When I was younger my dad used to have a running subscription to National Geographic which yielded a fountain of fascinating and foreign stories. The beautiful scenery of the Rainbow Mountains contrasted with the powerful yet gruesome tales of predators in the Savannah not only ignited in me what I soon learned to be called “the travel bug”, but also it was my first glimpse at life outside of my little seaside bubble in the city of Halifax. I couldn’t stop ogling the diverse landscapes, or the animals that sounded like they came out of Narnia, however, what I found most shocking was how much the lives of other people differed to mine. Laced between the white pages of articles and bright idealistic images was always one black page that boldly stood out. It showcased a child, just a few years my junior, with what looked like the top of their lip attached to the bottom of their nose – an advertisement that encouraged readers to donate to children in developing countries that had cleft palate. “These poor kids in Africa”, thought my 10 year old self as I tried to wrap my head around the injustice of it all, “It’s not fair that they don’t have any hospitals to go to to get this fixed!” And from that point forward I told myself that I would save all the kids in Africa from cleft palate.
As I got older, the call to take action kept ringing louder and louder in my ear; I wanted to make a change and I wanted to do it now. Quite obviously at fourteen my dream to become a philanthropist surgeon was out of the question, but something appeared in my life that made my dreams of saving Africa not so far fetched. My school introduced an extracurricular program called “Free the Children” (now called WE) which was implemented with the goal of bringing awareness to issues of inequality around the globe. Aside from allowing for local branches to be set up, Free the Children also offered youth volunteer trips to places like Tanzania and Kenya to, as they put it on their website, “Work alongside rural communities in the heart of the vast Savannah.” WOW! What a perfect way for me to help! Without any training, skill, or prior knowledge of the place I would be traveling I would finally be able to fulfill my longtime dream of becoming a humanitarian superstar! Knowing that it would be difficult to persuade my mom to let me travel such a distance I started to do some research and craft a powerpoint, my main method of persuasion, with reasons of why I should be allowed to go. However, as I dove deeper and deeper into the oceans of information about service trips that is available on the internet I stumbled along headlines that delegitimized everything I stood for – and once I fell into the black hole I could not get out. Pages upon pages of facts and studies explaining the psychological impacts of creating temporary relationships with children, the capitalist nature of many voluntourism organizations and the incredible inefficiency of their volunteer work. How could this be true? I grew up in a world that had told me that my help was desperately needed in the countries I was researching, yet UNICEF Cambodia reported that even though the number of orphans in Cambodia was decreasing, the number of orphanages in 2005-2011 increased by ⅔’s (https://www.unicef.org/cambodia/press-centre). This almost exactly mirrors the jump in voluntourism surrounding orphanages at that time. In an instant my mindset changed. How could I have so naively supported an institution that went against my motives to volunteer in the first place, to help people? It was here that I hit one of the first big turning points in my life and my view on the world shifted. It was the first time that I realized the dangers of making uninformed decisions and the possible consequences of the actions that could have come with it.
When I was seventeen years old I hit another turning point. I began a new chapter of my life on the other side of the country when I began to attend a school called Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific, a pre-university program that attempts to foster the leadership abilities of its 200 students from over 80 countries. The first few weeks upon my arrival rolled by in a blur and soon, like at many other schools, it was time for the activities fair. We sat in an auditorium as each extracurricular club had a chance to present themselves and convince you to take part in their activity. I scribbled notes in my journal, citing the pros and cons of each club, but my pen stopped short when my roommate went up on stage to present the club that she lead, KULE. “KULE believes in improving people’s lives through the sharing of resources, knowledge and cultures. We bring together change-makers from all over the world to the rural areas of Kenya and Uganda to participate in an experience of mutual learning and growth with the local communities”, (Taken from the KULE website https://kulefoundation.com/).
I felt my brain swelling with frustration. I THOUGHT THIS SCHOOL WAS DIFFERENT! I could not believe that at such a progressive, diverse school they would even think about starting a program like this. What surprised me even more was that the teacher who fostered the evolution of the project, Geoffrey, was from the area in Kenya that the organization worked in.
Stupefied, in the months to follow I watched my friends and two of my three roommates attend weekly KULE meetings working on projects that were unknown to me but worked towards their ultimate goal of a trip to Kenya, the kind of trip that seemed to embody the controversial volunteering I had read about. However, none of this seemed to add up. Tuva, my roommate who presented the program to the school on the first day, has the strongest morals of anyone I know. There’s no way she would have taken part in any type of program that would so blatantly abuse a system to her benefit. On top of my absolute faith in Tuva’s inability to break her moral code, I also knew logically, that Geoffrey would never start a program in his own country that would bring harm to the people who raised him. So what made KULE different? Did Geoffrey actually manage to create a program that enabled cross-cultural communication and aid without any of the detrimental side effects? It was difficult for me to believe, but nevertheless something I intended to figure out, and as Studs Terkel wisely said, “I want people to talk to one another no matter what their difference of opinion might be”. So Tuva and I talked.
I, like Beccah, and many more, I aspire to do good. I too go through the never-ending fight of what exactly is good and how I best can apply my skills to do so. No matter how daunting this issue is there is one thing I know: this reflection is valuable and therefore I treasure it.
KULE presented itself to me as a perfect opportunity and an easy avenue to accomplish the “good” I want to do. We would fundraise for a year, followed by an organized trip to Kenya, better yet, with friends from my school. However, this is not what KULE is or why I chose to dedicate much of my two last years to this small organization led by my teacher, Geoffrey.
It is in the name. KULE: Kumbuka Universal Learning Experience. KULE is an organization that could easily succumb to the same mistakes of many other NGOs, yet I would argue that it has not and that my “Service trip to Kenya” was in fact, and I am sure my fellow KULEans would agree, a mutual learning experience.
The most important lesson I have learned in my short 18 years is that in the process of finding a way to do “good” it is easier to do more damage than anything else. I was afraid that my trip to Kenya would be exactly that. Many say ignorance is bliss, this is what makes it dangerous. The fundamental problem with “volunteerism” is the lack of understanding of what needs to be done. In my case this was the feeling of bliss that I thought would come from “helping” the children in Africa. However, I’ve learned that going the easy way to feel like you are doing good is counterproductive.
KULE allowed two things to happen to me. It provided an opportunity for intercultural experiential learning, and an opportunity for me to work against ignorance among others while also trying to educate myself.
I spent my first weeks of summer planning for the trip, and I grew nervous. When people asked me where I was going and I told them about my trip to Kenya I received two types of responses. Unfortunately the more common exemplified what I was afraid of, that my attempt at doing good would do more harm:
“Volunteering in Africa, how amazing! Good for you!”
Internally I cringed. Had my fear of counterproductive action come true, was I really that naïve? What good would it do if I set out to break down barriers while my actions simply strengthened “the single story”? A story supporting the account of young students “helping” the children in Africa.
In contrast there were times where I got a different type of reply, one that challenged the intentions of my actions. People demanding answers that forced me out of the comfort of replying; to do good. People would question me on my motives, bring up the disturbing information that was discussed earlier all putting into perspective why I wanted to travel in the first place.
This brings me back to the importance of learning and knowledge. How can I do good if I don’t have knowledge of how to do so? To do “good” I had to seek learning experiences.
When I sat on my Air France flight to Kenya and the sun rose over the horizon my stomach was in knots. Thoughts of how I could make this into what I wanted it to be roamed my mind and did not leave. The articles Beccah read, I had read them too, and as I set my foot in Jomo Kenyatta international airport one surprising mantra stayed in my head: “Do not take hugging selfies with the children” – I am glad it did. I never wanted to “save” someone who clearly did not need saving. I also did not want to show the single story that I had read about. In hindsight, I think that this awareness made a difference, especially in how I portrayed the trip to others. KULE is different because I was surrounded by people who knew of these dangers and actively attempted to avoid making them a reality.
As we traveled around Muranga county I was amazed by the wealth of information I took in. Obviously building a school in Mukangu, which would further the teaching in the community was worthwhile, but it was far from the most rewarding. What KULE facilitated happened knee deep in the mud. Instead of taking a trip to simply observe many of the “rural villages” like many other large voluntourism organizations, we began to integrate ourselves in the community, not as superiors, but as equals and guests. Walking along the streets in Mukang’a while people stopped to ask, “Are you Geoffrey’s students?” gave me the assurance that I was not as big of a foreigner as I initially dreaded. We immersed ourselves in everyday life, pushing a van up a hill together with the people in the community as we discussed why Russia should win the world cup in football. I bargained at a market while my Kenyan friend from school stood nearby silently enjoying my obvious lack of skill. She didn’t help me. It wasn’t her job to – the same way it wasn’t her job to help her friends at home. When you’re trying to understand a new culture you can’t expect to have special treatment because then the experience would be inauthentic. It was an experience where barriers between people from around the world were gone and where learning from each other took place. The authenticity of my time there seemed legitimate, as opposed to a watering down of a culture that was new to me so I wouldn’t be pushed outside of my comfort zone.
I know my experience was unique, and ideally, this is how “volunteerism” should work. I also know that in order for this type of organizations to do “good” it is dependent on people like Geoffrey. The value of having an “insider” cannot be stressed enough as the needs of the particular community can be better understood. One of the most unique aspects of KULE is that it is lead by an individual who truly understands where the help of the volunteers is needed. It is also imperative in its success that Geoffrey had no ulterior motives to the project accessed from helping. He makes zero profit from the trips thus eliminating the possible failures of other organizations that come from greed.
Without the knowledge and perspective Geoffrey provided, it would not have been an experience of mutual learning but rather foreigners coming to educate.
Faster than a “borda-borda” in the Nairobi traffic the most educational weeks of my life came to an end but ahead of me was still the most important job. What would I bring back from Mukanga and share that would give a knowledgeable understanding of what I learned?
When the doors opened and I walked out of Gardermoen Airport in Oslo and one of my relatives asked “How was Africa?”, my heart sank. The next weeks were no better, I kindly replied every time; KENYA was good. I realized that my most important job and the way I could actually do good lay in front of me.
Ignorance is bliss, and that is what makes it dangerous. Though its structure is different than many of the other volunteer organizations making the trips significantly less similar to the ones Beccah and I both disapprove of, KULE gave me the knowledge to seek further understanding and challenge the ideas we think we fully understand. Knowing that in order for my experience to be what I wanted it to be, I had to acknowledge that I could not simply go to Kenya and lift a couple of rocks, this is not what is needed! Even though ignoring this would have given me the instant gratification that many look for, I knew that that was not my ultimate goal. I wanted to make a difference, and that meant looking beyond myself and towards what was actually needed from me which I discovered may not have been found where I traveled to, but where I came from.
The trip to Kenya became a mutual learning experience I shared with some of my fellow students and the students and people in Mukangu.
And so my question was answered. Though I continue to remain skeptical of many organizations in this world who promote “saving the children of Africa” it is possible under the right conditions to create projects that seemingly look identical, but do not possess the aspects that make them detrimental. When stripping any idea to its core it is always critical to question the motives behind it and analyze the problems that could arise out of implementing it. Finding integrative solutions which utilize systems that are already set in place is crucial to creating projects that limit disruption thus allowing them to be purely beneficial. All in all we can always do good with our ideas, but we need to start looking for solutions instead of the easy way out.