Some thoughts on voluntourism and the like

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-tragic-rise-of-gap-year-voluntourism-8473608.html

my thoughts-

It may seem- and undoubtedly is- hypocritical of me to agree with this piece whilst sitting in a guesthouse in Kigali, displaying the profile picture that I do but I do think there is room for recognising many- if not all- of the harms identified in this piece without being against the whole concept of the gap year. I am currently in Kigali working with a local charity called Moucecore through the International Citizen Service (a partnership with DfID and several charities, among them Tearfund who support Moucecore). Throughout the process of application, preparation and my time here I have been acutely aware and often sympathetic to the criticisms leveled at these kind of experiences. I was grateful to be sent some papers that helped inform my thoughts on the issue(one of which can be found here- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00436.x/abstract;jsessionid=724058A699B00DD4DC6006096508F640.d02t02?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false).

First of all, two things need clarifying-

1. I am under no illusion that I will benefit a hell of a lot more from these few months than the people that I meet here. Hopefully I can do something useful but I will learn infinitely more.  Hopefully I can put that learning to do something more useful in the long term. However I do think that even at this stage, there are particular skills that volunteers can offer, for instance someone on my team is coaching cricket with someone from the Rwandan national team and helping them in that capacity. I did a lot of competitive debating whilst at school and hope to be able to do some coaching with a charity called Never Again Rwanda (for those interested they aim to have a Rwandan team at WSDC 2014, very cool).

2. In this case it is a mischaracterisation to say that I and the others on the ICS program are taking someone’s job. Regrettably it is a form of tied aid, the British govt support this project primarily for the benefits that it brings to Britain, one of which will be an enhanced cosmopolitanism amongst those that go through the program. If DfID aren’t paying for me then they wouldn’t be paying for a Rwandan (incidentally the ICS program recruits national volunteers alongside international volunteers). Therefore even the very marginal increase in capacity I will provide to Moucecore is better than the lack of increase that takes place in this comparative.

A lot of the problems with the way a lot of these things are constructed is based on the desire of individuals to justify their time by being able to point to a hole or a mural or a whatever that they made. Of course, this doesn’t help in the long term and just satisfies the guilt of that individual. Problematic aid is very similar. But there are ways to mitigate the harms in both cases by making sure that there is something useful to be done. Lastly, that particular narratives surrounding poverty- particularly ‘African’ poverty- has been fetishised and that they are perpetuated through mediums like facebook is of course harmful. But again, there are ways to construct gap years that focus on sustainable development and turn the gap yearee into an agent for dispelling those harmful narratives. Again, this is one of the reasons why I chose ICS, it requires further action of volunteers when they return in communicating the reality of the context they visited to those that they know. I realise that in this context, the profile picture that shall appear before you could be seen as deeply problematic. I’d like to think I’d have put it up there regardless of race, clothes etc, just because I like the photo. I can’t know that for sure and there might be some white saviour-industrial complex mixed in there, I don’t know, I hope not. But that is something I need to think about.

Anyway, I realise this comes across as some guilt-ridden apologia, probably because it is. I  took it as an opportunity for catharsis in articulating to myself how my thoughts on the matter are currently progressing. They will continue to. But for now, I see a space for gap year cosmopolitanism, if done constructively and tailored to the needs to the community rather than the gap yearee (or should that be gap yeared).

Glimpsing the Context

It’s raining in such a way as to bring new meaning to the word, forming a shroud between us and the rest of Kigali. So here we are, sitting in Jenny and Beth’s room, typing away to ourselves.

Early yesterday morning, we drove to Kigali from Muhanga. We had been invited to the British special consulate to meet with some of the senior staff at DfID Rwanda. The discussion naturally focused on the current context that DfID Rwanda finds itself in- DRC, Mitchell, Daily Mail etc.They spoke honestly and frankly, balancing the current challenges with the proven effectiveness of the Rwandan govt at delivering development outcomes. I was geeking out throughout.

We left the consulate and headed for the genocide memorial. It would require a better writer than I to articulate my response to the memorial and a wiser person to have worked out what that response actually is. What it did undoubtedly do was to provide a space for the beginning of a discussion between the group. As in South Africa, after visiting Robben Island, I came out of the memorial with an awareness that the Rwandans that we have met and will meet, went through that which is incomprehensible. That awareness comes and goes; there will be a fleeting, overwhelming glimpse and then the protective curtain between past and present will fall back into place, the clothes and baby shoes, nothing more than objects.

The curtain firmly in place, we went to get a burrito and then were dropped off at Moucecore, said goodbye to RDIS and settled in. Moucecore is internationally recognised for its peace and reconciliation programs and played an important role in empowering churches to confront the past and I look forward to the conversations and opportunities to learn that will present themselves in the coming weeks.

The rain has eased off now; we can see Kigali again.

Laying Claim

A few months ago, I wrote a wee piece about the impact of Peru on me. Thought it might be useful to revisit it-

It’s always difficult when asked to articulate the impact which something, particularly a mission trip, has had on you; you become acutely aware of the seeming banality of the lessons you learned and go through spasms of worry that what you took from it wasn’t big enough, holy enough to warrant the work you put in and- more importantly-big enough for  the support that your family, friends and church provided. I think it is this that scares us away from a valuable process. On going to Peru with the YF in July, I was coming out of a difficult year and was looking for something of God to cling onto. That is what I got. I encountered God through the orphans and the staff. I encountered God when we worshipped in English and when we listened as others worshipped in Spanish. I encountered God in church and in the games. These encounters weren’t ubiquitous, whilst I would describe New Hope Orphanage as a “thin place” we by no means spent the whole fortnight on the mountaintop (although we did spend a day on Huayna Picchu). Instead what I got were moments, moments of insight and joy and pain and God.  These glimpses of God have given my something to pursue and reflect on when I feel distant. Further, they forced me to engage with my faith as something more than the sterile, almost academic exercise it had become. However, through showing me the ways in which the church grappled with political issues, my trip also excited a desire to reconcile my views that I had arrived at through my interests in politics, history and debating with my faith. This, along with the revitalisation of my sense of social justice that Peru brought, led me to apply to go to Rwanda with Tearfund. The prospect of engaging with the political and spiritual issues that Rwanda is dealing with is an exciting if daunting prospect. I think, then, the process of naming the effects of the trip is a positive one. It forces me to lay claim to that which has changed within me and make a positive choice as to what I want to keep. What God had in store for me was not banal just a reminder that the Lord is not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire.

Things get Harder; Things get Better.

The other three are watching “The Vow”. If I watch “The Vow” I will probably ruin it for them. So, in what will be an inevitable futile effort to postpone making a remark which results in things being thrown at me, I’ve decided to write this. My blogging still needs work.

It’s Thursday afternoon and our last day in Muhanga before we go home. The last two days have seen more language lessons and more details on the projects we will be working with. The Moucecore team will be working on two projects: working with villages on water sanitation issues and educating children on their rights. Both sound awesome and I am left even more eager to get to Kigali. We will work on the two Moucecore projects Monday- Wednesday; on Thursday we will help Moucecore in another area or work with another local charity in an area that interests us; Friday will see us research and present on particular development issues in the morning and then do some sort of sport  in the afternoon.

Yesterday, wanting to get a good look round Muhanga before we left, we went for a walk . It was great to see the town and meet the people, particularly because we’re leaving tomorrow. On the walk, a man started to follow us, asking for money. After 30 minutes it became clear he wasn’t going away. Not wanting to go home and show him where we lived, we called Joan who picked us up. This man was likely mentally ill; he was shoeless-something that one can go to prison for in Rwanda-, he was rambling and was laughed at by those we passed.

It’s hard.

It’s hard because that man did have very real needs, very real needs that we could’ve gone some way to alleviate, at least in the short term. It’s hard because if we gave him money, he might’ve gone away, leaving us to enjoy our walk.  But the fact remains we’re not here on holiday and we’re not here to do things to satisfy some guilt.

It gets harder when it’s kids.

Today, we went to a charities fair in Muhanga market. It was incredibly valuable to see the different charities and the approaches they used. More valuable was getting the opportunity to talk to people and see the community in action, dancing and all. Surrounded by kids at all times, the group was bombarded with requests for money or plastic bottles. Most difficult was walking away from a young girl who had followed around the group for the whole of the afternoon. At the sound of “mwirirwe” (goodbye), she started crying. She didn’t ask for money, didn’t engage us in conversation- answered nervously and quietly when we tried to talk to her-, just stood near us.

I hope it will be easier when we start at Moucecore but it might not be. I don’t know.

The last thing I want  is to be desensitised. A lack of compassion isn’t what is required. But equally simplistic narratives about starving kids in Africa and short term aid help no one. I pray that these weeks will see a balance between skepticism and sentiment emerge.

Break my heart for what breaks yours.

Anyway, I’m off to make unhelpful comments about Channing Tatum and memory loss.

‘A First Attempt at Blogging’ or ‘I am here’

“ICS Tearfund- Moucecore House Rules
4. Remind Josh to contact his parents.”

Apologies if (/for when) this descends into a rather bland narrative; I’m not sure how much I have to say but I feel obligated to blog at this point to reassure my mum that I am still alive and well etc so feel free to blame her for any shortcomings that this post may have. 

I’m writing this from a guesthouse in Muhanga. The group of 10 that are working with RDIS will be living just along the road for the next 10 weeks. The 4 of us that are working with Moucecore are staying here for the week long orientation and then heading to Kigali for the rest of our time here. It is a beautiful area. If the journey from the airport is anything to go by, that doesn’t seem something peculiar to this part of Rwanda. We had the opportunity to visit the market place and were trailed by three boys in the hope that we’d give them money, having to say no in situations like that- even when they just want your empty plastic bottle- will get more difficult. 

The first few days of orientation have been pretty full-on. Despite the amount of information being thrown at us, I do feel as if something is going in. Tearfund’s in country co-ordinator, Joan -who is leading the sessions- has made sure that we have had enough time to digest what we’re learning/watch Mean Girls. 
In the coming days we will finish our orientation with RDIS and will travel to Kigali, visit DfID and the genocide memorial and then be dropped off at Moucecore. We’re all looking forward to getting to Moucecore, finding out what we’ll be doing and being able to unpack properly. 

Sorry for the brevity but know that I am very well and appreciate your prayers. The internet shall be more readily available when we get into Kigali so shall be popping up more. 

Josh

Prayer requests-
– That we continue to bond as a team 
– That we get the most out of the next few days of orientation 
– That we get on with the Moucecore staff, that we settle in quickly and that we are inspired by the work that we will be involved in (shouldn’t be too tricky, everything that I’ve heard and read about them has been pretty exciting). 
– That God speaks to us
– That I don’t start too many arguments