Volunteering for a wake up call

The complicated lessons learned from volunteering overseas.

Three years ago, I set off on a volunteering trip to India, driven by a desire to better understand social action, and to feel like I was making an impact in the world. I was an idealist. Since then, I have gone on another two volunteer experiences, greatly shaping my views on activism and change making.

Part I: Exposed

In the summer of 2015 I set off for Udaipur, India – the Venice of the East. As a half Indian, half Australian, I was enamoured by the idea of returning to the ‘fatherland’ for a group volunteering trip. I hoped it would provide me with some perspective and connection with how people in other societies lived. As well as being seen as more worldly, I’d hoped that I’d score some good conversation material from my experiences to bring back home.

I spent my mornings in a school teaching English, and as the sun set over the Aravalli hills, I’d then see out my afternoons making a Bollywood remake, short film with the children at a local boy’s home. All created with passion, killer dance moves and a single iPhone, I felt I was giving them an opportunity to be creative that they rarely received. I hoped it would be a memorable and exciting experience for children whose days of working, prayers and school meld into a smoothie of sameness.

The warm feeling of “doing good” was blinding me to the reality of what little change I had actually impacted.

While I felt a kind of fulfilment in this, I realised it was simply grooming my ego. The warm feeling of “doing good” was blinding me to the reality of what little change I had actually impacted.

Returning to day to day life in Australia, reflections on my trip to India weren’t settling well. Not only did my everyday problems seem petty in comparison, but all of my stories, the ones I had been passionately desperate to relay, felt shallow. I found myself only using the pronoun ‘I’ to recount my experiences, and grew doubtful I was responsible for any meaningful change.

When I saw that the organisation which oversaw my trip was requesting donations from past volunteers, the veil dropped on what my real value to the group was. A paying participant, and not much more.

This type of volunteer story is all too common. An eagerness to help out in the wider world trumps the substance of the trip itself. Humbled, I researched other overseas volunteering options that addressed my concerns.

Part II: Reformed

I explored different volunteering trips on blogs and social media, as well as my university’s global mobility website. After weeks of internet searches and talks with other student volunteers, I discovered something I wanted to pursue. The trip was also to rural India, and was subsidised under an Australian government scheme.

I saw this as a positive, not just for its impact on my wallet, but because it made me feel that I would be more valued for what I could offer as a volunteer, and not just for my money.

So the next university break, I found myself surrounded by traffic, terrace yoga, kids playing cricket, and cows. I was back, but this time with a clear agenda – to create “actual” change.

I was part of a team of other volunteers trying to set up an English course for girls and housewives. Initially we were met with a positive reception from the women in the community. But whilst sipping our chai tea in the house of an unschooled young mother, her husband walked in and banned her from engaging with us.

He refused to allow her to leave the house for anything unrelated to housekeeping and child rearing, with other husbands in the village following suit. This project couldn’t continue.

To say this was heartbreaking would be an understatement. This was a constant roadblock in India, and it made us realise the naivety of our expectations for the trip. Agenda setting had backfired, and left me with a deflated feeling – again. However, we did change tacks to provide access to educational resources in a local shop.  We supplied a hindi-english translation dictionary with the hopes that the women in the community may purchase it at low cost, and give themselves an opportunity to develop their own education. It was our silver lining.

Part III: Hopeful

Cautious due to the many over reaching expectations and inevitable setbacks after my second trip, I again volunteered a few months later to lead a team for the same social enterprise organisation. I almost turned it down, as I still felt I was at a loss for how to make any actionable difference over there but felt that a more responsible role would give more agency to learn, engage and work with the realities of the community.

This time it was a longitudinal study, documentary project. This in itself was my most challenging experience yet. Working 14-hour days, we produced four mini-documentaries in one month. Yet, engaging with the local community through this, listening to and helping tell their stories, made this the most rewarding trip I had participated in.

It made me realise that as a volunteer, my biggest lesson should never have been expecting instant gratification from the work I was doing. It should have been focusing on truly understanding context and community to direct where development gaps exist. From that we can find a way in which we can provide the tools for the community to make a change for themselves.

It made me realise that as a volunteer, my biggest lesson should never have been expecting instant gratification from the work I was doing.

Finally, I had authentic stories to share about my time in India, ones that showed a true, incremental development of social impact. And that the locals involved felt their stories were being valued.

Whether in conversations upon my return, or through others viewing the documentaries we made, by sharing the reality of life in this part of the world, I hope it can help make some small social change. Even just in the way we think.

So, would I recommend a volunteering trip? Of course. To implement social development requires many minds to come together and actively participate. But, be sure to research what you’ll be doing, and don’t set wild expectations of the trip.

Be in a constant search for a more innovative way to action change, catering to the community you are in. It’s not always easy, it’s often harsh and uncomfortable. But in lending our time to aid each other, we can aim to keep our world running on a more equal footing.

Nisha Labade studies a Bachelor of Media Communications and is majoring in Music at the University of Sydney.

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