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What’s the point?

22 May

Why be a volunteer? Wikipedia defines volunteering as ‘the practice of people working on behalf of others or a particular cause without payment for their time and services.’

And of course volunteering is not just something that ‘has to be done’ in the third world. In rich countries a whole lot of work gets done by volunteers. Think about those people that work for food banks, the local fire-squad, those green people who raise awareness for global warming or just that group of neighbors that cleans up the local park. It seems that whenever there arises a problem that cannot (or more simply: is not) solved by the government or businesses (the market), there always is some group of volunteers that steps up to address the problem.

There are however a lot of rich-country-NGOs that try to address a problem in a poor country. Why? I guess it is for the same reasons: nobody else is doing it or that somebody who is doing it is doing it wrong(!). And of course there is some feeling of injustice and ability: we can and should set things right…

After returning from Guatemala I continued my studies and took a couple of anthropology courses. I found out that much of the academic work on development has a rather negative tone: after fifty years of development the poor are still poor. All the volunteering, all the aid-money, all those well-intended policies,… they failed.

Did I fail?

My project was to teach Guatemalan kids English. The rationale was that the chances on a job are higher if you speak English. The government doesn’t do it (properly) so that’s why my NGO was established. Next to English we we’re told to teach the kids norms and values: such as do not pollute the environment (pick up your candy wrap!), respect each other (no teasing) or be fair (everybody gets one sheet of paper) and working hard pays off (do your homework and you get an extra candy). So the kind of values that are considered to be helpful to develop into a successful society.

Maybe some of those kids did manage to get a job at a multinational, in the tourism sector or in one of the aid industry’s NGOs. I helped them right? No failure this time? It is however measuring success on a superficial level. If you think about it, I taught English because the government doesn’t do it and I taught values that are believed to be necessary for a successful society.

One of those values (believed to be one of the core values of a successful society) is equality of opportunity. I taught the kids to be fair. Isn’t there a paradox? If I teach them so they will have a better chance on a job than the kids from the village next door, am I then teaching the right values? Or worse, am I promoting inequality? Would it not have been better to stay at home and raise funds for the Guatemalan government so they can teach all kids English, on a fair basis?

In fact, by doing this work I take away the incentive for the government to take action or for businesses to give (free) English training. If you think about it in that way I have become part of the problem rather than being part of the solution. I think that qualifies as failure (disregarding the good intentions and the few kids I might have helped).

I guess I’m back to my question: what’s the point? I don’t think future volunteers ask this question very often and I can’t help wondering if my NGO thought about this question very long. It is an important question though, don’t get blinded by your noble vision, but face reality every now and then. And yes, I guess there are problems that can’t be solved by an army of volunteers.

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What makes a cultural experience a good one?

21 May

What makes a cultural experience a good one? I think good in this case means something like feeling part of a culture, being immersed in it or in other words: getting over your culture-shock, because you start seeing the culture that ‘shocked’ you as ‘normal’. To put the terminology right: I used culture-shock in this blog kind of as ‘not feeling at home’. A bit of that feeling you have when coming in a strange place and having no clue what is going on and what is considered as normal in that place.

I think managed to overcome my culture-shock in Guatemala, but not so much in Australia. In this blog I want to try to identify some of the factors that help to overcome a culture-shock by comparing these two experiences.

In Guatemala I felt like an outsider until I learned to speak the language and became able to interact with my host family and started to make local friends. From the moment I tried to communicate in Spanish I ate with locals, partied with locals and worked with locals on my project. As for Australia my local interaction is not that intense. I live with a bunch of internationals in the village and contact with Aussies is pretty much limited to some people I know from my classes. So one of the factors to overcome a culture-shock is the intensity (and duration) of contact with the locals. To increase this intensity you should speak the language, but more live with (and like) the locals.

A second factor I thought of is money. You need to be able to do something, travel around, party and meet people. The more locals you speak with, the better you will understand their culture and it’s internal differences. In Australia I happen to be chronically short of money and stay at home a lot to watch a movie and drink a beer from the liquor store. In Guatemala it was a bit like I had cash to burn. It’s relatively cheap for an European, so in three months I had seen every bar in Antigua, traveled around the whole country and talked with many different Guatemalans in many different places.

A third factor definitely is the openness of the foreign culture. Australia is one of those cultures that overuses technology: think about it, how much communication goes via Facebook alone already? Australia is also not a closed culture, people and friendly and willing to help, but it’s not comparable to Guatemala. I think it also helps to do something different than just tourism. It’s more likely that you get an understanding of a local culture by studying together or teaching school kids rather than asking somebody from STA-travel to show you an aboriginal site.

In Guatemala I learned what it was like to be a Guatemalan, in Australia I’m still an international hanging out with other people who don’t have a clue in what sort of country they’re actually living. Not that it really matters, my main reason for being here is to study, but the point to make is that whether you feel at home in a foreign country or not depends partly on the foreign culture and partly on what you do in that country and how much effort you put in to actually understand why you are ‘culture-shocked’

Reasons Why

26 Apr

I kind of realized that I might gave this series of blogs a wrong start. If you are reflecting on a volunteer experience why not start in the beginning: Why did you go in the first place? Some of you already wrote about this, but here is what I think are my reasons:

Before I left to Guatemala I dropped out of university. I hated what I studied, didn’t know what to do and it didn’t took long before I gave up my (boring) job at an event management company to leave Europe to do some voluntary work.

If I’m really honest, I think I went to Guatemala to leave all the problems at home behind for a while. I didn’t go to help people, I went to help myself. It was sort of an attempt to sort my life out, to place myself out of the context of normal life in order to try to find a new direction. It worked: I think I did got a better understanding of the world, a better understanding of myself, and I’m back in university, so a new direction in the end.

Satisfying a selfish need by an unselfish act. Is there anything wrong with mutual benefit? I think there are always more reasons why you do things. If I would not have enjoyed teaching english then I would have quit. The reason why I left Holland was not the same as the reason why I went to my little english school everyday. While being abroad I didn’t thought about my life back home at all, it fell into place only when I returned.

And now I’m back and I wonder what happened to the kids I taught? I look back on it as a fantastic experience, but I can only hope that I really taught this kids something that will help them create a better future.

PS: When writing, I realized that I didn’t only taught the kids english, but I also implicitly taught them something about social hierarchies. Just by being there, I taught them (and learned myself) about an unfair world in which there are young people from far away who have the money to do nothing for a while and come over to teach them. I don’t know if I like that, but yeah they were bound to find out anyways.

The picture below shows one of the kids I taught. They were all very fond of our mobile phones, willing to pictures all the time. Never thought about it that way, but in some way I was an ambassador of the capitalist dream 🙂

Life in Happy Ignorance

7 Apr

In an earlier blog Bec posted this question: Will people ever understand?

It made me think because I did experience something very similar. People don’t seem to get it, but before I got home something happened that made me a little more prepared. Sorry for this ridiculously long blog, I got kind of caught by writing. Enjoy reading 🙂

It’s already two years ago when I worked as a volunteer in Guatemala. While being there I kept in touch with my friends and one of them managed to get a medical internship at Harvard. So I decided to go to Continental Airlines to see if I could change my return flight to Amsterdam and make a stop-over in Boston. I could.

Two days before I left Guatemala I ran into some friends who were talking to a local NGO person. I forgot his name, but he invited us to have a look at the project he was working on in Guatemala City. Earlier I denied an invite to visit a mental hospital, because after people told me about the horrible living conditions. After all you wouldn’t go to help, but more like going to the zoo to have a look at the rare ‘monkeys’. But this guy said it was really important to have westerners visit, because one: it would raise the status of the project and two: we could carry the message out, so I decided to tag along.

The project was bizarre. I lived in Guatemala for almost three months, travelled across the country, had seen poor people, bad living conditions, but nothing like this. The project is called Safe Passage and tries to create a ‘passage’ to a better world for the people who live on Guatemala City’s garbage dump. A place where you as a foreigner shouldn’t go and are actually not allowed to go by government edict. Funny thing is that what is promoted as the least safe place of Guatemala is in reality the safest place to be, since the only white people that go there are there to help and seen as such. What’s the point if robbing if the people you rob are there to give you help (and money) anyways?

These people, mostly Maya’s, live and work on the dump by collecting Coca-Cola-cans or going in to prostitution. The going rates are something like this: $0.10 – $0.50 for a day of can-collecting (government working license not included) and around $0.50 for the sale of your body (condoms not included). Housing is for free, since you live on the dump, but food isn’t, so most people end up eating what comes out of the garbage trucks. The trick is to put lemon on it, the acid kills the most harmful bacteria. These people are stuck in a so-called poverty trap, no skills to get a job, discrimination against an ethnic minority and no money to start any business themselves. Safe Passage is there trying to help them with schooling and setting up jewelry business, but the amount of people living on the dump is increasing rather than decreasing.

A day later I flew out of the country. And there I was, walking around in a goatskin jacket, long hair and a beard. I couldn’t feel less at home between Boston’s skyscrapers. Sipping a beer in some Irish pub while waiting for my friend my eyes got drawn to a television which screened a turkey-bowling competition somewhere in the States, it’s almost Christmas you know? I remember how much it upset me, are people really that ignorant of ‘their others’ a bit more South? What’s that message of Christmas again?

And that was Boston in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis which put thousands of people out of work and on the street. And here I am writing this story, because you know, I might win an I-pad! That I-pad is hell of a lot more relevant to my life than Guatemala City dump’s residents. I probably haven’t thought about them for a year, they got out of sight, but somewhere I know, they are still there. It’s the same with all the people I told this story, they will laugh, it probably is a funny story, but what does it say about us? After feeling pity for a minute or five, listening to your story, everybody continues life in the comfort zone of happy ignorance. You’re five minutes fame are over, welcome back, life goes on. And really, before you know it, you will start caring more about an I-pad than about those people far away who would have to work for 200 years to be able to afford one. Safe Passage made a short movie about the only things these people have: a history, a life and hope: La Pluma.

After my ‘trip’ I spent a couple of sundays putting a photo-book together, somewhere in it are these two pictures. Can you see the difference? No, I mean really? Do you understand?

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