June 1, 2009

Volunteering in Mthatha - “Saving Africa”

I’ve been deluged with e-mails recently from people who want to volunteer in Itipini. To save time, please read this post before deciding whether or not to e-mail me.

Most importantly, please be aware I have no control, say, or input over who volunteers in Itipini. I am a missionary of the Episcopal Church who happened to land here two years ago. And I’m leaving in just a few weeks. I’d recommend checking out the web site of African Medical Mission - www.ammsa.org and on Facebook - the organization that operates the Itipini Community Project.

I can share a few thoughts on volunteering in Mthatha, however, that might help shape your thoughts.

First, the longer a commitment you can make the better. You can’t “save Africa” in two weeks (or two years, for that matter). There are SUBSTANTIAL language and culture barriers that make even the most basic tasks extraordinarily difficult. I’ve been here nearly two years and only just now feel basically competent.

Second, if you’re interested in performing a certain role - like teaching, nursing, whatever - think about how much that role relies on certain givens, like a common language. Then take away those givens and think about what your role would be like. Often people who come for a short time wanting to do a specific thing can be more of a burden than a blessing because we have to redirect our energies and attentions to accommodate and assist them in that task. That doesn’t take away from what they have to offer. It’s just the reality of overseas work.

Third, ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. I have seen countless volunteers show up, determined to “help,” and get so frustrated usually for one of two reasons: the people they want to help aren’t aware or don’t think they need the help; or those language and culture barriers get in the way. I try to share as gently as possible the lesson I continually re-learn, that who I am matters far more than what I can do. As I’ve noted, what I do is often pretty basic - counting pills, alphabetizing cards.

Fourth, remember the advice of Dorothy Day: “Do not give to the poor expecting to get their gratitude so that you can feel good about yourself. If you do, your giving will be thin and short-lived, and that is not what the poor need; it will only impoverish them further. Give only if you have something to give; give only if you are someone for whom giving is its own reward.” This same view is also expressed in something I’ve seen attributed to an unknown (to me) Australian aboriginal group: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I hope that helps structure some of your thoughts. For those of you who have volunteered in Mthatha or overseas before, I welcome your thoughts and comments on this list and how to make it more complete.


Martin Jonsson said...

Hi Jesse,

My name is Martin and I am writing to you on behalf of a website that I am currently involved in starting up. We aim to provide prospect volunteers with all the information they need in order to feel confident in their choice of organisation, position and destination, as well as inspire people to make the jump and try out volunteering.

As a part of that, I was wondering whether you might be interested in answering a few questions and perhaps sharing any advice you may have for people who are considering to volunteer.

If you think you might have time to do this, I'd love to hear from you. You can reach me through info@volunteeringinfo.org, and you can view the website I'm representing at www.volunteeringinfo.org.

Thanks, and keep up your amazing work!

Martin Jonsson