it just horrible, but how nice to be home and have a hot shower. That’s where volunteers become voluntourists. It is fashionable to go to Africa, it has become an accessory like anything else, one that shouts to everybody what a great person you are and how selfless you are. But, truly, it is selfish. People do it to make themselves feel good, to have an adventure. The project I did in the morning, helping out in Chem Chem nursery school, could have been done by a Tanzanian person- a job could be provided there. The money I spent on going to Tanzania would have been much more effective funding teacher training for Happy, the teacher at Chem Chem, to understand how to discipline the children, structure lessons and to ensure her skills were at the correct level to teach, it could have gone to hiring another teacher so the children could be divided into more appropriate age groups.

So many times when I was in Moshi I felt totally useless, I asked myself countless times whether what I was doing there was helping anybody. Even in my afternoon project, where I knew (having studied second language acquisition at university a few months back) that interaction with a native speaker would benefit people trying to learn another language, I was also aware that that’s not why the majority of volunteers were there. Why do people believe that, by doing what locals are perfectly capable of, that they alone can stop poverty? I think it’s because people in the West have an ingrained belief that we are better than everyone else, that our way is the best way because it means we all get big TVs and fancy phones, which means we are the “civilized” ones, and because Africa is so different from our own culture it must be wrong. We must help because the native people cannot cope. We have a superiority-complex, believing no one could possibly cope without us, so imposing ourselves everywhere in the world that we possibly can.

Working with local teachers, Happy in the morning and Neema in the afternoon, I found they were very welcoming and always happy (no pun intended) to see me. However, it soon became apparent that, in reality, they wanted volunteers because they are a chance for income. Several volunteers will sponsor children to go to school, or pay for the rent of a classroom, or for equipment for the schools, and so volunteers have begun to be seen as a way to gain funding. Several hints were dropped by Happy to me about paying to give the children porridge every day, or sponsoring children, and even once about replacing her phone, which she had dropped down the toilet. It was futile to try and explain that, as a university student, I actually didn’t have that sort of secure and regular income to guarantee that I could continue to sponsor the children throughout their education, or continue to provide food for them, and that I didn’t have much money to spare, having spent nearly all of it travelling there. It is hard to understand that wealth is all relative. Sure, I was rich in Tanzania, but I certainly am not in England. After grasping that my time and knowledge weren’t actually what was wanted from me, I found it very hard to feel like what I was doing was supportive or appreciated in any way-I struggled with that the entire time I was in Moshi.

I can see why the teachers wanted us to give them money, we’re they’re only hope. They are poor, this fact is unavoidable. At Chem Chem there were countless holes in the roof, the blackboard was shoddy, the equipment poor or non-existent. Once it rained heavily in the morning and only about seven children made it in, the ones who lived closest. I was late myself, struggling on the muddy roads, and found the children and Happy huddled in a corner to avoid the rain, which was streaming in through the roof. The government certainly isn’t about to do anything about this. So, of course, in us is seen an opportunity to improve the schools, and their own lives. But giving out money like that won’t help, as I have realised travelling 10 hours on a plane to teach won’t help. The problem of poverty in Africa is simply too big for a few people to change. Donate money to one school and it will help a bit, for a bit, but you can’t do that for every school and every person. Tanzania needs a solid infrastructure to be able to support its people on a far larger scale than any volunteer can provide.

Moreover, how beneficial is it for young children to have strangers appear every so often in their classroom, bringing them presents and developing relationships with them, just to disappear again? After two weeks in Moshi I was asked by Art in Tanzania if I would like to volunteer elsewhere, with street kids, to get a change of scene. I stayed at Chem Chem and the Women’s Institute because I felt it would be the best thing I could do for the students, to provide some consistency, even if only for a month. Also, I felt that I knew what level of learning my students were at and introducing anyone new may disrupt their progress. People do that though- they swap and change projects, deciding which one is more fun or more interesting with no regard at all for the people who had just got to know them. This isn’t meant to be about the fun you are having, it’s meant to be about the people in Tanzania that you said you would help.

Some volunteers seem to think the projects and support centres are purely set up for their own amusement, so they can have a little look at how poor people live and act, take a few pictures and then move on. Poverty has become a form of entertainment- people forget that being in Africa is not the same as watching a documentary on TV: you are committed, you are there to work and the people are real, no longer the image you see on WaterAid adverts, but actual, tangible people, like you and me- you can’t just change the channel. No matter how disillusioned I became with the idea of volunteering in Africa, no matter how tired I was after walking two hours and running around after children all morning, I always turned up, because I said I would- I made a promise and it was my job, it was something to be taken seriously. It was clear to me a few of the volunteers hadn’t come to help anyone, skipping afternoon projects pretty much just because they couldn’t be bothered. I think they just came to say they had done it. It’s the image they’re after, not any of the actual work.

I don’t know much about economics, in fact I don’t know anything, but I know that the system in Tanzania needs to change, and I am certain that a twenty-year old girl from England, volunteering for a few hours, five days a week for just a month is not going to alter the corruption and poverty that I saw. Voluntourism is just a superficial and temporary cure, not prevention- it doesn’t extend to the foundations or the fundamental issues in Tanzania, or in Africa. There are fundamental issues with how we, in the Western “developed” world view ourselves, and that image has become this ideal that distorts the realities of other places and cultures. We have done that, we have tried to make everyone like us but that cannot happen everywhere. We need to learn that we are not better than anyone else and we need to stop trying to force ourselves upon the world. We need to understand that people who live differently are not spectacles to ogle at. I had a great time in Moshi, I met some lovely people and I love travelling and being somewhere new, but I certainly learnt and gained more from my experience than what I feel I taught or gave to anyone else.

This is the first in Millie’s three-part series regarding voluntourism in Africa. There is a shorter summary piece about her experience available in Issue 12 of Ellipsis. 

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