‘And that’s how I became a qualified doctor.’
The pride and struggle in Carla’s voice was warm and genuine as she recalled the life that had led her to be sat here. Sat in front of our 40 stunned and silent faces which clung on to every word.
If there was ever to be a better advert for voluntourism done right, this was it.
It is often referred to as ‘white privilege’ that usually takes us into these situations but it is also white privilege that lets us sit back and judge it, and those that do ‘it’. It is a subject that divides opinion, can be completely abused but can also have an impact we will never be able to fathom.
Voluntourism has got a lot of bad press in recent years, and in many cases, this is rightly so. But I am scared, scared these articles I keep reading and the organisations without the right heart will stop people from making a difference, from making a real change to our fellow humans and that is not how we move this world forward.
Right now I am in Mexico to build a house. It’s my first time in the country and instead of exploring all the best things to see in Mexico, my first time here will be a little different.
I’m sat here stunned and silent. It is the end of day one and Carla, who has been through these organisations caring steps for twenty years is the living proof of the power of empowerment tourism which is what voluntourism tourism needs to be.
We all think we know what’s best for others, we all have our opinion on the situation. But have you ever asked the people these programmes reach out to for their thoughts? The effect on their life? Can anyone of us ever truly understand how someone from a world so different to ours really feels?
‘I remember the smiles. I was a kid. Kids just want love and fun. Kids don’t know they are poor, kids just want to enjoy the moment’
In all honesty, I had never looked at the developing world through the eyes of a child. Meeting Sabai in Laos and her telling me how lucky I am came close, but as she played in the dirt with a burnt stick I knew she didn’t fully know what the rest of the world was like. She only knew hers and it wasn’t my job to shower pity on her and try to change it solo.
Carla told us she remembered the visitors, however, short they came for. They had time to play with her and make her laugh whilst her parents were busy working. It was to be those visitors that eventually allowed her to become a doctor so she could continue giving back to others.
It was, in fact, her decision to move into an orphanage. She wasn’t purchased, she wasn’t stolen. She was decided on doing the best thing for her.
Sadly, not all orphanages and little girls dreams are like this. This is why research is key. A fair few of those people involved with ‘poor’ countries see any resource as money and tattered clothes and teary eyes translate into just that. For some children, they become nothing more than an exhibit in a cash based museum, but the key word is some. It breaks my heart when I see kids being left on the sideline or parents not being acknowledged. Helping people shouldn’t be limited just to those who are ‘the cutest’.
Walking into a community like this and focusing your intention on those who won the genetic lottery is exactly what can bring Voluntourism such a bad rep.
But it is a fact. Poverty does still exist on such a grand scale and with that, of course, the need of orphanages is still prevalent. So writing blanket articles about how they shouldn’t be supported is not the answer.
Carla took herself to an orphanage as she wanted an education. She wanted a place to play with other children and learn and she knew her parents were simply unable to provide everything at that moment in time.
She wanted to be a little girl growing up. Not a grown up that was a little girl.
The dust parted as a mother pushed her pram through the dirt under her bare feet. It wasn’t a child that sat in the brown stained seat of the chair, it was her families survival. The clean water she had travelled to collect that morning. A surprisingly healthy dog trotted contentedly behind her, unaware of the unfairness in this world that was so evident to my eyes. He was seeing the world like a little child, just a big playground.
In place of swings, they had puddles. In place of toys, they had offcuts. In place of fun, they had fun. It’s essential not to forget that. Keeping these children healthy has to be the main focus, the second is allowing them to be just that, children.
It was day two of the House Build and I turned to the new house. Walls were up, wiring for the solar panels was going in and the group of mainly unqualified but dedicated builders were being led under the expert eye of the multiple local and foreign professionals who had dedicated their life to this cause.
Behind the bright blue wooden walls of the new house sat their current home. A stretched sign from the side of the road was tied down to boxes and discarded wooden panels. The same dust and dirt that had parted so easily beneath the mother’s feet minutes before were, in fact, their carpet.
Dominga peered through the hole in the wall intently, unaware of my presence. She cradled her youngest in one arm as she careful caressed the rough edges waiting to be sanded down. I glanced back again to the old home. There was no window for her to peer in or out of there. There was no floor. There was no hygiene. She smiled briefly to herself and turned away. This was to be her new home and for whatever individual reasons that these 40 people were here to build it I knew in that moment it didn’t matter. Her world was changing for the better.
Without action, everything stays the same.
The houses which sit among the dust and dirt of old agricultural land still hold the dangerous substances within from their years of farming work. Beyond the brown lies fields of green crops, broken by the odd sunflower trying to bring colour to a landscape surrounded by mountains. Those who have travelled for sometimes days stand on the side of the fields hoping to be employed for the following hours. The wage increase nearer the border of the USA for many was reason enough to make that journey.
The indigenous people of Mexico, like much of the rest of the world, don’t live in the fairest of conditions. With their own language and struggles, it’s opportunities like this which can empower them and provide much-needed essentials. That has never been more obvious to me than when visiting a migrant camp here in Mexico. Whilst providing long-term supplies of basics such as soap, toothpaste and rice to homes that were essentially cattle sheds a noise broke through the barking dogs.
A young boy was playing the recorder behind one of these walls. It was a stark contrast to my Year 2 recorder recitals in a warm classroom wearing a clean school uniform. That’s the true meaning of luck to me, the country and opportunities I was born into.
Someone in the group broke the silence. “Carla, Thank you for sharing your story. What do you see next for you?”
‘I hope now that I have been given this chance I am able to give it to others. To have the chance to become a Doctor was such a dream and the kindness of others made that possible. Now, I can save lives.’
Voluntourism should be about this. It is not just about saving a life or throwing money at a problem. It is about developing skills and giving people the chance to thrive on their own.
So before you criticises it in a blanket statement, next time remember Carla. Remember how she felt about all those faces. Remember how many lives will be saved now by her.
That is the power of changing even just one person’s life and it should never be taken away because the media can’t articulate properly.
If you are still a bit lost about my referral to bad Voluntourism let me give you an insight…
“A 2008 study surveyed 300 organisations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.” – New York Times
As you can see this is a big money business, an easy one to abuse for those who want to take people’s goodwill and turn it into a cash machine.
Simply searching the word on Google the first page will supply you with countless questions about its worthiness. The NY Times questions the voluntourists dilemma whilst the Huffington post tells the story of the problem of White Privilege and an ex-volunteers take on the situation. For the sake of a balanced argument, I urge you to read these, learn from others mistakes and then go out there and do some good for this world.
The one thing I notice about these articles? There are quotes from Charity Directors and Experts or from people who have jumped on a flight, done a little research and then were shocked when their experience wasn’t what they expected. To me, it’s pretty obvious if you are to travel to a country without an interpreter then learning the language is essential before you can teach anyone.
But not one of these articles has a quote from someone who has been through that process. Who has lived in those Orphanages. Who has become a doctor because of the very thing they are now lamenting.
It is essential to understand there are problems within this industry. Some just because of natural flaws and some because of evil people taking advantage. However, there is also a lot of good in it. Research is key, ensuring that locals do get jobs out of this, that experts are there to ensure a job well done. Being confident a follow-up plan is in place.
As I taught Dominga, the mother of this new house, how to use anti-bac and a broom for the floor or glass cleaner for the window it reminded me just how important the next stage is. You can’t expect someone who has never had a window before to know how to keep it clean. In that exact vein, you can’t just build a community a school and then expect them to find the funds for desks, teachers and school books after you leave with your great memories and selfies of helping others.
Sustainability is key and the number one thing I, and you, should be looking for in a project like this.
Want to know the one thing I realised this weekend as a sceptic of this industry?I couldn’t give a fuck what brought people here for the last 20 years. Whether it was because they wanted a cute new photo for their Facebook Profile or their faith in a religion I personally don’t believe in.
They came. They gave money and, most importantly, they gave their time.
That is a lot more than most and that is how little girls, and boys, dreams can come true.
As long as no one is getting harmed in the process, and I can’t stress that enough, then really – how can anyone criticise that?
‘…and that’s how I became a qualified doctor.’
If you want to find out more information about the project work in Mexico you can follow the Baja Bound Facebook page or sign up at The Greatness Foundation for newsletter alerts about when the next project will be. Currently, the minimum donation is $300 including transport, food, accommodation, wages for the professionals and all materials to build the house. Mike, the founder of The Greatness Foundation hopes to be able next year to remove the minimum donation through their own funding to allow more people the chance to join these trips without restrictions.
More people to meet a little girl like Carla.
More people to change not just her life, but help her change countless others.
A Huge thank you to Meagan Kathleen Photography for documenting this trip and allowing me the chance to put the camera down and truly get into the moment.