Volunteering in Africa or Vacationing?

Last week, I came across a student organisation on campus which raised funds to help African women affected by Obstetric Fistulas to undergo surgery. They climbed mount Kilimanjaro for fundraising and this year, they have raised over $18,000. When this organisation advertised its info session, I was intrigued.

Before the information session, I didn’t know what Obstetric Fistulas were. There was a slide to explain what was the ’cause’ for which the organisation was working. The speaker said that when women give birth without medical care, some of them have fistulas in their birth canals. And consequently, they are abandoned by their families and friends because they don’t want the curse. The money the organisation raises goes into surgeries to correct the fistulas in women affected by it.

Then came a series of slides about the trip to mount Kilimanjaro. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime, memorable trip to take. However, I was not so impressed with the tourism like aspects of the trip. There was a safari, a party and a four day service project at an international agency where they interacted with Tanzanian children. I had my doubts: how can anyone even understand, let alone serve the people another country in just four days?

But that aside, I found the cause and the trip worthwhile, until one of the last slides. At the end, the president of the club informed us that the trip costs about $3,000 per person.

This past January, thirteen students had taken this trip. In all, they had spent about $40,000 to get attention, through which they raised $18,000 for their cause. Well, that doesn’t make sense to me. If the members had directly donated half the cost of the trip they were taking ‘for the affected African women’, they would have crossed their fundraising goal.

I was am disillusioned. Who was this trip really for? For the African women who are suffering from an obstetric fistula or to ease the guilt of students who were simply taking a vacation in Africa? While I appreciate the fundraising, the trip itself did not sound like a “service trip” to me. Unless we consider the $40,000 that went into the local economy of Tanzania to be a form of service.

Two days before the info session, I had read a guest column in the Cornell Sun titled “African Aid: Your Help Might Hurt” by Daniel Lumonya, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His words captured my feelings perfectly.

“You may realize how very little you know about the people you wish to save or about what they have to deal with every day. In fact, you may soon realize that your projects are no different from treating a compound fracture with a band aid or a cavity with Tylenol. In both cases, you will leave the patient worse off than how you found them. So if you choose to go to Africa without the proper knowledge and skills, go with the intention of visiting, not helping: Go to learn, not to save.”

When I left the info session at the end, I was angry but mostly disappointed. I’ve had some long conversations with other students about this and related topics. But I don’t know what I can do about this. I’m frustrated. For now, I’m just compiling a list of books or documentaries to educate myself.