A Voluntourist’s Reflection on Voluntourism

At the time of writing this article, it is 8 months to the day since I started my trip to South Africa.

At the time of writing this article, it is 8 months to the day since I started my trip to South Africa. During my five week “voluntourism” stay, I travelled to five different countries, kissed elephants, taught school children, jumped off cliffs and broke my finger.

International Student Volunteers (ISV), the non-profit organisation that I travelled with, promotesresponsible travel and volunteering. The first two weeks of the trip started with a conservation project where I, along with 20 other volunteers, spent our days in Masebe Nature Reserve, working alongside the host organisation – WEI, Wildlife and Ecological Investments.

On a typical day we woke at 6am, with the next hours spent identifying bird calls, before conducting habitat assessments to see what species could potentially be re-introduced. After a quick lunch we spent most afternoons in the park, either collecting grasses, managing plant overgrowth, or searching for the elusive family of giraffes left in the park.

Our evenings consisted of data entry, cooking dinner for the volunteers and staff on site and lectures educating us about the ecology of the local area, sustainable travel and responsible tourism. There was no internet, no TV, no central heating and no flushing toilets. After the lectures were finished, we were left to our own devices -normally sitting around a campfire, swapping stories and praying that the shower would work tomorrow.

As 10pm hit, it was off to bed. In the local community, we learned about their history and were taught some of the language. At the school we helped in lessons for both children and adults about the environment, and also held a discussion with the adults about whether or not they wanted to get involved in recycling.

The next two weeks went by in a blur – we travelled, learning and exploring as we went. In Swaziland, we had the opportunity to visit and donate food to a local orphanage. The morning of the trip we had the opportunity to visit the market ourselves, and use some of our personal money to buy more food in addition to the donation by ISV.

The food was locally sourced, which had the added benefit of boosting the income of local farmers as well helping feed the children. The last week was optional, and was a travel trip to Zambia and Botswana, where we stayed in a local hostel and went on trips we organised amongst ourselves.

Ossob Mohamud recently wrote an article for the Guardian Africa network, entitled “Beware the ‘voluntourists’ doing good.” It has sparked several debates and as a ‘voluntourist’ myself I found myself with mixed feelings on reading it.

Of course, it seems a way for Westerners to “assuage guilt” by travelling to these places and “using them as a playground,” and I fully accept that this may be what some organisations are building themselves up on—making money off students with no real care for the community.

However, this was not my experience. I chose to travel, wanting to volunteer and see a part of the world I had never seen. Choosing to volunteer with ISV was a personal preference – yes there are cheaper options, but of all the organisations I looked at ISV seemed the most dedicated to its cause.

Additionally, we received several talks and lectures about being responsible in our travels – both on this trip and in any others we subsequently made. Had I not travelled with ISV, I would never have thought to check beforehand the environmental status of hotels/companies I was staying with, nor would I have considered the implications of being a guest in local communities – I just wouldn’t have thought.

I think what is most damaging about articles so alarmingly titled is not that people might read and agree – it’s that people might not read them, form an opinion based on a title and then be put off travelling and volunteering with organisations in the future.

Cliché time – my ‘voluntourism’ adventure was the best decision I have made regarding my adult life. I could write and write for hours about it – how it made me reconsider the way I live my life and forced me to be honest about my responsibilities to both environmental issues and the poverty that a vast majority of the population so unfairly face.

It started me on a path of planning humanitarian ventures – something I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t think would be starting in this stage of my life.

Would the money I spent have been better spent elsewhere? Maybe—but discouraging students from volunteering abroad will only hurt in the long term. By researching the organisations travelled with, students can ensure that their volunteering experience abroad is not just life-changing, but also responsible.

What do you think? Have you been a voluntourist? Have your say in the comments section below.