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Why voluntourism is having its moment

Sertan Sanderson
August 12, 2019

Voluntourism is one of the fastest growing trends in travel. But can volunteering in faraway countries save the world ? Or are such epic journeys actually more about finding — and saving — yourself?

Cape Town
Cape Town is a city of extremes, where rich and poor coexist and are typically separated by Table MountainImage: Julia Jaki

It's summer school holidays in Europe, and people take time to relax with their families on travels, whether its lying on beaches or hiking in the mountains. It's typically a time to switch off. But not everyone wants to spend their sudden abundance of free time this way.

A growing number of young people seek meaningful activities to contribute to society during their holidays. Some even take a whole year out to travel to other parts of the world in hopes of assisting those in need. There's a whole industry that now caters for those interested in "voluntourism" — people who want to visit neglected parts of the globe to help.

But there are also many clichés that have sprung up around this concept — which covers everything from digging wells to adopting orphans — as well as real dangers associated with going to far-flung places with nothing but a back-pack in hopes of saving the world. Accusations of "white savior complex" and glorified "Instagram tourism" also form part of the criticisms that can be heard in the debate on volunteering abroad. But what is the experience like for the vast majority of those who decide to take the plunge?

'Save yourself first'

Nozuko Masiba runs the International Cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE) center South Africa, which is located in Athlone, Cape Town — a suburb that is regarded as the gateway to the Cape Flats, where people of color were forcibly moved to under the Apartheid regime. Masiba brings young people to Cape Town to live with host families in various communities throughout the Cape Flats where they are fully immersed in a culture that could not be any more different than what they're used to from home.

"You can feel their need to save people when they arrive here. But they're not here to save people. It takes about six months for them to understand that they're really here to save themselves," Masiba tells DW at her office.

Nozuko Masiba
Nozuko Masiba loves her job but isn't one to mince her words when it comes to telling volunteers how things workImage: DW/S. Sanderson

"We appreciate their help, we do. But it's about so much more than just helping communities. They get to live the reality of this country. They're here to learn patience, to dig deep, and to learn about their own privilege and then to reach a place of reconciliation inside themselves. Only then can they understand why South Africa needs help and how they can best help the people."

Masiba concludes: "That is the whole point of intercultural exchange."

A lesson in privilege

Masiba's approach sounds unique, far-sighted even. But she's been working in this area her whole life, building on experience that reaches back decades, before voluntourism was even a thing.

Khayelitsha, Cape Town
"Volunteers need to witness uncomfortable situations to truly understand Africa," says MasibaImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER

"Listen, I've been doing this a long time. It used to be very niche but nowadays, we get about 25 to 30 volunteers a year, and most actually come from Germany. Some only stay for a month or three months, others stay a whole year. But why do they come here? They could also go to Kenya or Mozambique. 'Why do you bring me problems?' I ask them," she jokes but there's a hint of sincerity in her voice that reflects all the overtime she has to work to make the volunteer programs happen.

"They know we have good infrastructure in South Africa, and they know they get to be a tourist as well if they want to. They can still go to the beach. They can still go to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was in prison for years. Yet most of the people they encounter in the townships have never been there. There: that's what you call privilege."

Everyone can contribute something

Masiba exudes hope and cynicism at the same time, but the kind of cynicism that's not bitter but rather comes across as well-deserved — as if she had to work hard and fight for it. And she probably had to, considering that her organization receives no government help but finances itself with the fees paid by the volunteers that go there as well as funds given directly by ICYE, which runs projects in 40 countries.

Robben Island
While volunteers still have the luxury to visit places like Robben Island, many of the locals have never been to the prison island where Nelson Mandela spent many years

"We have the most beautiful constitution in the world. Why are we not in sync with that? Why is our reality so different? Why do we need people to come here to help fix us when we should be fixing ourselves? I'm way beyond the past with racism and apartheid and all that. Let's just build our country," she pleads, highlighting that she also runs programs for local volunteers to uplift communities in Cape Town.

"We can all contribute something. You just have to find something you're passionate about, whether you come down the street from Gugulethu or from Germany or the United States."

Off to Lesotho

Second to Germans, Masiba says, there are a lot of North Americans who find their way to South Africa via her organization. "Germans like coming to South Africa a lot. For Americans and Canadians, it can be more daring."

One of those "daring" Americans is Rachel Hoblit, who in 2012 decided that she wanted to explore the realities of working in an environment that promoted aid work. "I needed to justify to myself that I wasn't gainfully employed after graduating and looked for NGOs. Before I knew it, I was on my way to Lesotho."

Rachel Hoblit
Rachel Hoblit says she would go back to Lesotho and do everything all over "in a heartbeat"Image: privat

Before she took the leap to go on a six-month volunteering trip to Lesotho, she barely even knew where Lesotho was on a map, so she had her reservations. But once there, Hoblit actually on a daily basis got to contribute some of the expertise from her studies which included law at undergraduate level, and became involved in projects where she could truly shine:

"I wanted to help with legal issues as best I could. So while we did all kinds of activities I spent a lot of my time in this women's shelter helping the women get their papers together for court hearings and other legal proceedings. It was really rewarding to work on such a one-on-one basis with the women," she told DW. The organization that brought her to Lesotho was affiliated with a faith group, but Hoblit says that when it comes to helping her fellow humans, religion didn't matter.

Lesotho landscape
Lesotho is one of the poorest nations in the world where the majority of people lead rural lives without electricityImage: DW/Poppendieck

"These people lead really tough lives. Even sitting with them and working on crafts projects was a rewarding experience. The great thing is also that you kind of get to direct the whole thing yourself. The experience itself is your compensation. In a real work setting, where you might be paid for this kind of thing, you never get to have this kind of freedom of actually choosing what activities you want to pursue."

'The past lives on'

Rachel Hoblit's experience reflects exactly the kind of purpose-driven journey that Nozuko Masiba advocates as well: "We want to know why you want to volunteer. If you don't know why you're doing this, the chances of you sticking with it and doing your best are slim."

Police in Township Mannenberg, Cape Town
The South African police are so overwhelmed with violence that the military is now in charge of the Cape FlatsImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Bauermeister

She stresses, however, that the chief motivation for volunteering should not be a lust for adventure either. "You come here to learn to respect the way we do things. And part of that is also being aware of dangers. We support the volunteers and teach them what they can and cannot do. And their host families also support them and tell them where they can and cannot go. And a lot of it is common sense. Don't do silly things. Don't carry the latest iPhone around; get one of those cheap phones instead."

And indeed there are dangers associated with voluntourism in South Africa and elsewhere around the world, with reports ranging from muggings all the way to lethal violence. A senior Irish charity worker was stabbed to death in Cape Town in 2018, and US Peace Corps volunteers have over the past decade come forward with numerous reports of rape.

Picture of Amy Biehl
The 1993 murder of American student Amy Biehl shook South AfricaImage: Imago Images/ZUMA Press

And then there's also the famous case of Amy Biehl, an American volunteer and anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa who was killed in Cape Town in 1993, six months before the country held its first democratic elections.

Even today in 2019, there is so much gang and drug-related violence in the Cape Flats that the South African government has had to send in military enforcements to deal with the issue, with an average of 4 daily murders reported from the restive area since the beginning of the year.

Nozuko Masiba meanwhile says that her organization has had little experience with violence, "only a few muggings," she assures. But even that, she says, has to be seen as part of a greater context.

"We don't want you to get mugged, but even in such an event you must learn something. Every time something feels uncomfortable, you can learn so much because you will never forget situations when you were uncomfortable. We are not placing people in townships like Langa or Mitchell's Plain to deliberately make them feel uncomfortable but rather so they can understand that these places are the results of the past. That past lives on, and it won't go away just because you come here and dig a well."

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