The face of the traditional kiwi OE (Overseas Experience) is changing as a global social conscience is awakening in young people. No longer satisfied with seeing the world from the top of a double-decker bus or from the window of an air conditioned hotel room, more and more New Zealanders in their late teens and twenties are opting for a more ‘real’ and useful OE – they are choosing to volunteer. Tourism is being rejected for teaching. Souvenirs for social work. Motels for manual labour, and indifference for making a difference.
With programmes such as UNIVOL (A university volunteer programme, run by Volunteer Service Abroad) skilled youth are able to positively contribute to communities all over the world and help bring aid and practical assistance to people in need. Volunteers are being sent throughout the Pacific; to Asia and the Middle East; and to Africa. It is possible to choose between a short term voluntary experience which consists of only a few weeks or a single aid project such as building a water tank, or a longer term programme which allows you to really integrate yourself into a community and spend months (or even years!) getting to know the locals and supporting the community.
But is volunteering always a good idea? Who, in the end, does it actually benefit? Are these young people making a difference to those in need or simply soothing their own conscience? Despite the seemingly genuine intentions of those who choose to volunteer many criticisms have arisen surrounding the integrity and usefulness of some volunteer programmes. Some argue that volunteering has changed into a form of ‘voluntourism’, where the volunteering has become viewed as a new ‘novelty’ form of travel, and these organisations and individuals are actually placing a heavier burden on the communities they are trying to assist by using up resources and requiring accommodation and food.
Though it could be said that volunteering can have its downsides the accounts of two young volunteers, Kathy Impey and Josie Orr, and their personal experiences with international volunteer work seem to provide solid evidence that the overseas volunteer experience can be a life-enriching experience and a worthwhile endeavor for both for the volunteer and the locals.
Why did you decide to volunteer overseas?
I was basically looking for something to do after I finished my degree (BA in Human Geography) that was related to what I had studied, so it just came at the right time really. Also I was interested in travelling but wanted to do more than just go as a tourist. Also growing up with both parents having done volunteer assignments made me aware of what an awesome experience it is!
Who did you work for and what kind of work did you do?
I worked for Wan Smolbag Theatre, a not for profitorganisation set up by two expats 21 years ago. The organisation uses drama to inform, raise awareness and encourage public discussion on a range of contemporary health, lifestyle, environment and governance issues.
Five years ago they opened their youth centre, where I worked. The youth centre was established to provide out-of-school and unemployed youth, who basically who had nothing to do, with informal classes, workshops, and activities e.g. hip hop dance, nutrition, playing guitar, sewing, agriculture and sports. Enrolment wasn’t just for youth (with the youngest enrolled member 3 and the oldest 53!) so activities catered for all ages.
What were the biggest issues facing the young people you were working with over in Vanuatu? How did you work with them and the other volunteers/locals to deal with these problems?
Unemployment is a major problem for Port Vila, as many youth from the outer islands and rural areas move to Port Vila in the hope to get paid work, but with such high demand and very little jobs available, many find themselves unemployed with nothing to do. This can lead to petty crime and youth turning to drugs etc. which are both becoming big issues for Vila. Through the activities the centre runs we were directly responding to the needs of the youth, giving children, youth and adults a chance to gain skills and experience, and participate in new activities.
What is the most important lesson you learnt from volunteering?
That no matter who we are, where we live, or our backgrounds, culture or language we really are all the same, we all experience the same situations in our lives and we can all learn from one another! Friendship is one of the most important things you can give to someone, and receive especially when you’re living in another country away from those you know!
Do you intend to volunteer again?
Yes I hope to volunteer again! I believe volunteering is the best way to travel – you get a real feel for the country you are visiting/living in and getting to know the locals means you get see the ‘real’ life of where you are. As well as being able to give back and contribute (if only in a small way) to the lives of the locals.
Why did you decide to volunteer overseas?
I had a long standing interest in Africa generally but especially South Africa (SA), my parents had lived in SA before I was born and left at the peak of apartheid when it became too problematic for them to stay. My father was teaching at a ‘black’ township school at a time when it was made illegal for white people to enter the townships. So I grew up attending anti-apartheid marches and surrounded by stories and photos of SA. On finishing high school I studied Human Geography and Social Work at university with the intention of gaining skills and knowledge that would enable me to travel to Africa.
Who did you work for and what kind of work did you do?
I worked at an activities centre in Mdantsane and I did a huge range of work, much of it not what I had expected to do, and most of it was just a case of getting involved and doing whatever needed doing. Officially I was a junior programmes advisor, so I worked with a team of local youth volunteers and a small core of local staff to plan, co-ordinate and run after school activities including like soccer, setting up a girls self-defense programme (I have a black belt in TKD and a sports coaching back-ground) and teaching basic computer skills.
What was your biggest reservation/fear going into the volunteer programme?
That I wouldn’t actually have much to offer by way of skills or knowledge, I felt very inexperienced and worried that I might seem arrogant as a young outsider arriving there and expecting that I knew enough to be able to help. As it was my fears were silly, I had very supportive colleagues who were so accepting and positive from day one, although there were inevitably some misunderstandings, they let me learn from my own mistakes and I learnt to be guided, but also to speak up when I felt I could contribute.
How did the reality of your experience differ from your initial expectations?
My expectations were fairly accurate having studied SA a lot and travelled there as a child. Going back I was surprised how extreme the racial segregation remained, and how much your skin still defined how you were perceived and what was expected of you. I had perhaps been a bit naïve, but being a white foreigner (and young, female, blonde etc) meant that I was very conspicuous in the townships and when I travelled. I got used to being stared at and questioned about my life, for many people it was the first time they had been spoken to as equals by a white person, so there was a lot of curiosity and attention.
What was one of the most important things you got out of your experience?
Breaking down racial barriers and making human connections was one of the most rewarding aspects of being there, watching the kids in the preschool move from being initially scared of me, to climbing all over me and treating me as a huge novelty, then by the end of the year, just giving me a hug, saying hello and carrying on as normal- that transition to seeing me as just another person was a huge shift.
One thing that is quite important to me is that here in NZ often people hear only about the bad things in SA, the crime, the povertyetc, those things are true in some ways, but hearing about the positive side of SA is something that happens a lot less, and I try to draw on my UNIVOL experience and speaking opportunities/interviews to get the message across that despite its problems and bad press, SA also has a very positive story to tell, and I hope this comes through in my answers to your questions.
VSA Project Friendship
Over 200 schools and Girl Guide units took part in VSA Project Friendship, held from August 9 to 15. More than 37,000 handwoven friendship bracelets went on sale during the week to help raise awareness about the work that VSA volunteers do, working alongside communities striving for change in the pacific Asia and Africa.
This year VSA Project Friendship focused on youth. Money from each sale will be used to support VSA volunteers who are working with young people on issues such as children’s rights, HIV/AIDS and the environment.
There was an enthusiastic response from those who took part. Amanda Moore, a member of the senior council at Kaitaia College in Northland, says they decided to support Project Friendship because they think VSA is a good organisation. She says the response they got from other students was really positive – “they were really interested” – and that even the boys at the school were keen to buy bracelets.
“They were all buying them for their friends, which is really nice.”
Three young VSA volunteers also wrote blogs to provide further insight into the challenges faced by the Kiwi volunteers and young people in developing countries They will keep blogging till the end of September – check out their blog posts, it’s a great chance to get the inside story on the role that young New Zealanders play in the global community.