VOLUNTARY TOURISM: HOW BLINKERED WAS I?!
A starry-eyed single blonde female. That was me when I announced my plans to my family and friends that I was heading to Uganda: A decision based on an appealing brochure seducing me into travelling as a paying volunteer.
My destination would be a managed orphanage where I would be able to “share skills, ideas, values, languages and cultural differences, making a meaningful contribution to children's lives”.
The brochure stated that my payment to them would cover registration fees, collection from the airport (which is another story in itself), and my basic living expenses. I was going to make a significant difference. I was going to share my painting, sewing and gardening skills with the children; I was going to give them the love they were missing from their absent parents; I was going to share travel stories that would open their eyes to possibilities beyond their limits.
My romantic expectations were instantly thrown into disarray on arrival to the orphanage. I was greeted by a large pile of toxic smoldering plastic rubbish and food scraps; and this tip was sitting right in front of the rundown rows of the children's dormitories. These dormitories were more accurately leaning shacks with ruptured roofs. My first request was for plastic sheeting and tacks, but they had none. I was certain the rain would seep through the punctured tin onto the children's beds in the next downpour.
The first night I couldn't sleep. Not because of the rats scuttling across the floor, but due to the eerie chanting of a witch doctor. Later I learned he was casting away evil spirits that volunteers like me had brought along.
Being awake, I felt the need for a twilight visit to the bathroom. However, with a roaming witch doctor and several howling wild dogs scavenging around the rubbish pile, I decided to just hold tight and hoped not to wet myself.
When morning broke, and after the vital dash to the loo, the day started with visiting the children in their bunk room. We chatted about their lessons at the school hall; we shared ideas of activities we could create together - all with the ambition to turn this forlorn place into an adventure playground.
During my exchanges with the children, some of the young girls told me their English names: Karen, Mary, Madison and Rebecca. They felt that their African names were far too difficult for me to pronounce. Because speaking another person’s language is a great way to start a friendship, I gave it a go with the African names. First go I failed miserably, but I provided the children with much hilarity, and finally ended up complying with their recommendations.
My motherly instinct honed into Karen. She frequently looked sad; her eyes had a distant and detached gaze. I couldn’t help favouring her (holding her hand on walks, giving her extra hugs when nobody was looking, greeting her when she awoke in the morning). By making her feel special and encouraging her to confide in me, I was hoping to assure her she had a friend in me.
Rebecca got excited when I showed her photographs of my two children. She loved seeing what they were wearing. Just like regular buddies, we talked about shopping and fashion and how she would love to get married and have a family of her own that she can love and provide for. "Like me," she said.
For the whole two weeks of my voluntary service, Karen and Rebecca became my little shadows: a trip to the bathroom had their tiny footsteps pattering behind me; an art class had the three of us painting our hands and stamping the colourful impressions next to each other on a wooden paling - it was fun. When I was preparing for the next leg of my journey, they both sat on my lap and queried the safari brochure in my hand.
Without thinking, I told them how I was looking forward to going to see the lions. Bright eyed they questioned if they were coming along too.
It was then that I realized this whole 'friendship' thing had an expiry date. The expressions of joy we had cultivated together suddenly reverted to the look of apprehension, confusion and doubt they had displayed on my first day.
No wonder some of the older children chose not to interact with volunteers at all. They had already seen hundreds of volunteers come and go throughout their abandoned lifetime.
The 14 days blurred into each other, and on a cloudy Sunday morning I was collected for my trip back to Entebbe airport. The departure was distressing and tearful not just for me but for the kids I had spent most of my time with, particularly Karen and Rebecca, both of whom didn’t come out to say “goodbye”.
The other children’s last-minute pleading for personal sponsorship and a ticket out, was challenging and confronting. I wanted to help them all. But how could I? I was single and didn’t know how to manage such a huge responsibility without stability and resources.
But there is a bigger question beyond the 'I': how on earth will my two weeks make up for over two hundred years of stealing, pillaging and raping these beautiful people of this bountiful land? While perhaps sincere in trying to compensate for the sins of the past, Voluntary Tourism only perpetuates the sorry history of “white man’s burden”. Yes, we volunteers are genuine in our effort to make a difference, but what’s required is something significantly different. Something much bigger than a regular two-week turnover of well-meaning volunteers. Something only an Oxfam or a World Vision attitude of vocation can do by empowering these children and making everlasting changes.