As long as I remember I wanted to go to Africa to help the poor… That’s how I ended up volunteering in Africa, Ghana more specifically in 2001.
I booked my 6 months voluntary work with a big(expensive) Dutch organisation that worked together with a Ghanaian organisation. After dropping me at Banko, I was basically on my own, so the organisation wasn’t as reliable as I thought. And I remember thinking that this voluntary work could be better organised, more transparent, cheaper and more meaning full.
The organisation placed me at a school to teach, but I had no teaching background. And there were enough proper and well-trained teachers at the school. I wasn’t busy at all since it was unnecessary help. The best times as a volunteer were when I wasn’t trying to work; during the breaks when I could just converse with the students, who weren’t that much younger than me, with the kids in my host family, when having dinner with the teachers and my new friends.
How meaningful was my volunteering in Africa?
If I try to sum up how meaningful my whole voluntary adventure was and how much I contributed… The list isn’t long…
I took a couple of very sick kids to the hospital, but I believe that another teacher would have done the same in my absence.
Another volunteer and I raised some sponsor money to renovate the schools where we were working. That was sustainable.
And my husband and I supported 2 children during their school years. That was also a good investment in their future. They both got good jobs and could help other family members to complete school.
Ultimately the volunteering in helped me and not the ‘poor’ people in Africa. I experienced, I learned and I went back to Holland.
White saviour stereotype, common with volunteering in Africa
I’m very grateful that I did my volunteering in Africa during the pre-smart phone era. That is, in 2001 we had to go to Kumasi to even make a phone call, to e-mail or to post a letter. And the journey from Banko to Kumasi in that time was much more challenging than now. There weren’t always cars(taxi’s) to ge out of Banko. So if you didn’t get a car before 10 am it was better to try again the next day.
Nowadays there is an average of 6 cars waiting to take you out of Banko. And even in Banko we have access to 3G internet on our phones.
By haven gotten the chance to volunteer/visit before social media and smart phones I experienced more intense. I had to rely on myself, at least for a couple of months until my fellow volunteer came.
I couldn’t make selfies and share them on social media, I couldn’t ventilate all my opinions straight on Instagram. There was time to process information, to ask questions, to put things into perspective, to understand before sharing with the world. A very good thing, because I also would have emphasized all the stereotypes, would have been judgemental, before knowing the facts. Mmmm I would have been the white saviour stereotype….
At that time voluntourism wasn’t very widespread and popular as a couple of years later. These days there’s a lot of bad publicity on voluntourism. And that bad publicity is often very understandable.
Why we are changing our ways, concerning volunteering in Africa
But the reason for this blog isn’t discussing and criticizing all the different volunteer projects. It’s to clarify the changes that we are making on the voluntary work Moon&Star offers.
When I started Moon&Star guesthouse in I also started hosting volunteers. At this time I was responsible for volunteers who came through Moon&Star. A couple of years ago I started sharing the responsibility with my business partner and co workers. But for now it’s me who has to admit my mistakes.
During the first years I repeated the mistakes of the big organisation that brought me to Banko. Volunteers were bored, felt lost and not needed, worked in fields in which they didn’t have experience. And were having more fun in their free time. And even worse, I didn’t really think about the social impact that I and the volunteers/travellers made.
I was trying to fix things that weren’t broken and encouraged volunteers to do the same. Instead of working with the local governments and the projects, I often did what I thought was best for them. In other words; There are enough people here who are more than qualified to decide what’s best for them. It’s absolutely not necessary to import our ‘Western’ ideas to Ghana.
I am not saying that the projects here don’t need help or sponsors. I am saying that there are enough useful projects with qualified leaders to support.
Volunteering with Moon&Star 2.0
Some years ago my business partner, Asabere, became more involved with the volunteer projects. Asabere is a guidance counselor and teacher by profession and a very good systemic thinker. He is very good at assessing situations and articulating them clearly. And of course he knows his own culture.
Besides our long time collaboration with ‘Crossing borders for Ghana’ we also work with Banko Wesley Methodist preparatory school. I’m learning every day from this collaboration. A Few years ago the Reverend Minister of the Methodist church came to ask for the placement of volunteers in the school. Their aim was to have a unique school for Banko and surroundings and they were hoping that volunteers could contribute.
The beginning was hard. Volunteers were placed and they went to work, but there was no clarity, no rules or goals. As you can imagine the impact was nil.
All parties involved realised that this didn’t work. After some months of observation a very valuable dialogue started. Asabere, the Reverend Minister(who is also a guidance counsellor by profession), the head mistress and some involved citizens have a vision that Moon&Star and our volunteers can support.
Workshops are being organised on a regular basis, Moon&Star facilitates by planning, by providing materials, by inviting guest speakers and by catering. But with respect to content I keep quiet.
We raise funds for things that can help this unique school and her students to succeed. Moon&Star volunteers experience, learn, support and use their skills to support. But they don’t do work that they are not trained for or come and ‘improve’ Banko.
We stopped agreeing with every building project, with every NGO that comes and has plans, we first analyse what the long-term impact will be.
When I first moved to Ghana, a Canadian NGO wanted to realise a computer lab for the Senior High school that ‘Crossing borders for Ghana’ started. There wasn’t even electricity on site.
A few years later volunteers who came through Moon&Star provided the school with electricity.
The lab is literally in the way and has never been used as a computer lab. A waste of time, money and space. But…. There’s an NGO in Canada who can state that they gave computer labs to many schools in poor Africa.
I have read a lot about voluntourism, on the internet, social media and I talked/discussed with lots of people.
Advocates for adversaries against volunteering, the people who work with volunteers at the projects, volunteers, friends, acquaintances etc etc. I also reviewed our projects, my part in it and listened to my inner voice, without excuses.
Behind the scenes lots has changed last couple of years. We only collaborate with 2 projects. ‘Crossing borders for Ghana’, who run a Children’s home and Banko Wesley Methodist preparatory school. And we really collaborate. Because we listen to the local governments, the people at the projects and their leaders. We don’t undermine their authority.
We stopped placing the volunteers at other projects. Mainly because other projects lack continuity and Moon&Star has no expertise on other areas so we wouldn’t be able to guide our volunteers effectively.
There’s a lot of resistance now against Children’s homes and orphanages. Which is logical because of all the wrong doings that have been going on in lots of orphanages.
Times changes and we see that nowadays there are more options and possibilities for children who used to end up in Children’s homes. Those possibilities are not always there… But luckily there are some really good Children’s homes in Ghana.
Social Welfare is very critical and closes many orphanages, both legal and illegal operations. Anja’s Children’s home still gets placement requests from Social Welfare. It has been 5 years since we obliged for the last time.
‘Crossing borders for Ghana’ s focus is making sure that the children all further their education, something that is very valuable but also very expensive.
The plans are in the making to turn the Children’s home into an educational complex. In the long run this center will be self sufficient.
Many adversaries of voluntourism say that all the money spend by volunteers on their journey should be spend on local projects, run by locals who know what they are doing instead of spending it to a lot of divers short-term projects.
Voluntourism should stop, tourists should just travel and spend their money here. The spending should be done at small entrepeneurs.
We partially agree with this, but in our opinion it should be possible to stay at a place for a longer period, to experience, to learn and to be part of the community.
Our vision on volunteering: Sustainable tourism
After our discussions, research and interviews we, team Moon&Star came to the following conclusion. Volunteering in it’s present form with the intention of helping the ‘poor’ people in Africa is definitely out of date.
In our view voluntourism is sustainable tourism that allows the traveller to experience, learn and live in a different culture based on equality, without having a negative impact on the citizens of Banko and the projects we support in particular.
Are you the volunteer/traveller who agrees with this vision? We can offer you the following:
- A unique chance to experience life in Ghana and Banko in particular
- The chance of a lifetime to observe and take part in a whole different way of life, travelling, cooking and so on
- Be a part of Banko’s community
- Make yourself useful by assisting the teachers and workers at the projects
- Share your talents(without fixing what doesn’t need fixing!)
- A chance to see how untrue lots of stereotypes and prejudices are
- Come and see what Ghana really looks like(yes, we have houses, roads, schools, malls, brains……)
- Learn how to cook African food
- Travel and see the rest of beautiful Ghana (We are happy to help with planning and organising)
The sequel to this blog post is now online. Read more on how we are implementing the changes towards sustainable travel and volunteering.