Short Term Volunteers

I have become a bit judgmental and wary of short-term volunteers. Personally, I have participated in a number of short-term volunteer projects, and in hindsight, have always felt a bit unsettled about my experience. For example, why did I fly to Guatemala for a 10-day spring break in which I painted desks and helped dig the foundation for a new school? It sounded great at the time, but the cost of my flight could have been used to pay locals to do the manual labor. On the other hand, I had a wonderful time and learned a lot about Guatemala, Guatemalans, and the trials and celebrations in their lives.

My experiences shaped me and gave me new perspectives I would never have received from reading books and watching the news (the ability to listen, see, touch, taste, and smell in first person is irreplaceable). Choosing to travel for a year and a half presented a huge moral dilemma that took me years to work out. In the end, I realized traveling and volunteering were invaluable (otherwise I guess we could have just written out a big check, given it to a charity, and never left home). However, I have learned to be more critical about the manner in which I travel and volunteer. My main concern is that we, as “outsiders,” should not come into a community and have the audacity to “fix” things the way we see fit.

We planned on staying in Bukoba for a month. So what should we do with our time? When a German volunteer arranged for us to volunteer at a school, we thought, “We are here, why not?”. Matt committed to teaching a computer class for a month and I have been assigned to work with the five and six-year-olds. Once again, we are “outsiders”, and this time, I am really struggling with wanting to “fix” things in the classroom…

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