Pros and Cons of Volunteering Abroad

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Picture from a social work visit in Uganda


Are you thinking about spending some of those hard earned holiday days or precious backpacking days volunteering your time. Good for you!

As a serial volunteer (1 Ghana trip, 2 Uganda and 1 Myanmar) I’ve put together a list of 5 pros and 5 cons. It’s a decision that should not be taken lightly. More than once I’ve seen a volunteer in tears, suffering culture shock because they didn’t realise how ‘real’ the project they were signing up to was. I’d suggest that first timers do something a little lighter. My Ghana teaching experience was perfect for first time and gave me the grounding I needed to go into a social work project in Uganda – not one for the emotionally immature!

I’ll start with the cons. Save the best for last!

Cons

1. Work Responsibilities

Volunteer works means you will be working. Hosting volunteers is a lot of work for NGOs as they need to train, house, feed and comfort you and make sure you don’t do anything culturally silly. Remember that you are there to work in return and should treat it with the seriousness you would any paid job.

2. People Won’t Understand

I’ve lost count of the amount of times someone has said, ‘why on earth would you want to do that?’ People tell me I’m going to get kidnapped or odd tropical diseases.

Odder still, there are people who will hold you in contempt for volunteering. I don’t really understand this one but I think it’s something like, ‘bloody do-gooders think they’re saving the world’. Of course we don’t. Perhaps these people just feel guilty for sitting around doing nothing while others help each other out.

In any case, be prepared that not everyone will think it’s as great an idea as you do.

3. Cultural Immersion

This is a pro and a con. Often volunteers find themselves in cultures that are uncomfortable. It may be that women are expected to sit on the floor when men are around like in Uganda, or it may be that you must do whatever a monk tells you like in Myanmar.

The thing that I have found the most difficult is home stays. Many societies view anyone under their care as children. So, despite being almost 30 and having lived independently for 12 years or so, I found myself in trouble with my home stay Mum in Ghana for coming home after 10 at night!!

4. Can Be Frustrating & Emotionally Draining

In most cases you will have days when you are fed up. In Ghana most of my students never turned up. I spent more time waiting than I did teaching – though I had some great conversations with locals that stopped to keep me company.

Uganda is always tough. The combination of traditional spiritual beliefs, corrupt government and extreme poverty make it really emotionally draining. I’ve had to walk away from people there knowing that they were going to die and there was noun nothing I could do.

Know your own emotional strength, choose a project that’s suitable and use the support networks available and you should be fine.

5. Kiss Holidays Goodbye

Once you’ve volunteered, you will want to do it again and again and again, consuming all of your annual leave.

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Walking through a slum in Kampala, Uganda to meet with some families under the care of CALM Africa


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This little guy often kept me entertained while I waited for my students in Ghana

Pros

1. Cultural Immersion

While this can be tough at times, volunteering gives you access to culture in a way that no tourist could hope to achieve. You will have access to real people, see how they live, what they eat, what they wear and what makes them unique.

If you look hard you can even find a give and take project like the one I did in Ghana. My students were a tribal drumming and dance group from disadvantaged backgrounds. I gave them language skills. They (tried to!) give me music and dance skills.

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One of my students in Ghana taking the lead in their 3rd anniversary show


2. Honest Conversations

When you’re on the tourist trail most people you meet work in the tourism industry. You have brief, engineered interactions with them where they paint a picture that sells you something and puts the country in a positive light.

When you work within the community you get to know people personally and find out what they really think. This is my absolute favourite thing about volunteering.

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3. Access to Unknown Regions

Whether this is passing through a slum area in Ghana or being lead on a jungle trek to a newly discovered archaeological site in Myanmar, those you meet whilst volunteering can take you places you’d never see as a tourist.

4. Meet Like Minded People

Tired of sitting around hostel bars listening to armchair activists? Rather meet people who put their money where their mouth is? Many projects have volunteer houses or lounges where you can meet other people volunteering in the area and get another perspective. Chances are that you’ll stay in touch, bonded by shared experience.

5. Sense of Satisfaction

Volunteering is much more rewarding than sitting on a beach drinking beer. Holidays are awesome, as are beaches and beer, don’t get me wrong. But when I think back about the best experiences I’ve had I think about the smiles of people I’ve worked with and odd little conversations, not that sun lounger in Spain I sat on.

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Students at Jolly Mercy Learning Centre, a school run by CALM Africa

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