What is my role as an 18-year-old volunteer with only a high school education abroad? That is the million-dollar question I am wrestling with here in Rwanda. Lots of articles have been written about volunteerism; the cliché of the white girl in Africa seems to be a common theme and I now find myself in that situation. I strongly believe that international aid and volunteering is successful only if you work with people from the local community and invite them to help run whatever program you are working with, design the program’s mission, and eventually take over completely. I also agree that just being a professional “volunteer” does not do anyone much good because you don’t have any practical skills that you can use and pass on. For example, would you just start building houses in your hometown without any experience? Probably not, so you shouldn’t assume that you can build houses in developing countries either. So what does all of this mean for someone, like me, who is young, lacking expertise, and unlikely to take control of an entire project?
My first volunteer experience here was at a home for disabled children called St. Vincent’s. There are about fifteen children who live there and they have varying degrees of handicaps. My place is incredibly disheartening. The children are left in a room with a of couple mats all day, the smell of urine hangs everywhere because they don’t have diapers, and none of the workers really engage with them. A nun, who is a little bit suspicious about mizungus,“white people”, being involved in her business, runs the center. She must approve everything we do. This would be an example of where, ideally, I would get her to work with the westerners who go to volunteer so that she wouldn’t feel threatened by our presence. I would encourage the volunteers to approach her to see what she needs the most help with, as opposed to assuming they need a playroom, which ends up only being used when the volunteers come. In exchange, the westerners could try and convince the nun to modernize her way of approaching children with disabilities. The problem is that I don’t feel like I am in a position to actually do any of these things since I am only here for a short period of time and I am a good thirty years younger than all of these people. So I guess I will just content myself to go and play with the kids when I can, even if nothing really changes when I leave.
My second volunteer experience is at the local school, Excel. Their spring break just ended last Monday and I was asked to go help the teachers in the kindergarten class on Tuesday. The only problem was that there was no teacher when I got there. Apparently it takes awhile for all the students and teachers to trickle back after vacation, and there is no telling when they will show up. As I walked in the classroom, fifty five-year-olds were sitting pretty quietly at their tables while the assistant teacher erased the chalkboard from the day before. School had started thirty minutes ago and nothing had happened. The assistant teacher introduced herself and explained that she was just an assistant and didn’t know how to teach. I responded that I also wasn’t a teacher, but that I had worked in a kindergarten class for a year and worked in a school in Colombia as well. She eagerly handed the class over to me. Once I got over the shock of being spontaneously asked to teach a class that doesn’t really speak English, I was able to pull together a lesson and it went just fine.
I had a lesson prepared for the next day in case the teacher wasn’t back, but she had finally arrived. You can imagine my surprise when they told me that I would be teaching again that morning. Why was I teaching if their teacher was there? I was secretly kind of happy though because I had really enjoyed the day before and I was excited about the math lesson I had put together. During my lunch break I began to feel uncomfortable about the situation because I am not a teacher and I had no right to believe that I could teach better than this trained teacher. Luckily in the afternoon the teacher said she would teach writing. She had the children sing some songs and I thought, “wow I was really wrong about her! She’s great!” Then she copied the letter D on the board a lot of times, told them to copy it, and left the room to talk on the phone for 20 minutes. Wait, but not before she also told them that if they didn’t write the letter correctly they would go to Satan.
“Go to where?”
“Satan.” the children replied.
Woah. What. So maybe she wasn’t such a good teacher after all. As wrong as it is to take over and teach when you are unqualified, is it also wrong to let a bad teacher teach them instead? I was stuck. I have decided to volunteer in different classrooms everyday and just help with whatever the teacher need. I am also going to run their after school program!
At this point in my life I think that is the most helpful role that I can play. I have to accept that I am going to get a lot more out of this experience then the kids might and I am not going to be able to “change the world” and that’s okay.