A while ago, I wrote about the precarious situation of volunteers and how, in quite a few cases, they do nothing more than fulfil a sense of self-worth and provide a good stock of stories of that time you were ‘living in the bush’ *insert trivial anecdote here*.
BUT, today I bumped into a couple of the girls who I led on a trip to Malawi in the summer of 2011. And, in keeping with wanting to look at positive stories and messages relating to Africa, I want to follow up on my previous post about volunteers with a positive tone! Our team was about 10 strong and we spent 3 weeks in two different parts of Malawi. The trip was a success in my eyes because the team spent time with projects that I was working with long term in my work as a development-do-er (!) and we were only adding to/supporting existing projects rather than trying to start anything new. It was a Christian mission trip, and we therefore spent time with missionaries and their projects (there’s another post in the pipeline looking at the work of missionaries in Malawi). The team were very carefully selected and after previous experience with NOT vetting thoroughly the volunteers ahead of time, I put in place a vigorous process by which we could select volunteers based on their motivations, skills and maturity and also prepare them before the trip by briefing them properly and dispelling any romantic ‘save Africa’ visions they might have (which they didn’t).
Despite all the hard work, when it came down to it the trip was incredible on a lot of levels but particularly because of the maturity and depth of character showed by many of the team. For most, this was the furthest out of their comfort zone they had ever been and yet they acted with more maturity than a lot of people I know (the average team age was 17). Getting to know each individual, and to be a part of their experience in Malawi – for me to share the place I lived, worked, loved with them – well, it was such a privilege and only motivates me to want to lead more volunteering trips in the future. Seeing them now as they prepare to go off to university, and seeing how the trip changed them – well it’s pretty special to be honest. I worked a lot around Malawi and it was obvious to me where the benefits were of what the team did, I could see that we had a positive impact on local communities quite easily, but being away from the UK had distanced me from seeing the change in the team members themselves.
It’s easy to bash volunteers, and it’s easy to get caught up in the expertise that we all have (varying levels of) with regard to development, moaning about how a particular discourse is damaging. It’s good to strive for better, and indeed my experiences helped me to shape the team’s trip to Malawi in a way that I felt was positive for all BUT, sometimes it’s cool to celebrate the small and simple things. Sometimes it’s good to recognise the importance of nurturing a growing plant and watching it become something bigger and more beautiful! In that way then, I dedicate this post to the volunteers that took part in Mission Malawi 2011, for their ‘can-d0’ attitude and their futures that await them. I celebrate the fact that they even GAVE a damn, for wanting to go somewhere like Malawi (no where near as glamorous or ‘fun’ as Bali or inter-railing round Europe all summer like others that age do in the summer…) and that they have not returned full of arrogance about their experiences, but that they have returned with a better understanding about the world out ‘there’ and a desire to help make it better one day. We can talk about smart aid and have intellectual discussions about how to improve things in the here and now, but how important is it to encourage the younger generation about smart aid and good development practice, to prepare them for a future where they are leading and making decisions? Very, if you ask me…