5 Things I Learned While Volunteering Abroad
For the past 2.5 years, I have been travelling to a number of countries as a volunteer. After coming to Morocco for the first time in 2017, then travelling to Uganda in 2018, I started reminiscing the trips I had done in the past. I wondered, what is it exactly that I gained from these? What have I taken back home with me from each country? What are the things that I learned while volunteering?
- I realised that I cannot help everyone
When you are surrounded by poverty, you can feel powerless. Imagine being in a Ugandan slum seeing children sniff gasoline out of plastic bottles to get their high. Imagine teaching women English and French, but knowing you cannot stay longer than a month because you have responsibilities back home, even though you would want to stay for years. Imagine having to keep politely saying no to those who ask for a bit of money, because if you said yes to all, you would have none left. As harsh as these sound, this is the reality of volunteering. You cannot help everyone, and it’ll break your heart when you notice it.
- Being adaptable is a great skill to develop
If you embark on volunteering trips, the likelihood is that you will not have the same comfort as you would back home. Developing your adaptability skills is very valuable; you do not want to end up hating the trip because you expected hot showers and 5-star accommodation while staying in rural Kenya.
- The people you meet, although you may only spend a few weeks together, are important to keep in touch with.
You may see the trip as a short term one, where the people you meet are only your friends during these weeks. However, the likelihood is that you will meet people that come from all around the world, thus it’s an amazing opportunity for you to expand your friends (and contact!) circle. Who knows, maybe you’ll be in Switzerland someday and will get to have coffee again with an old friend you met in Thailand?
A night out with friends in Athens (November 2018)
- A lot of the problems we have in the West are really, really trivial
In 2017, I was going through this hardcore ‘plant-based eating, 5-AM morning routine, lemon water’ drinking phase. I was very dedicated to it (and don’t get me wrong, I felt great) and made it one of the most important aspects of my life. Then, I went to Morocco and spent time with kids that only could eat cakes and cookies for lunch because their parents couldn’t afford anything else. Then, I saw a horse eating out of a mountain of trash, and cats fighting over the remains of fish near the river in Rabat. I saw begging and smoking children, and malnourished people on the streets (Morocco really is amazing and this is only depicting the worse to get my point across!). I realised on this trip that the concept of a “5 AM Morning Routine”, and veganism, and whatever else, are very Western ideas, and a privilege. The fact that we have access to green juices, spirulina powders, protein bread and BCAAs, is often taken for granted. For most people in the world, the food on the table is whatever was available that day, or whatever was collected. If they wake up at 5 AM, it’s not to do yoga and to feel ‘more productive’, but it’s because they have to go to work at 6 AM to sustain their families. This realization really changed my outlook on life. Don’t get me wrong, of course, the way we live depends on where we live, however, I find it important to be conscious of this.
- Sustainable change takes time.
Depending on what you decide to do and where you decide to go, the amount of time you volunteer will differ. For example, for workcamps offered by organisations such as SCI Deutschland, which are on specific dates and usually short-term, the activities organised and the need is specific to this time. However, if you decide to teach children, or work in an orphanage, for your work to be part of a sustainable change or at least a step towards this, you may need to consider coming for a longer time. Teaching women for two weeks is not enough, as it takes you 2 weeks to learn their names and to create a class-structure alone – believe me, I speak from experience. Organisations such as IVHQ are great for first-timers, however, consider coming for at least a month, preferably two to three, to be able to really dedicate yourself to your work, and to be able to improve the living situation of those you are helping.
That being said, volunteering is amazing. You get to meet people coming from around the world and grow immensely as a person.
Stay tuned for an upcoming beginner’s guide to volunteering that you can use to start planning your own trips!