Updated: Apr 29
My deep rooted hate for people of privilege setting off to vulnerable communities to 'save the world', stems from nothing more than my very own privileged experience of such.
Through my academic studies I have learnt how important it is to learn from first-hand experiences; particularly on topics involving the development industry. The concept of development is continually changing and evolving, and subsequently, it is necessary that in order for effective change, we learn from people’s mistakes. This is where I would like to share my story, and I am sure many others can either relate personally or know someone who has also been in my position.
It was the end of 2015. I was 18 years old; and like many other 18 year old's, I was lost and searching for myself. I convinced myself, as did many online volunteer programs, that the best way to find what I was looking for, was to travel thousands of kilometres across the globe and 'help' the 'less fortunate'.
Only problem was, they didn't ask for my help.
At 18 years old, I had no qualifications, except a completed secondary level of education to place on my resume.
I arrived in Tanzania full of a lot of niave hopes and desires. I was placed with one of the most successful international volunteer 'programs' known as International Volunteer Head Quarters or IVHQ; who sold me a trip of a 'life time'.
Their selling point is affordability.
I was dazzled with a multitude of emotively charged videos, otherwise known as poverty porn, to entice me to want to do the same. I was promised a 'fun time' that was rewarding, whilst at the same time 'giving back' to those in need. It was the ideal package for someone wanting to help and to also see another way of life while on holiday. It was perfect for someone young and niave, with good intentions but highly uneducated. It was nothing more than an extremely clever business scheme; one now known now as 'voluntourism.'
At 18 years old, I was placed in one of IVHQ Tanzania's newest partnerships, an orphanage just outside of Arusha. Along with a dear friend of mine, we were to attend this orphanage everyday for three weeks. The orphanage was home to 16 children between the ages of 4 and 12 years old. However, more children would come during the day for classes.
To sum up my experience at the orphanage is very hard in a few paragraphs; but I will try my best to summarise it clearly.
Abuse, neglect, exploitation and greed were all major concerns and serious issues we witnessed from the onset of our arrival. Our first call for concern came when the items that had been requested of us to bring for the children disappeared; only to find that the owner was bringing them home for his daughter to keep.
Shortly after our arrival, the teacher who had been taking the classes for the children during the day stopped turning up to teach. Which meant, me and my friend we were left in charge of over 30 children each day.
I think it's important to emphasise again, that I was just 18 years old at the time.
We then quickly discovered that these classes were in fact not actual classes, and it appeared we were engaging with a 'front' for what we can only imagine was a way to continue to legally keep the orphanage running, or a way to keep bringing in more volunteers.
It was at this point that the realisation came of how serious and negative my impact was.
As a result of the teacher disappearing, this also meant that lunch had disappeared for the children. We would later discover also, that lunch was the only meal these children were receiving at the time. It was now our responsibility to feed all children attending the orphanage during the day. The only meals I ever saw given to these children were a basic sugar and flour water mix.
A few blocks away from the orphanage, was the beginnings of the construction of a new building to house the children; all funded by previous volunteers. During our visit to this construction, we came across a number of chickens and cows; all producing eggs and milk- and each also donated by volunteers. What concerned me the most about this, was the question as to where all this produce was going; as the children were going unfed each day.
Neglect started showing in a number of ways, however, the physical abuse from the carers who minded the children that stayed during the night was one that was harder to notice, but it slowly came to surface.
During our stay, stories continued to accumulate through broken english and investigations of our own. Again, it’s important to note that we were expected to care for these children with no communication, as we didn’t speak Swahili. Looking back, our expectations were outrageous even when considering the language barrier alone.
We discovered a log book that informed us that the children had only received beds and toothbrushes a month before we had arrived. Yet the establishmnt of the new construction had solar panels and other elaborate plans already in place. It was obivious that the priorities for this establihsment were not adding up and we started to ask even more questions.
One morning we arrived earlier than usual and found that the children were scrubbing the classroom floors with their own clothes. Hygiene and medical issues were also a major concern that arose during our stay. Children were using dish-washing liquid to clean themselves each day, and as a result it was burning their skin.
Another girl was suffering from severe ring worms. Volunteers prior to our arrival had bought the young girl ointment to assist her medical needs, however, we were advised to keep it hidden so the ointment would not be taken off her.
One day a young girl from the village visited the orphanage. Through her broken English we learnt that the girl was a sister to one of the children within the orphanage and that the child did indeed have both a living mother and father.
We learnt that this was the case for every other child but one inside the orphanage.
It is also worth noting that five days of our service trip, involved a safari tour that was encouraged by IVHQ. As a result, we neglected our service position at the orphanage . However, this was something that regularly happened and was considered acceptable within IVHQ's policy. It was the companies, ‘adventure’ selling point.
Whilst the safari tour was a once in a life-time experience, the tour itself also exposed the over exploitation of minority groups, such as the Indigenous Masai tribes of the Serengeti.
Like clockwork, these communities would preform for us traditional songs and dances. They relied heavily on our presence and for us to pruchase traditional hand-made jewellery. Something sacred to their culture, had turn tokenistic to meet the demands of tourism.
We were also taken on a tour of through a temporary settlement of a Masai community, whilst we where there, we visited the school that the children were learning within. Again, like clockwork, as we approached the school, these children began to recite English words on the blackboard that was neatly scribed in perfect form.
It was almost unsettling to witness as it was very evident that our presence was creating this performance. Our presence had created dependency, and through dependency, we were exploiting these people.
When our three weeks had come to an end, I left with a broken heart. Not because I could no longer help, but because I had come to realise that my presence had contributed to the neglect of these children. What was a holiday for me, was at the expense of them.
My presence was creating a damaging dependency that resulted in the neglect of these children.
In addition to this, the relationships I had formed with these young children were now to suddenly end, as a result, the trauma I was creating through abandonment issues only furthered this neglect.
I hope that by telling my experience, it is not confused with the idea that I was just unlucky and came across one bad situation amongst a multitude of many other great organisations and institutions.
The fact is, statistics have shown that 80% of all orphans around the world have at least one parent or relative still alive that could care for them. Within Nepal alone, 90% of all orphanages are located around Kathmandu; the nation's most popular tourist destination.
In conjunction with this, in the last decade since voluntourism has become increasingly popular, orphanages within Cambodia alone have increased by 75%.
On a recent trip to Cambodia with Save the Children, Western Australian Senator Linda Reynolds exclaims:
"In Australia we know the negative physical and mental impacts of children in residential care – we should not be supporting these institutions overseas when community-based options are available. Orphanage operators have been known to seek out children to live in their establishments and to provide payment or exercise coercion for their parents to give them up. Often these children come from very poor families in rural areas, and the operators disingenuously offer parents the opportunity of a better life for their children than the parents believe they would be able to provide in their local communities. Just stop and think about that: thousands of children are being removed from their families, from their friends, from their communities, from those who love and nurture them, to fill places in these facilities."
Facts are facts, and through my experience, there is no doubt that voluntoursim can now be considered a form of modern slavery. In fact, Australia has become the first country in the world to recognise orphanage tourism as a form of modern day slavery under the 'Modern Slavery Act'. The Modern Slavery Bill, which became law in late 2018, now requires businesses with earnings of over $100 million to disclose their procedures to prevent slavery and trafficking.
My 'volunteer' trip was simply a paid experience; everything within it was for me, and nothing for the children. Our presence had created a cycle of dependency and our presence was creating and supporting the corruption. We were giving this facility what they wanted and they were abusing it just as much as we were.
Greed and exploitation occur so regularly through vulnerable people and children around the world, and when it's so easy and achievable through programs facilitated by organisations such as IVHQ, why would these companies stop?
When finishing up our time with IVHQ, I expressed my concerns multiple times for the treatment we witnessed at the orphanage. And whilst I acknowledge this orphanage is not run by IVHQ, it was still affiliated with the company.
I contacted the main coordinator for IVHQ Tanzania and explained the troubling conditions and experiences that had occurred; but to my knowledge and the response that I received back; it seems nothing was done about it.
They dismissed our concerns and even mentioned that previous complaints had been made for the same orphanage. To this day, the orphanage still runs, and it appears IVHQ may still sends volunteers to this orphanage. From my experience, it is clear that volunteer travel companies such as IVHQ are simply just a money-making business and continue to contribute to the ongoing issue of destructive tourism.
I never used to speak of this experience much, because of the effect it had on me and the shame I felt. But now I realise how crucial it is for me to tell of my experiences and mistakes so we can end this cycle of destructive tourism.
For more information about orphanage tourism please visit ReThink Orphanages- Orphanage Volunteering: