Volunteerism in Africa: To Go or Not to Go?


From time to time you can find essays identifying serious problems with volunteerism by Americans in developing nations. Last year I wrote a short response to acknowledge the real problem with some trips but countered with several reasons why not all trips are created the same and how some short-term trips can be beneficial.

Now, one year later, I have just returned from leading another Global Trauma Recovery Institute group of mental health professionals on a trip to Rwanda (my 6th trip to this tiny country). And once again, I just finished reading an essay by Heather Ruiz who documents some of the more egregious problems created by short-term trips–unneeded “help”, creating a culture of dependency, and a false perception of a need to develop.

Wrestle with the Problems

As a leader of short-term trips, I highly encourage anyone planning a trip to wrestle with these issues. Do not easily dismiss the reasons your trip might not need to happen. If you are unaware of the complexities of “help” I urge you to read the following books:

Preparing to Go

If you decide your trip is still in the best interests of those you will visit, consider the following preparations as absolutely essential:

  1. Pray. Obviously.
  2. Study the region. Know its history, culture (from multiple vantage points), its successes and struggles. Know who is providing aid/help/ministry in this region. Try to make contact before you go to see if you can learn from them.
  3. Ensure you have been invited. Don’t go if you haven’t had a solid invitation, a “come over and help us” request.
  4. Find a cultural guide. Having a bridge person is essential. Such a person should be well-respected by many and already considered a leader among her people.
  5. Examine goals. What really is your purpose? How will you know you have achieved your goals? For example, just because you want to teach pastors how to preach and you deliver classroom training doesn’t mean you have met your goal. Key Question: Did you ask who
  6. Think about after you leave. What do you expect will happen after you leave? Benefits? Struggles? If one of your goals is “relationship strengthening” then consider how this will continue after you leave. Be realistic. How has your work supported local leadership. How will it make their job easier?
  7. Review training materials. One of the biggest failures I have made is not to have my training materials reviewed prior to departure. Review by multiple eyes can catch obvious cultural disconnects. Don’t lecture. Always use dialogical forms of education. You may not be able to cover as much material but what you deliver will be better and more useful. You will learn what works and does not work.
  8. Stay in locations that benefit the local population. Consider your footprint. How will you ensure you are not a burden to your new friends? Try to stay in locations that provide local jobs and where profits go back into local ministries.
  9. Working with children? Plan ahead what you will give. Likely, you won’t be the first to arrive at their village. We’ve had the experience of children asking for things like watches, bracelets, money, candy, etc. Re-read the essay by Heather Ruiz (above) as to the impact of gifts. They aren’t always helpful. Of course it is nice to please children with a treat. Buy a local treat and share that with them.

Telling Stories When You Return

I confess that I have had many judgmental thoughts when viewing social media pictures of (primarily) white people hugging little African children. Do they not understand how such pictures foster the “great white hope” mentality that is so destructive to Africans and Americans? I have been a bit sheltered from this during my trips to Rwanda as I mostly interact with other counseling and ministry professionals. Also, I tend not to take pictures because I do not like the way taking them makes me feel distant from my friends and even at a zoo when taking pictures of strangers.

And yet, I want to convey my experience to my friends who have prayed for me and who sacrificially supported the trip. Work to share stories (only with permission if identifying information given!) and pictures that show the strength, fortitude and honor of the people you met. Consider, for a moment, what the reverse would be like if they traveled to see you and brought back pictures of you, your family, and the interior of your house to share with their friends. How would that feel?

And if you are going to share pictures of children mobbing you, make sure you first ask yourself about the meaning of the mobbing. Why are these strangers holding your hand, fighting to be next to you, jumping in your lap. Sometimes it is as sweet and innocent as children getting the opportunity to meet

Waiting for Elders to start a village meeting

Waiting for Elders to start a village meeting

someone they consider exotic, sometimes it may be due to a lack of parental love (once a child asked if he could make an application to join my family), or worse, it may be learned behavior and lacking the feelings you might expect (once I watched a group sing a song but there was no music in their eyes, just rote behavior).

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Missional Church

One response to “Volunteerism in Africa: To Go or Not to Go?

  1. Very helpful piece! Would welcome connecting with Phil to exchange insights and experience with trauma work in Africa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s