Volunteering: it's not Disneyland!

01-06-2015 12:30

During the fifteen months I spent in Quito as a volunteer, this is definitely the phrase I used more than any other. Volunteering in a developing country is not a school trip or a visit to an amusement park. If you had a "super great fantastic trip", you've probably just been on a holiday, safe and protected, without seeing the less "super great fanatastic" parts of life and your work there. Holidays are great too, of course! But then just go on a holiday...

It's great that all those sweet little kids want to hug everybody, but considering the kind of environment you / they are in, it's just a sign that there's something terribly wrong with their social context and development. That's not exclusively something that happens to orphans: here at the Quito markets the reason is often not the physical absence of family, but (a combination of) violence, abuse and neglect. That makes it all less "great" to me. By hugging the children for a few weeks or months without a bigger plan guided by professionals, working together and sharing responsibilities with the parents, the communities and the governmental institutions, you won't change a thing. No matter how great the experience may be for you. 

Besides that, life in a developing country isn't all cakes an ale, at all. That is, if you don't spend all day and night in a group of tourists. In Quito that means: you're continiously in a state of food poisening, recovery from it or on your way to get it, you have flue more often than at home and it's more severe, your roof leaks and your door and window too, and because you draw the attention as a foreigner, people hassle you in the streets. They can be drunk, stoned, both, or just annoying. The police don't do their job at all, or not well, and you never really know on which side they are. Safety is an issue, always and everywhere.

There are about one hundred and twenty "small incidents" in the city, like pickpocketing and robberies with a knife, either just pointed at you, or held against your stomach or throat, or used to cut through your bag in the crowded public transport. People who hear these stories, ususally smile and shake their heads. It could've been a lot worse. 

And sometimes it was: a volunteer got drugged with scopolamine and got robbed, a girl got raped, someone had a gun pointed at his head, another got beaten up in the streets and a long term volunteer was stabbed in her leg with a knife, and stayed in the hospital for twelve days. These are not things we just heard or read somewhere, these were all our volunteers. Don't act as if you're at home!

Apart from that, it's not easy at all to realize structural changes with your contribution to a project. Peaople don't hold their promises they fail you, or they forget to give you important information so you're delayed all the time, or you simply have to start all over again. Bureaucracy is even worse than in Europe. You'll always be the gringo/a, so you have to be very aware of your attitude and words when you're colaborating with Ecuadorians, especially those with a certain authority. As a woman, be twice as aware of that. 

Rules change half way the year, and then half we the other half again, and agreements are only valid until the last time that they were confirmed. Just when you think tha a family or a child is making progress, something happens so you'll have to start from zero again. 

And then there's the cultrual differences in everyday life: here outside the rich and organized west, people live today. That sounds romantic, but it's just the need to survive. I need to feed my children today, why would I think about tomorrow if I'm not even sure if we'll make it? It's really (!) hard to build processes and projects for the long term because it's so hard to motivate people for things that don't bring them concrete results on the short term. That's totally understandable, but still it can make you desperate sometimes. 

A super great fantastic trip? I think that for who's seen the reality behind the safe and protected world, and who really wants to tray to change tht reality a bit for the better, volunteering is actually a combination of small victories and moments of joy among big disappointments, powerlessness and frustration.

But definitely worth it, for sure!