What They Don’t Tell You About Volunteering Abroad

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1. You are, and always will be, an outsider
No matter how long you spend in a community or how well you think you have integrated, you will always be an “outsider”. It is simply not possible to truly understand all the intricate details of another culture, the hows, the whats, the whys. But the inescapable “us and them” dynamic is part of what makes the experience so powerful. A little like astronauts visiting the moon and looking back at the earth, being immersed in a community so vastly different to your own provides the unique opportunity to see yourself and your own culture from a surprising new perspective.

2. You will not do the work you signed up for
The work that is actually done on the ground will undoubtedly be vastly different to the neat little position description you read all those months ago. Perhaps you will do the job you expected along with many, many more unforeseeable challenges and responsibilities piled on top. Or maybe you will find that the job you were initially assigned for is completely redundant, unachievable or unwanted. Usually you will find that order, logic and structure must be cast aside if you want to make a genuine difference to a real need.

3. You will be lonely
Loneliness, for some unknown reason, is a little like a contagious disease – no one talks about it and no one wants to admit when they have it. But it is almost inevitable when you walk away from everyone that you love and are loved by and into a place where nobody knows your name. You cannot rely on family and friends like you did before, to offer hugs, advice, ice cream, or whatever it was that once gave you comfort and contentment. Although you will make new friends, you cannot instantly re-create the deep, trusting relationships you have with people back home. But you will learn to sit with the loneliness, to realise you don’t have to run from it, hide from it or suppress it. And there is immense power in that realisation.

4. You will experience first-world guilt
Even though you are volunteering, earning little to no money and living in the same basic conditions as the locals, you will be perceived by most as an incredibly wealthy person. And comparatively, you are. You will most likely be disturbed by some of the day-to-day sights, sounds, smells of poverty. You will also find yourself lost in a murky moral grey area, constantly faced with dilemmas about obligations, expectations, privileges and generosity. There are no easy answers to any of it, but one thing you will know for sure is how lucky you are to have been born in a part of the world with opportunities and resources and safety and clean drinkable water straight out of the tap. And the dark sense of guilt is necessary in order to feel the lightness of overwhelming gratitude that follows it.

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13 thoughts on “What They Don’t Tell You About Volunteering Abroad

      • Aaaw next time I see you , we can definitely have ice-cream and I can hug you too. I think the mountains is much lonlier than on the flat but we should get together soon. Next weekend after your Portland trip. It will perhaps get better when you start travelling but I am from a small community so I can definitely identify with feeling trapped 😦

      • Haha aww thanks Janeen. Except I think I have to stay in Portland forever, the beaches are just stunning! (Men are even more forward here though, which I didn’t think was possible.) I’d love to have ice cream with you. And luckily the week after that a friend is coming to stay! 🙂

  1. Cat, What deep and special insights you are gaining in these first few months in Jamaica. I have a sense that something quite significant will be coming from/out of these awarenesses that are emerging from you. While this wisdom is developing in you, please be very sure to nurture yourself gently, in whatever manner feels nourishing to you.

  2. I’m back in ‘first world’ after a month in a world still trying to develop. I can relate to some of what you say. The loneliness does happen, but I was staying in a volunteer house with other volunteers. It may be that the loneliness is felt more acutely if you live alone.
    It’s very early days yet to feel that you ‘belong’. What I realized from working with the children in Cameroon is that they see volunteers come and go. They have to be careful about forming attachments that they know will not last. Same for the adults too.
    They know that you will leave and to back to a more privileged world. There is an imbalance of power. You can come to their world but they can’t come to yours.
    It’s good that you make these observations, and it will certainly help other volunteers to understand that the very nature of your position mean that you cannot be one of them. Not having that expectation in the beginning means you will not be disappointed when you remain an outsider.
    But sometimes an outsider can effect more influence than an insider – simply because you have other experiences to draw on.
    I love your posts, please keep them coming.

    • Hi, predencia, thankyou for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you didn’t share the experience of loneliness too much. It certainly is stronger living by yourself, but I must say I have always had moments of loneliness when I have been in foreign countries on my own. I know many other volunteers who have struggled with it too, even when living with others.

      I think you’re right, its important not to strive to completely “belong” because that puts unnecessary pressure on you and its also not the point of being here. Interesting point about the children in Cameroon not wanting to make attachments because they know you will soon leave to go back to a privileged world. I have found the level to which the local people will want to make attachments with you is very different in every country. Certainly when I was in Tanzania (nextstoptanzania.wordpress.com) I felt more welcome and “at home” than perhaps any other place I have been besides Australia, and I was only there for a month.

      I hope you’re settling back into the first world okay and enjoying all it has to offer – it can be quite an adjustment!

      Cat

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