Confessions of a Voluntourist

Huaracayo, Peru | Photo: Marina Favaro

Marina is a third-year International Relations student who participated in the final year of the Canada World Youth “Youth Leaders in Action” program between St. John's, Newfoundland and Huaracayo, Peru.

As a recently-declared International Relations major, taking a year off to participate in the Canada World Youth "Youth Leaders in Action" program seemed like an ideal way to enrich my formal education with experiential learning. The now defunct six-month program split volunteer time equally between a Canadian and an international community, structured in such a way that Canadian and international youth live and work together in each other's' respective countries. I chose the partnership between St. John's, Newfoundland and Saltpond, Ghana, justifying my decision with various qualifiers that deflected my guilt for consciously participating in what is, in part, a voluntourist project in Africa, the epicentre of volountourism. The truth, as I came to realize it, was that I wanted the typical voluntourist experience. I wanted a program that would reaffirm the hubristic Western biases that I had as someone who was educated in International Relations, but had never experienced its realities. I fell into the reductive seduction of other people's problems and sought simplistic solutions to complex problems. Ultimately, I didn't get the experience that I sought. I never made it to Ghana, nor did I have the opportunity to change my profile picture to myself surrounded by dark, cherub faces with swollen bellies and I feel relieved, not cheated, by this. Instead, my participation enabled me to deconstruct the cultural essentialization that shaped my desire to participate in the program and, in Peru, the experiences that made me feel most uncomfortable were the most valuable in my efforts to become better feminist and ally.

During the exchange, cultural immersion occurred primarily between group members. The team that I worked with in St. John's was comprised of 17 young men and women between 18 and 23 years old, split equally between Canadian and Ghanaian members. We lived with host families and worked at non-profit volunteer work placements in counterpart pairs. My friends and family seem to have little difficulty understanding that the Canadians came from cities that spanned from Vancouver to Fredericton and lived with host families in St. John's, but automatically assumed that because we are going to Ghana, we would be living in the homes of our counterparts, instead of the home of a host family as we had in Canada. As someone that was eager to volunteer in "Africa" broadly, I was disillusioned by the continental generalization that myself and my family and friends held. That being said, my counterpart was the only Ghanaian that was from Saltpond, our community of destination. An overwhelming majority of the Ghanaian youth came from Accra, Ghana's capital. In this sense, our Ghanaians, who became our brothers and sisters throughout the course of the program, were not an accurate representation of the demographic diversity of the country. Contrary to our expectations, many grew up with pools in their backyards, listened to American music, watched American television, and ate pizza.

The learning curve for both Canadians and Ghanaians was steep. While in St. John's we were tasked with the development of a health project in Saltpond which addressed sexual education, malaria prevention, and waste management and sanitation. In doing so, we encountered various obstacles. Sexual education in Ghana follows the ABC model: Abstinence, Be faithful, and use a Condom. From our Canadian perspective, we struggled to develop programming that respected these cultural values; we were constantly reminded that we would be guests in Ghana, which meant strict adherence to their cultural norms and values. In the same way that the Canadians were confronted with the misconception that we were able to dictate the terms of the sexual education framework, the Ghanaians were confronted with the misconception that all Canadians are affluent. The strength of Canada World Youth was that youth from a "developing" country volunteer for organizations that serve Canada's homeless population, low-income neighbourhoods, sex workers, and Indigenous peoples. For our Ghanaian counterparts, the disillusionment that rose out of the dichotomy between their expectations of Canadian affluence and the realities of Canadian economic inequalities was jarring.

The Canada World Youth experience is very insular, in that none of us knew anyone outside of our group and respective host families. This resulted in participants coining the term 'fake life,' as distinctive from real life. Time that wasn't spent with our host families or at work was spent as a group, both in formalized group-lead education days or in efforts to integrate within the community of St. John's. Group "education days" were endlessly frustrating. We were paired up with Ghanaians for day-long seminars on topics that the group had mutually decided were important. To give some insight into the difficulties we encountered working cross-culturally, the mere notion of a mutual decision was no small feat. During these seminars, our group worked tirelessly to incorporate Ghanaian and Canadian voices, to ensure that no voices overpowered anyone else's, and ultimately, we strove for outcomes where everyone was happy. This almost never happened. Unsuccessful attempts usually resulted in silence and internalized frustration, which inevitably devolved into a discourse of “Canadians do...” and “Ghanaians are...” And, incredibly, this was the real learning of the program.

In relaying my experience, I am incredibly careful to steer clear of the "Ghanaians are..." dialogue because regardless of what I say, most people think of the whole African continent in general terms, let alone one country. For this reason, my story is often not one that people want to hear - it doesn't deliver audiences what they expect to hear and actively tries not to validate any preconceived notions of what “Africans” are like. That being said, stereotypes are rooted in reality and become problematic in their essentialization. I continue to feel stifled and restricted in my behaviour and the way I frame my stories because of this experience. I feel especially paralyzed by my privilege and the responsibility that comes with it. My experience in St. John's, living and working with Ghanaians, proved to be more of a culture shock than living in an international community and being fully immersed in a language and culture that I did not understand.

Our trip to Ghana was ultimately rerouted due to the perceived risk posed by the Ebola epidemic. Instead of Ghana, our international phase was re-routed to the small Andean community of Huaracayo, Peru where our Canadian team joined forces with an all-women's group of Canadians that had initially intended to go to Otuam, Ghana. This further skewed our already predominantly female group to the extent that four men were outnumbered by sixteen women and two additional female project supervisors. The gender gap only grew when members of our team were sent home from the exchange for misconduct under the program's strict constraints. Together we experienced what may be the most unconventional international phase of Canada World Youth ever. We had no counterparts through whom we could better understand Peruvian culture as we would've had we gone to Ghana; few among us spoke Spanish, and none of us had experience as physical labourers. Going in with an unshakeable belief of being uniquely qualified to aid this community, we perfectly personified the hubristic White-Saviours the community desperately did not need.

The care with which I frame my experiences with other people makes me resentful to admit that our trip to Ghana was cancelled due to the Ebola scare. The decision to reroute our group from Ghana to Peru was undoubtedly the result of a malicious media agenda and the kind of ignorance that fuels the notion of Africa as a country. The reality is that there has never been a case of Ebola in Ghana and that an elementary understanding of the nature of the disease indicated that the chance of one of us contracting it was infinitesimal. I recognize the legitimate fear that border closures would keep us from returning home should the epidemic intensify but ultimately, I felt that we were forced to submit to a racist media campaign against the people that we had lived with for the last three months. Knowing that we were almost finished with our time together, instead of being halfway through, drove our team apart and meant that many conflicts were left unresolved. Furthermore, it has been hard to come to terms with the notion that while Ghana was deemed unsafe for the Canadians, the same did not apply to our Ghanaian counterparts. However, I am incredibly grateful that my experiences quashed the hubristic urge to "volunteer in Africa," and ultimately, the notion that I am qualified to do any kind of development work.

In Huaracayo, we worked five days a week towards a development project, based upon a locally-conducted census and needs assessment by local organizations. Our project consisted of building eco-kitchens from locally sourced materials. The project was fundamentally concerned with food security in the region, but the effects were multifaceted. That women were responsible for managing the household meant that the more efficient eco-stoves required far less firewood and had chimneys which released the smoke from small kitchens. In this sense, the project had economic, health, and gendered features. During our time, we were able to build 9 eco-stoves and 8 eco-fridges for families from the lowest socio-economic standing in our community; primarily elderly women living alone. Additionally, we taught weekly English lessons for both adults and children, organized community clean-ups, and conducted women's safety audits. We also made a lot of mistakes. Overall, we took measures to ensure that we demonstrated respect for the culture that we were in and were taught how to relay our stories to reflect the experience that we had.

And yet, I have no hesitations in saying that this experience was about me. However, I would be doing a disservice to what was an invaluable program if I characterized it solely as a voluntourist organization, especially considering the strong stance it took against tourism. I do not feel that any of the work that I contributed to was immoral; I know for a fact that the beneficiary families for whom we built eco-stoves and fridges for in Huaracayo are grateful that their women and children are no longer inhaling the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes a day worth of cooking smoke. We worked with locally sourced materials, employed a local mason to teach us how to build the eco-kitchens and our host families were generously compensated for housing and feeding us. I know also that the opportunity to live and work in Canada was invaluable for our Ghanaian brothers and sisters, specifically when their experience contradicted a preconceived notion of Canadian affluence. While on the program, however, I was convinced that I was learning nothing about International Relations, and instead felt a lot of frustration. Frustration at communication disparities, frustration at the imposition of value systems, frustration with different conceptions of time, etiquette, gender roles... the list goes on. In retrospect, I can't think of a better way to learn about development, and more importantly, its many limitations.

--- In the international phase of many Canada World Youth exchanges, volunteers are not allowed to drink, in light of our visibility and always keeping in mind our community impact. This was the case in Huaracayo, especially because many men in the community suffered from substance abuse, which translated to domestic abuse within the walls of their homes. Our group didn't have much regard for this rule and saw it as an affront to our agency. Clearly, the social justice education that we were receiving was not being absorbed fully. Instead of working towards protecting the truly victimized, we couldn't help but begin to perceive ourselves as victims of the constraints placed upon us. People drank, they got caught, our program was compromised, and ultimately, continued without those people. However, the real impact of the festivities upon our program was not the debauchery that it inspired amongst our group, but the lessons that we learned as a result of an unsettling confrontation with our privilege.

One event at a festival featured the traditional bull run, which featured the male dancers dressing up as bulls and running around the plaza, dragging a horn against the legs of all those gathered to watch. One of the men dressed in women's clothing and assumed a grotesque and exaggerated femininity. One by one, the bulls took turns at charging the "woman", pulling at her dress hem and her clothing. The spectacle eventually degenerated into an aggressive and unsettling portrayal of gang rape. The crowd laughed, as they had every other year they watched the same spectacle. Many of the members of our predominantly female team left early, shaken by the most overt display of rape culture most of us had ever experienced. That evening at dinner, our host parents asked didn't we enjoy the festival? Wasn't it so funny? We said that we did not find it funny and left it at that. Our team debriefed the festival the following day and we were reminded once again, of our privilege: that we were outsiders who were witnessing a display like this for the first and likely only time in our lives. We experience patriarchy in different ways, but never as acutely as the women in our community do, and we were encouraged not to tell anyone. These are the kinds of stories I never share about my experience.

In St. John's, our project supervisor had established early on that if one believed in equality of the sexes, that person was a feminist. Unsurprisingly, allyship was not as easy as declaring "I am a feminist" for the men of our group. Mistakes were made, and each one was a learning experience. As an example, the Canadian men were asked to facilitate a session on what it means to be an ally to women and how to react to being called out (full list here) in response to one of these lapses. However, it would be idealistic to suggest that misogyny was eradicated from our group interactions, especially in light of the pervasive and chasmic cultural differences.

The largest conflict that our team of Ghanaian/Canadians faced in three intensive months in St. John's occurred at the explosive intersection of gender and the value-laden notion of respect. For the first time, my actions were restricted solely because of my being a woman; it was considered inappropriate for me to speak my mind to male members of the group, particularly those older than I was. For the first time, I was confronted by the workings and consequences of intersectionalities; despite my obvious privilege in many respects, I did not, and will not, have male privilege, much to the detriment of my ability to effectively communicate. At the same time that I do not possess male privilege, I was confronted with the fact that I am still a very privileged member of a system that actively oppresses, albeit usually not the people I had been exposed to in my life thus far. This wasn't what I sought to gain from my Canada World Youth experience and each of these lessons was rooted in an almost crippling sense of discomfort.

Thus, it is because of my time on my Canada World Youth that I feel comfortable identifying as a feminist and an ally. Before that, I had found the label daunting, exclusory, and I cringe to think that I championed the label 'humanist' over 'feminist'. In Peru, we were able to really delve into complex social justice learning, with a wealth of knowledge and experience within our Canadian team and eased by the erasure of the educational and communication disparities that we encountered as a part of our Canadian and Ghanaian hybrid groups. I facilitated seminars on microaggressions, which are comments that come from well-intentioned people who usually believe that they are being progressive in what they are saying, instead of oppressive. I learned that "I don't see colour" is a very easy thing to say as a white person who never feels the oppressive effects of race. Furthermore, I learned that it discounts the experiences of those for whom the colour of their skin does play a role in their everyday lives, through the perceptions of other people. It was interesting to me that our Ghanaian counterparts did not feel oppressed because they had dark skin, characteristic of Western Africans. In fact, they didn't think that Ghana had a race problem at all, although they insisted that Nigerians were not to be trusted. Sometimes I wonder if we were communicating at all.

One of the things I held onto for longest was a willful ignorance that cultural appropriation could possibly exist. My resistance was rooted in an ignorance towards the immense role played by power dynamics in any discourse of oppression. This was a pivotal lesson for me in my social justice education. In the context of cultural appropriation, the fact that I would chose to incorporate a bindi, a Plains nation's headdress, or dreadlocks into my wardrobe demonstrates that as a white woman, I have the power to chose aspects of another culture that suit me, without the realities of belonging to that culture. I will not fear racially-charged discrimination over what is - to me - a fashion statement and I will continue to overlook the context in which such 'accessories' are culturally, politically, and spiritually relevant. The formula for oppression is discrimination plus power and those in power are the ones able to define the world around them. Considering the mandate of the program is cross-cultural communication and relationship building with the intention of becoming more interculturally effective, establishing a development project in only the international community strikes me as a skewed power dynamic upon which a "partnership" may be built. I wonder at the extent to which “reverse voluntourism” is possible in the context of my exchange. My lesson about cultural appropriation has taught me that although both Ghanaian and Canadian youth are empirically engaged in the same exchange, just as power dynamics render “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism” laughable, so too does “voluntourism” apply only to the White Saviour. (Further reading.)

The story of the Peruvian festival is just one of the many stories from my experience that I am careful not to share. In fact, it is one I had never shared prior to this article. These stories are precisely those which made the 6 months in St John's and Huaracayo the most transformative of my life. I have many close friends who participated in the program before me, and I remember being excited to hear their stories when they returned to Vancouver. In most cases, I was disappointed. Disappointed at the little that they shared, at the shallowness with which they portrayed their experience, and selfishly, at their reluctance to share the difficulties of their experience.

I now understand their hesitations, and exhibit them myself when speaking about my experience. Built into the Canada World Youth experience is a week debriefing (following what felt like six months of continual debriefing) between leaving the program's international community and returning to our respective homes. One reason for this is a gradual readjustment away from 'fake life', insulated by the program and our team. We talked a lot in this week about how to frame our experience. By the end, I felt confident in my ability to share my experience with friends and family upon my return. I would not essentialize – instead, I would focus on the merits of the cultures I had the privilege of living in and with, aware that for every ten positive things said, one negative would confirm my audience's preconceived stereotypes. I felt ready for those conversations, and yet, upon my return I learned that no one cared. If I didn't affirm the essentialized perspectives and singular stories they had of Africa or the Global South generally, never mind Ghana or Peru, they lost interest.

I have come to realize that the same affirmation of my misguided ideas is what I expected from my friends' stories upon their return and I recognize the same good intentions and disappointment in them that I felt. I quickly threw out my carefully crafted script and opted to trivialize those six months instead. Now, when someone asks about my experience I say that I ate wonderful food, hiked lots, and learned to speak Spanish, and we both feel content. I have incredibly meaningful conversations with other alumni and continue to rely on my group for support and understanding without fear of judgement or improper framing.

During the exchange, I was incredibly grateful for friends who were past alumni because, in spite of the invaluable experience, those were the most challenging six months of my life. I wrote to a close friend and past participant during my time in Peru: "Working with the Ghanaians, I realized that cross-cultural work is hard, inefficient, and often presents altogether insurmountable challenges. Coming to Peru, I have realized that international development work is essentially a sham and that the only thing I am actually equipped to do here is opening my wallet and putting my money in the hands of local organizations instead of building eco-kitchens — regardless of how sound the project is — because I have still not been trained how to properly hold a shovel, much less effectively build kitchens for people."

I cannot overstate my gratitude for having participated in this program. Canada World Youth changes lives, although not the lives that naive students of International Relations - like myself - believe that they will be changing. I feel saddened to think that this incredible opportunity is no longer available to young adults due to funding cuts and shifting Canadian foreign affairs priorities over the last ten years. Living and working in international counterpart pairs and developing cross-cultural relationships and communication skills, Ghanaians encountering Canadian economic inequalities, stepping out of your comfort zone and identifying as a feminist and checking your privilege – all these experiences are both jarring and invaluable.

Garnering praise from friends and family for volunteering abroad in rural communities, however, is misplaced and harmful. Framing experiences is difficult and paralyzing. I have no hesitations in saying that this experience was about me, and this contributes to my unwillingness and inability to share my experiences in a meaningful way.

The experiences I have shared in this article are ones that I was encouraged not to, for fear of misrepresentation and distortion. Months of reflection went into framing my experience, and I hope that care and consideration is apparent. This experience taught me to resist the urge to simplify other people's' culture, characteristics, and "problems." Instead, it has helped me to embrace continual discomfort, the messiness of cross-cultural (mis)communication, and the systemic complexity of working within a cultural context that is not your own.

Marina Favaro

Marina is a third-year International Relations student at the University of British Columbia.

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