Last year in ‘In Focus’, Dillon Hooker described her trip to Malawi to volunteer with children as part of a school trip. Here she reflects further on her experience and what motivates her to be a Stahili Ambassador.
Six years ago I travelled to Malawi for three weeks to volunteer in my school’s annual summer project, which involved assisting teachers, building or renovating schools, and visiting orphanages. Like other students before me, I wanted to help those less fortunate and make my own individual imprint on the lives of vulnerable children.
Our teachers assured us that we would gain a lot from this once-in-a-lifetime experience and we would be able to ‘make a difference’. We were shown videos of the group of students who had just returned, carrying water, laying bricks, playing with children and even cooking.
In order to go to Malawi, students had to fund their own trip by raising £2000. We spent all year fundraising as well as collecting donations for the children, such as clothing, books, pens, and toys. Only 20 students were able to go on the trip, so those who were guaranteed a place were the ones who could pay first.
Before leaving, we had several sessions with our teachers to familiarise ourselves with Malawi. We attempted to learn basics words of the local language, and were told our schedule and what to bring. However, we were not trained and lacked the necessary skills to work with vulnerable children. So when we finally arrived in Malawi, it was questionable what ‘change’ or ‘difference’ we could really make, and if we did – would it be in a positive way?
Looking back now on my experience in Malawi, many red flags are raised.
Neither the students on my trip nor the teachers were asked for background checks, and there was no requirement for previous experience or qualifications in working with vulnerable children and within this particular context.
Returning home, my friends and I posted hundreds of pictures with the Malawian children on our social media pages. Most of the volunteers changed their Facebook profile pictures to pictures of themselves cuddling a small child. We did not obtain consent to post the photos and were not instructed by our school or the institutions if we could use the images of children online. We also were not trained in ethical storytelling and likely shared more information than we had a right to.
I definitely experienced some sort of connection to the children I met. I felt a sense of responsibility for them. But they had encountered influxes of volunteers on a regular basis. How many other schools and volunteers had visited the same sites? I later learned that the rotation of volunteers can have a negative impact on the ability of children living in orphanages to form healthy relationships in the future. We were not the only group to spend time with children for a short period and then leave.
Respecting the needs of the local people
It is unclear whether my school had made the effort to find out the real needs of the local people. Did the community actually want or need us there? And what were their actual needs? As a group, we spent tens of thousands of pounds on airfare, accommodation, food and transport – not things that the local people actually needed.
Also, we did not receive enough guidance on how to respect and understand the culture. Although we had learned a few words, it was naturally difficult to communicate with people in the community, especially the children. Some children were clearly afraid of us.
In addition, were we possibly taking away jobs from local people? Perhaps donating to local builders to purchase materials to build the school would have been more useful. Local tradespeople would be more familiar with the materials and techniques. Not to mention that we had only a one-day bricklaying course in England, which hardly compares to skilled individuals with experience and local knowledge.
While some young people believe that short-term overseas volunteering stints enhance their CVs, quite the opposite is true. My experience in Malawi was not a sustainable activity which enhanced my skills and demonstrated my personal commitment. Building one’s CV requires commitment and time which needs to be demonstrated through sustainable forms of volunteering. Today, I give my time to Stahili Foundation, using my skills and learning new ones.
Instead of raising money to fund our trip, it would have been more beneficial to fundraise to support local organisations in Malawi who understand real community needs. Or use the money to help organisations that work to get children out of institutions and into families, rather than support orphanages.
As volunteers, we may feel that giving our time and physical effort is more helpful than giving money. It feels more rewarding to say ‘I built this school’ than ‘I funded the building of this school’. In reality, perhaps it is our donations that are more useful in the long run. But we can be more than fundraisers. We can also be advocates, campaigners for a cause.
There are many things my school could have done differently. Instead of volunteering overseas for a few weeks, the school could have encouraged us to volunteer locally in our own community over a longer period of time. More importantly, the school could have organised service trips for students based on learning and cultural experience, rather than volunteering in a community we did not know.
My experience in Malawi led me to connect with Stahili. In doing so, I committed to helping in a sustainable way. It has helped me realise how unskilled volunteering can be more detrimental than beneficial for communities.
Whilst I wanted to leave my own individual imprint on the local communities in Malawi, I did not possess the skills to do so in a positive way — yet. I emphasise the word yet as making an impact means I have to develop skills and knowledge to tackle the global challenges that interest me. If I was properly trained and qualified, I think my experience in Malawi would have been more helpful to the community. I would be able to make a difference by getting to know my surroundings and understanding what help communities really need.