When you’ve finished telling the epic tale of how you trekked to Machu Picchu and camped out in the Serengeti, what do you say? You’ve detailed your adventures and struggles, now how do you describe your role abroad?
Describing your travels can be challenging.
How do you define your time and work?
Are you a volunteer? Tourist? Expat? Maybe an ESL teacher? No, you seem like a human rights activist. Five years ago, I asked myself all of these questions.
From the day I left for Tanzania to just last week, I find myself being asked one universal question, “WHY?”
“WHY not wait until after college?”
“WHY not volunteer in America?”
“WHY not volunteer somewhere more fun?”
Answering the “why” questions from my friends and family is the easy part. The hard part is having to answer those questions to myself.
The lengthy flight gave me ample time to think. The verdict? Simply put, i’ve always wanted to see Africa. My favorite teacher in high school was from South Africa. His class opened my naive 15 year old eyes to the world outside of the suburban New Jersey town I called home.
At 19, I booked a one way ticket to Arusha, because I had to see it for myself. When the wheels touched the ground, everything was dark, but I sensed a shift in the wind. For the first time in my life I felt free.
Eating chapati for breakfast, lunch and dinner, flagging down a dala dala, writing lessons on the chalkboard, making worksheets, home visits with students, my role could not be more clear. I thought, “I am a volunteer. I am a volunteer teacher, humbly helping these students.”
With distance, the pitfalls of my presence becomes clearer, examining the impact it has on my students and the community. Was I teaching anything of relevance? How will they cope with my inevitable departure? Am I even qualified to teach? What do communities do when volunteers leave? Is it okay to take days off to travel? Not having a college degree, nor any teaching experience, I showed up everyday to teach. Teaching taught me invaluable skills such as improvisation, something I happily tout on my resume. More importantly, it taught me how to think critically about humanitarian aid and question the impact of well intentioned decisions. While I completely stand by my time as “Teacher Sara,” I often wonder who would have taken my place had I never boarded that plane. An aid worker? A local? No one? These are all vital questions to consider when discussing volunteering.
Whether we’re stepping into a classroom or getting on a bus to Zanzibar, the work we do abroad rarely fits into one box.
Basking in the warm sunlight, wiggling my toes in the soft island sand, it slipped my mind I was even in Tanzania. On a beach full of resorts and spas, it is easy to feel like you’re on vacation, because you are. The thrill of snorkeling for the first time brought me back to one of those “why” questions, “why Africa?” Sitting on the beach watching the sunset with my new friends, I thought, “this is why I chose Africa!” In that moment, I was simply a tourist. Admitting to myself that I was a tourist and understanding that it did not diminish my work as a volunteer took time.
With the red hot sun going down into the ocean, I saw an incredible distinction within the shadows. I saw Tanzania, not “Africa”. It was no longer a place I felt unfamiliar with, even in the toughest times. I stopped comparing Tanzania to the videos I watched in school, because it was no longer abstract. It was no longer the country described on the volunteer website. It was no longer the country I saw myself saving. It was no longer a country, it was my home.
Asking tough questions regarding the impact volunteers have on a community does not taint or take away from humanitarian work. Rather, a dialogue expands education for all parties involved and opens doors for more effective programs. Understanding the implications and impact volunteering has on the individual, community and industry is crucial for progress. While I believe I engaged some of my students, in hindsight I regret not being more prepared.
Seeing through the romantic notions of volunteering and understanding the time, experience and materials it takes to effectively teach is crucial to success. My success stories aren’t big, they aren’t flashy. Sometimes, I wonder if their lives even changed the way they did in my mind. In a sea of students varying in age, I sought out the quieter ones. Perhaps gravitating towards them out of a similar shyness. Quiet, almost lost in the midst of a hectic classroom, they were the brightest minds in the room. I tried hard never to lose their attention and encouraged them to participate, even when the material seemed elementary for them. Providing much needed positive reinforcement and attention ultimately changed their demeanor in the classroom. While I didn’t save 100 babies, I deeply considered students, children who may have otherwise been overlooked. Students who may have otherwise been unaware of their potential and lost in the volume of others.
Sometimes it feels like our work abroad can only be defined by one label or admitting to being a tourist can diminish your work. In the nearly 6 years since my time in Tanzania, I have come to realize that I am both a volunteer and a tourist. I am also an activist and a person with a curious mind.
My students, friends, mamas, guides, dala dala drivers— they are the true heros of my story. No amount of days as “Teacher Sara” could have made me as effective and influential as they were in my life. I still believe that volunteering is noble work, however to me, the champions are those who allowed me to be a part of their lives, their community and taught me that volunteering is just as much about helping myself as it is others.
Everyone has a personal reason to volunteer abroad, and their experiences deserve more than one label. More important, those we leave behind deserve a conversation on who we really were to them and how we can best affect real change in the future. Admitting that I volunteered for myself was one of the hardest truths I ever had to swallow, but I am happy I did. While I managed to change the lives of others in the process, I decided to go to Tanzania for myself.
My name is Sara Cross. I am a volunteer, activist, tourist and curious human who went to Tanzania to see a world I had never seen before, and came out a better, more passionate advocate because of it.
What about you?