“The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history, and recreation — in that destination” —Voluntourism
As I signed up for different excursions to partake in on Semester at Sea (F09), I had no idea what voluntourism was, let’s just keep it real. I registered for several volunteer trips at my kitchen table in Jersey, not realizing that I was delving into a whole new world of travel, one that was forging its way as a movement, particularly on study abroad programs. Three of the fated excursions would be for the $100 Solution, Osu Children’s Home, and Habitat for Humanity.
Throughout institutionalized schooling up to this juncture, I had volunteered as often as time had allowed me. Voluntourism is the epitome of both globalization and volunteer work. In no way am I belittling localized, domestic volunteerism, but volunteering overseas is truly an experience of immersion that you’d be hard pressed to understand so viscerally anywhere else.
Feel free to disagree, but in my most humble opinion, success is wealth of both knowledge and experience. They imply a never-ending consistency of yearning for more. To be able to feed your ravenous curiosity as often as possible, is a life lived successfully. Choosing to serve those you can with your knowledge and experience, in order to perpetuate the ultimate complexity (which is often called Source, God, Spirit, etc) is the answer to the same centuries old question; why are we here?
We are here to understand a truth that is different to every single soul on this planet, and yet, a truth that is uncannily the same. We walk, run, jog, and hide on a plethora of paths to get there, yet eventually we all do. It is not with money, fame, social media, or botox that this happens. We reach the apex, always, because of how we chose to utilize our wealth of knowledge and experience. That’s why I (at least) have chosen a life of service.
The fact that I signed up for something that dealt primarily with children surprised most of my close friends and family. Up to that point (19 years old), I was not and had never been about the kiddies. They were too energetic, always wanted something, sometimes farted on you, and I just basically couldn’t deal. Yet, this one afternoon with a bunch of orphaned, beautiful, children –my entire mind frame on kids altered. So much so that I always seem to now be around the little joints!
After roughly thirty minutes of semi traffic through Osu, Ghana, we reached a run down set of brick buildings. Kids came running out toward our bus from all directions; smiling and spilling out with joy. As we were told what we would be doing to help the organization run a little more seamlessly that day, a little girl, no older than three, walked right up to me with her arms held out. I looked around, but everyone else was paying rapt attention to the directions being doled out. I picked her up and she fell right at home in my arms, snuggling into the crook of my neck, drippy-kiddie-boogies and all. We walked around the facility together and saw SASers painting the buildings, assisting in a religious event, running around in the playground, and handing out food at snack time.
The baby’s nose was runny and I wanted to put her down to get a tissue, but the shrieking-terror-wail that erupted from her mouth as I started to bend my knees to place her down would stop a hyena from tearing apart its prey, after the whole exhausting run-pounce-bite thing. It was that bad. I brought her back up to eye level and just looked at her.
A facilitator came up to me, “She was abandoned by her mother one week ago. She won’t let you go. Good luck.”
A small piece of my heart broke off because, of course, I wanted to smuggle my little orphan Annie into the bus and then the ship and then into my house in NJ. But, also because I realized that orphanages weren’t a thing belonging to any singular class of peoples, these places spanned villages to cities, impoverished to the 1%, and everything in between. Yet, after the previous day’s trek to both Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, transcending backwards in time to the start of the Trans Atlantic slave trade and seeing where these Ghanaians were once kept as cattle before the slaughter. It was all hitting me in that momentary stare I had with this little baby.
Mfuleni, South Africa
My group was fifth in that week to attend to a four-room, concrete home that was to be built for a deaf family of four in an extremely dilapidated and AIDs ridden township, hanging on the entrails of Cape Town. Townships are primarily impoverished, socioeconomically abysmal, and AIDS/HIV is rampant. Mostly, Bantu (Black) families live in these dusty, expansive slums and they can be likened to the favelas of Brazil to construction site slums in India.
Let’s face it, mannie labor isn’t my forte, but I’d heard a lot of great things about H4H and I wanted to at least experience it. I’d really been dead set on helping to paint and build, but…
All the city kids were running around the compound trying to see the all the foreigners in their hood. They caused a serious (nay, dangerous) nuisance, but nobody wanted to tell them to kick rocks, probably obvious. As you can imagine, I ended up entertaining the kids for the majority of the time (or the whole time). I kept them away from the site, sometimes they helped me paint single wooden boards, but otherwise we got to know each other through universal hand gestures and laughter. They spoke a dialect of Afrikaans, (which is all about the clicking) that I essentially gave up pretending to discern. As the finishing team for the house, it was absolutely righteous to watch the parents as they walked around their first ever home for their growing family of four, with tears in their eyes.
Ghana & South Africa opened me up to voluntourism and I relish those experiences. Having the chance to volunteer in two countries that are so deeply connected to the greater world population of black people is invaluable knowledge. All of us have a bottomless yearning to belong and relate, I believe, and this sort of travel provides a very individualized experience within a collective mindset. Not every South African I met knew about slavery in the great and gilded America and they were equally shocked to learn that we knew about their tribulations with apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s prison sentence. The potential for that omniscient, heavy yet eerily light, cross-cultural connection is too great to accidentally miss.