The idea of going to some far away land to help the poorer has always fascinated people. Who hasn’t dreamed of filling their backpack with essentials and leaving for a remote village in central Africa? A few fearless ones actually end up doing it, to then come back with their suitcases filled with colourful and moving stories and an overdose of awareness to have indeed made the difference. But is it really so? Why do we leave? What are the deepest reasons pushing us to fill that backpack? And most importantly, what does volunteering really mean?
Volunteerism: the principle of donating time and energy for the benefit of other people in the community as a social responsibility rather than for any financial reward (Collins Dictionary)
I have always wanted to be a volunteer, so last summer I left the comfort of my own home for what I thought would be a life-changing experience. Two months in Tanzania as an English teacher showed me that nothing is what it looks like, overturning every single idea I had about volunteering and causing a bit of an inner chaos. Once back in my bed, I had to take stock of it and I realized that the experience was split into three distinct phases: pre-departure, experience and the aftermath.
The pre-departure part is the easiest one. By the time you book your ticket you are filled up with this great determination that precedes a good deed: you know you are going to make the world a better place. However, most people still do it for themselves. How come? Boarding a plane leaving everything we know behind for an adventure in another world, another life, also means getting a break. It means to go looking inside us for something we lost, forgot or destroyed. So at the end of the day, we are first and foremost moved by a deep-rooted egotism.
As far as the experience is concerned, I was told not to bring my hopes up. That it wouldn’t be like I imagined it. That I would be disappointed. I, of course, turned a deaf ear. They did not know, they did not understand: my Africa was going to be different. But of course, I was wrong. Oh boy, I was wrong. Even though I had no precise expectations, I thought I could be useful. I thought I could really make a difference in those children’s lives. The truth is, doctors aside, volunteers are not very useful. If it were so then they would hire someone to do that job. Thus, if they aren’t very useful, then what are they doing? What was I doing? Observing. I was there to look, listen, watch, play. I was there to learn.
Two months are long, perhaps too long. What I did not fully grasp before was how different that world would be. I wasn’t ready. Not even for the little inconveniences in everyday life. Water is scarce and must always be boiled before it can be drunk. Electricity is often gone for days. Food is always the same: corn, tapioca, sweet potatoes, beans, rice. Most of them come with little stones and blades of straw and must thus be handpicked for hours. All these things are way beyond our western imagination. Finally, I also had a close encounter with the ultimate vulture of Africa: malaria. Therefore, the homecoming arrived as a half-blessing and I was happy to go back to my “normal” life.
Once back in my old habits, I began the process of reanalysing my experience, trying to understand. I must admit that this was the hardest part. It will probably take me a long time to gain full consciousness of what it truly meant. One thing is clear though: I was no knight in shining armour, but a simple observer. So I asked myself: what I have actually brought to these kids?
The answer to this question is as simple as ever: time. This is what volunteers give: their days, their attention and, ultimately, themselves. In exchange, they receive gifts of inestimable value, such as the possibility to learn and listen to people from a different world, a different life. They receive seeds, many seeds, to bring home and cultivate. The main ingredient is always the same: time. Over time, these seeds will grow and blossom. They will make us better people, capable of making the world a better place. Volunteers don’t change the world during their experiences. They change it once back, thanks to the awareness they gained. Seeds, not fruits, because change needs time.