Sweet Charity? On Volunteering

26 Jun

Z pretending to fly an Antonov cargo plane, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

When volunteering, it's good to have a handle on your capabilities.

I have an aversion to the idea of volunteering overseas which dates back to a hospital bed in small town Mali.

It wasn’t the extended families cooking on open fires in the grounds, the babies too weak to cry, or even the emaciated woman hawking bloody sputum onto the floor beside my bed that did it.

Nor was it an operating theatre that would have had Florence Nightingale reaching for the ether, through which I ventured on an all-too regular basis to the surgeons’ bathroom. (Kind of them to share. But still…)

It was the kid from the Peace Corps. And, of course, he was trying to help.

Back then I was roughly half the age I am now. Spots were a source of present worry, wrinkles a thing of the far-distant future. The idea that one could have both at the same time, goddamit, would have been inconceivable.

Mobile phones were the province of war correspondents, actresses and drug dealers. I’d encountered t’interweb, at a New Year’s Eve party held simultaneously with folk in Japan (we all thought it would never catch on), but had yet to send an email.

Google Translate? Star Trek stuff.

Anywise… My friend Sarah and I had been having trouble communicating with the staff at the hospital.

They spoke several local languages. No English. Surprisingly, given the country was once a French colony, very little French.

So Sarah ran off, in a state of utter panic, and hunted around town in search of a translator.

Several hours of bugs, big needles and trips through the operating theatre later, she returns, triumphant, trailing a chap with a manly bearing and square jaw.

“He’s from the Peace Corps!” she announces. “He’s been here for three months! He speaks the language!”

We summon the nurse.

Bon jawww,” begins our saviour. “Jer swiz ern Americann doo Peace Corrrr.”

Laugh? We nearly cried…

Since then, I’ve always had my doubts about whom, precisely, volunteering serves.

The benefits for the volunteer are legion. Life experience. Memories. Points for the CV or college entry. The feelgood factor. The sense of giving something back.

Not to mention a safe, controlled immersion into a local country with which to begin a longer trip, and meet likeminded folk along the way.

But I have always wondered precisely what the folk on the receiving end get out of it.

Wouldn’t you, actually, rather have a bit of money so that the extremely competent carpenters in your impoverished community could build a school, rather than having Prince Harry and his bodyguards flown in First Class to do it?

But, weirdly, the nine year old and I are volunteering today.

We’re unschooling. But, rather in the way that in a traditional English school, he might go carol singing to old folks’ homes and hospices, help with the school gardens or clear up a village green, I’d like him to help out from time to time in the different communities we nomad through.

To do good. And enhance his understanding of the world and his place within it. The same reasons, I guess, why most folk join the Peace Corps.

The challenge, of course, is to find a project to which a nine-year-old boy can actually contribute.

We’re testing the waters today at an orphanage not far from where we’re staying in Chiang Mai.

We will be playing with the kids. And maybe doing some art. I’ll keep you posted. But I’m pretty confident it’s within his capabilities.

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7 Responses to “Sweet Charity? On Volunteering”

  1. Gappy at 3:57 pm #

    Every time I read you I’m more blown away by what it is you’re actually doing. Your boy is just going to have such a wealth of fantastic experience behind him – it must take a huge amount of confidence and energy to not only travel alone with your child, but to home educate them at the same time aswell. I take my hat off to you, I really do.

    As for volunteering in impoverished countries, the juries out for me too. There’s a very fine line between helping people and undermining them. Like you say, much better to empower people by giving them the resources to help themselves. Although having said that, I was a volunteer for Women’s Aid (not quite the same thing I know) for years. They now pay me to work for them.

    • MummyT at 8:19 pm #

      I think volunteering in your home country generally has a lot more thought behind it than “what else can I do on my holiday?” And, if you’re working with Women’s Aid, your contribution is both valid and worthwhile.

      Some bastard at the Grauniad said exactly what I was trying to say only better, shortly after I wrote it. I will dig up the link in a tick.

      Home-education, fyi, is a LOT easier than it sounds. Check out BBC bitesize for the lazy parent’s way to inculcate maths and touch-typing. It does, however, mean you need to remember the difference between a rhombus and a parallelogram, information I can safely say I have never used since learning it in primary and forgetting it after GCSE. World travelling, I think the bulk of it does itself.

  2. iskrablogs at 8:51 pm #

    I think it’s useful to make a distinction between unskilled/low skilled volunteering – for example building an school – & highly skilled volunteering, perhaps a doctor with MSF or a trainer of trainers at a teaching college. In this respect I think VSO for example do some really great work. But Peace Corps are a crazy programme – they seem to deliberately site their volunteers as far away from the tarred roads as possible. I knew lots of PC in Zambia, & they mostly got stoned a lot in their villages…

    • MummyT at 9:32 pm #

      Yeah! Totally. I had MSF in a draft of this piece. Clearly, MSF is super-real and super-valid. Very skilled people doing very difficult things in circumstances most of us cannot imagine.

      And VSO is tough. Which is why we have a whole commercialised industry around volunteering for people who would like to pet the baby lions but could not, seriously, cut it, as VSO, and would not be allowed in the door.

      As regards Peace Corps. This chap who thought the local language was French would most probably then (c. 1994) have been “teaching” farmers how to farm better… Guys who’d been doing it for generations. Guys who’d been succeeding, in challenging circumstances. But, probably, as rural farmers, had a couple of languages, neither of them European.

      You can imagine how well it worked…

      Anywise, thanks for your intelligent and important distinction. VSO will normally only take skilled. PC used to think, it seemed, that if you were American you were definitionally skilled. Caused a lot of challenges. I hope it’s different now.

  3. jessiev at 9:57 pm #

    the most important part about volunteering is LISTENING. what do they need? maybe it is someone sitting and holding their hand, or talking about your home with photos, so that kids can see another part of the world. maybe it is being a phoDOGrapher (dogmeetsworld.org) and taking photos of kids who have never seen themselves.

    i am eager to hear your experiences. 🙂

  4. scotttraveler at 5:15 pm #

    congrats on making the frong page of WordPress – probably the reason for the 60+ comments on the Elephant post

    http://wordpress.com/

    • MummyT at 6:33 pm #

      Yes! Thank you. It’s the second time in a fortnight, which is brilliant! Would have put more thought into the elephants had I known…

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