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Responsible Tourism: Volunteering – Selfless and Selfish Altruism

This article was first published on Travel Generation

Have you ever felt the need to help others less fortunate than yourself? Some people see helping as a moral duty, some do it to secure good Karma. Regardless of motivations, volunteering is a great way to put a little love back into the world. You can volunteer while travelling and engaging in communities different to your own. However, how far do these volunteer schemes really help the less fortunate and is it the volunteer that reaps the biggest reward?

After finishing university, I paid to do an all-inclusive overseas volunteering project. I took on a teaching role in a Convent/Orphanage in Kandy, Sri Lanka. In fact, I got to be a teacher, counsellor, paramedic and social worker all without the appropriate qualifications. A short TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course was my ticket to an ill-qualified adventure of a life time.

Before I knew it, I was experiencing my first taste of Sri Lanka – crowded, polluted and noisy. Left, right and centre, there were people that wanted to talk to you or want something from you. I wanted to hide, to have a few moments of privacy to rewind and calm down from my culture shock.

When we arrived at the Orphanage, which would be my home for the next month, we were greeted by a sea of very excited children, mainly girls, between three and sixteen years of age. “Aunty, Aunty!”  were the words that thundered towards us as children tried to scramble over each other to reach us.  The children held on to our legs, all wanting a safe human willing to embrace them.

Our sleeping quarters consisted of a wooden bed with a thin mattress and less than sanitary bathroom.  Creature comforts didn’t exist – in retrospect, how presumptuous of me to even expect them. After overcoming my momentary disbelief, we refused to let our spirits be dampened. With an English “stiff upper lip”, we marched on deluding ourselves with humour.

The children were intelligent and obedient. Prior to my arrival I had created a few lesson plans. I was quickly put in my place though when one of the girls in an English grammar class requested to be taught “plu-perfect tenses”. Ah ha…anyone for another round of “head shoulders, knees and toes”?  Not only were these children intelligent, they were funny. It took me a while to realise a “yes” was a pendulum like movement of the head which kind of looked like a “yes-no..or maybe”.

These children were not impoverished in their minds. They were bright children that made the most of any situation.  However, could we really teach them anything useful? Would it really make a difference to the lives of the girls? Would they ever be presented with opportunities to use what we taught them?

For a while it seemed it was me doing all the learning. There was so much to take in and adjust to – the living conditions, food, people, climate, teaching and developing relationships with the orphans and nuns. This arduous adjustment period came with the territory. However, there were deeper issues and darker forces at play within the convent and orphanage. These would provide me with my biggest lessons.

I often rebuked myself for judging Sri Lankan culture by my own Western standards. Nevertheless, I had a very real urge to judge because, I think, some things are just universally inhumane.

There were many disturbing situations that we witnessed. Children were beaten for helping us with things like washing paint off our hands? Where was the love the nun’s preached about when they locked a couple of girls away in a room for two days for buying sweets with a few rupees they found? I couldn’t look at their “anti- abuse” posters everywhere in the classrooms without disdain.  As the children started to trust us, they began to confide in us with horrific stories of the conditions there. It’s important to mention that not all of the nuns and support staff were involved in foul play.

Feeding time for us was watery noodle soup with bread and the occasional piece of fruit, while the nuns were next door eating curry followed by alcoholic chocolates. The children ate gruel. I was confused. Were we being purposely malnourished to get the “real” experience since we had paid for food and board? Were these nuns there because they honestly believed in the caring and development of the children, or were they really there because the convent was a means to escape poverty on the streets?

The day we left the orphanage we never looked back. We left the children in their world, and we went back to our safe world.  I can’t forget the tears from the girls as they clung to us asking us not to leave. At the end of the project we met with our project coordinators in Colombo and expressed our concerns. On leaving, we were told that an external counselling service would be set up to help the children.

Being young and wide-eyed about the world, I expected my altruism to move mountains.  I expected this would be an easy adventure, a good story to recount. Was I helping them, or were they helping me? They got to see life “on the outside”, a glimpse of a world of equal opportunity and fulfilled dreams. What good does this insight bring to the children? So many questions remain with me.

One philosopher and social critic, Ivan Illich, disputes the effectiveness of volunteering programs. He has described vacationing “do-gooders” as salesmen for the middle class “American Way of Life”, “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. It’s an interesting spin on how most people would view altruism.

From my experience, volunteering was mutually beneficial. Who knows what came of the counselling – if anything at all. The nuns may have seen us as silly rich kids from the West  wanting an experience- we certainly were ill qualified and unprepared to deal with what we experienced. But I do hope we served to empower the children and to show them that the violence they experienced was not right.

We didn’t tackle the causes of poverty or injustice, we just tried to improve the quality of life for the children until the next wide-eyed volunteer arrived.

Would I volunteer again? Probably, but with realistic expectations. It’s a superb way to experience a country.

Ivan Illich quote:


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