‘One of the largest and fastest growing sectors of tourism in the world, Voluntourism is fuelled by those seeking out travel that matters. Defined as a combination of voluntary services with the traditional elements of travel, it potentially contributes greatly to the environment and community …
Yet this multi-million dollar industry is not without its grey (and sometimes unethical) areas and many are increasingly skeptical of Voluntourism’s rising popularity. This works both ways. As much as facilities hosting volunteers need to be scrutinised, it’s important to question how genuine the motive to help others really is? Does it extend beyond that gold star on one’s resume?
This is especially relevant in our selfie culture where capturing a cool pic with children in Africa, or next to an endangered animal, is sure to get you likes and followers on social media. But what is the impact of that action?
On a recent walking tour in Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, we came across a group of European volunteers working on an art project. They had been there for two weeks, working side by side with the teachers and children at a local school, painting beautiful murals on the wall. An art exhibition at the end of their time portrayed true talent and there was a lovely atmosphere about.
Until my guide, Thembi, pointed out some photos on display, of people with their shoes, each with a narrative to match. They were beautiful: One woman holding shoes that belonged to her late brother, another with a gorgeous pair she’d worked extra hard to buy, a mom holding her daughter’s first baby shoes. Until I was told the images and stories all formed part of a second book to be published by one of the volunteers – a book that none of the participants would receive or benefit from! It felt like rather blatant exploitation of their goodwill to partake and share their stories. This scenario begs the question: as volunteers what are we taking and what are we giving back?
Well planned and managed voluntourism is a critical tool in wildlife conservation, rural and community development, and can sustain livelihoods. Let’s seek out the best ways to make a difference whilst taking humbling lessons from our experiences and nurture the impact of travel that matters.
Choose the Right Organisation
The trick is to select a legitimate organisation offering a wholesome and valuable prospect for both parties. Here are some recommendations in a variety of fields from endangered and priority species conservation to creative art and tree planting, even marine conservation!
“…it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is real Africa and real conservation.”
The mission is to help save the planet’s endangered wildlife and places from extinction by running important conservation projects focused on cheetah, African wild dog, rhino, lion, elephant, leopard, vulture and turtles. Their volunteer programme allows you to work with trained wildlife monitors at the reserves – tracking and monitoring animals as part of their conservation projects. They only work in small teams of no more than five wildlife volunteers per reserve, so you have one-on-one time gaining true conservation experience. The days are full, the work is important and it provides volunteers with critical knowledge about African conservation. As they say, it’s not always pretty or easy, but it is real Africa and real conservation.
“…help heal young children through art and music…”
Any work with children comes with an element of risk, especially if you are not qualified in education. The Bambini Dream Foundation in Cape Town aims to help heal young children through art and music, and lend a helping hand that will improve their lives.
They have found a focus that combines volunteer work with the advancement of the children involved through hosted talks and workshops. As long as your workshop can engage young imaginations and nurture self-belief and creativity, you can offer your time at no cost to you.
Even if full time isn’t an option, once a month you can participate in a creative project where you can bring your skill to the children, be it music, photography, writing or art.
“…long-term monitoring of species diversity, abundance and habitat.”
For the lovers of the ocean, Marine Science students are invited to intern in the Hermanus and Walker Bay area where they can assist with curating data to benefit the many different aspects of marine life. For this it is best if you have a marine science interest. Scuba diving abilities are also helpful.
Their research is focused on the development of biological and ecological baselines, as well as long-term monitoring of species diversity, abundance and habitat. An intern or volunteer would participate in a variety of projects depending on the time of year. They offer one, two and three month internships. Must love sharks!
“…gain hands-on experience working in urban greening, reforestation and eco-education.”
A non-profit initiative based in Cape Town, Greenpop have made it their mission to encourage a green and sustainable way of life. To date Greenpop have planted over 50 000 trees with hundreds of volunteers. They offer long term volunteering and interning prospects where you can gain hands-on experience working in urban greening, reforestation and eco-education.
Their energy and love for the world is refreshing and infectious. It’s an environment that inspires you to be a better person, whilst doing something for the communities you engage with.
Be Aware of the Pitfalls
There are pitfalls to voluntourism and it is essential to do your research, ask lots of questions, check the organisations out on social media and connect with other volunteers, wherever possible. Avoid children’s orphanages, as it is very hard to gauge how a positive impact can be made during a short stay.
Do not get involved with any project where animals such as elephants are ridden or trained to perform, where there is commercial breeding, human interaction or petting of baby lion or cheetah cubs. They are not being re-introduced to the wild and are almost certainly not orphaned, despite what you are told.
Do Your Research. Here is a list of questions to ask and things to be aware of before selecting a place to volunteer at:
- How long has the project been going and what are their long-term plans?
- How do they select the volunteers and if a fee is being paid, how is the money distributed?
- What will you be doing during your stay? (Get clarity on this as you will want to be meaningfully involved).
- Golden rule: Make sure no children or animals are performing for you or for money and that the project isn’t funded through inappropriate interaction between visitors and animals.
- How is the community and environment benefiting from the project? (Get the details).
- Always make sure it is a good match to your area of interest and skill set.’
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