Confessions of a Voluntourist

Although I’m now preparing to leave for the states, I feel like I have still so much to learn about UDHA and even more so, Uganda. While seeing all the different outreaches and events that UDHA has put on in the past 6 weeks, I know that my personal contributions have been minimum. Although I came with the (unrealistic) hope and determination that I would be able to make worthwhile contributions, the limitations of my short-term stay and my status as an outsider showed reality for what it was. Still, it has been a learning experience for me and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

Had my stay here been longer, maybe my attitude regarding my stay here would ring less like contempt for being just another voluntourist. What I’ve learned is that it takes time — most importantly, time to build relationships, learn the culture, learn the place, learn the people. As it is with friends, the longest-lasting, most sustainable relationships, take time… A lot of time. So as much as we learn to scorn the industry that is voluntourism and short-term “volunteer abroad” trips, I can’t cancel out the possibility that my time here is just that. Still, the ability to think critically and reflect on this aspect of voluntourism, I think, is hugely important.

Contrasting what many international aid workers might believe, the best development work is really that done by the locals… And this is exactly what I’ve seen during my time with UDHA, especially as an organization hoping to create social change at a grassroots level. While the staff are the ones designing the projects, collecting the data, supporting the programs, we interns are the ones observing and admiring, but of course, learning. We are limited in our ability to contribute due to the limitations of our time here and our outsider status — we are unfamiliar with the way things work around here, the language, the environment in general. This is why programs must be tailored to be culturally appropriate and must be spearheaded by the locals themselves. Although the attitude is that we are educated, and that our country shows progress that developing nations lack, what we think is the right thing to do — i.e. going to such nations to build their homes and hospitals, teach their children, and treat their sick — is not sustainable nor does it become worthwhile for the nation as a whole, without partnerships with the local people. While frustrating, such complexities make up the beauty of a global world. The fact that it is easy for Westerners to overlook this simple fact is one that also misguides many of the West’s third-world interventions — it is so easy to allow our egos to lead us astray from the goal of true global development. For example, for programs like PEPFAR to give grants on their own terms (guided by beliefs based on religion and culture and not on data and research), in-fact has the potential to guide progress one step back.

During high school, I went on a 2 week “volunteer abroad” trip to Ghana, where I stayed with a group of other high school students, each of whom had the privilege and the means to afford a $2000 flight to a place we were to stay in for only 14 days. We volunteered in an orphanage, with the children who saw volunteers like us come and go constantly, exploiting (unintentionally) these kids for photos and memories of a trip without real meaning. There are even horror stories on orphanages around the world exploiting children to acquire donations and money (see one story here). Of course, returning from this trip was at once unsatisfying, but I had no words to make out of it. It wasn’t until joining GPP that I felt comfortable reflecting on the nature of such a trip. 

…So what is it about our privilege that puts us in this uncomfortable grouping as “voluntourists”? How can we accept our privilege against their poverty? Our ignorance and arrogance against their hard work and modesty? While our intentions may be good, our results may be harmful and driven by arrogant behavior. That many voluntourists might not be recognizant of this is concerning.

Still, I have no regrets. I loved my time here, even if so short a stay. I dream of the day that I will be able to return, hopefully the next time for a year or longer — I’m currently looking into programs and fellowships that would allow me to do so. I am so grateful to the UDHA team for taking me in, and for taking the time to show me their work. I am so inspired by their passion and determination, and I have really come to feel loved and apart of the UDHA family despite my status as an outsider… I am infinitely grateful to Clare and my homestay family for providing for me and looking out for me like I was truly a member of their family. I am also so grateful to the GPP minor and the Blum Center for supporting my experience here, and most importantly, for giving us students the means, context, and safe space to think critically about our “practice experiences,” and opportunities to learn about international development and aid and the complexities of it all. Joining GPP was one of the best decisions of my life, and I am thrilled to see where this experience directs me in the future. I will always be thinking about the people I met here and the experiences I’ve gained, and I will really, truly, sincerely miss everything (okay, maybe not the encounters with creepy men and food poisoning) about Uganda. I know I’m leaving you just as I’m starting to fall in love with you, but Uganda, I promise I will be back.

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Sumaiyah is such a sweetheart. I love that she always showed me where to go to satisfy my mango, avocado, and jackfruit cravings. I am going to miss this girl.

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The homestay parents! They’re dressed in traditional wear to go to an opening ceremony (where the families of an engaged couple meet each other for the first time)

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So grateful to clare for showing me around and for taking care of me in her home!

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With most of the UDHA staff…. Josh and Kevin being silly

Lastly, thank you all for reading and for following me in this adventure. I hope I’ve been able to shed some light and jumbled thoughts on my time here, although it will certainly require a lot more reflection and time on my part for this experience to truly settle. While I am not ready for my summer here to end, I am certainly ready to move forward in my future and to continue to develop my skills to achieve my ambitions. Senior year, I’m comin’ for ya! 🙂

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