Helen SukIf there’s one lesson I’ve gleaned from my 15 years of solo travel, it’s to expect the unexpected. For those of us who wander, it’s one of the inevitable—and often challenging—realities of travel.

So when my plans to volunteer at an HIV/AIDS clinic in Kenya suddenly unraveled when I arrived in the country, I quickly improvised.

From Mombasa, I made my way to Watamu, an east-coast town on the Indian Ocean. There, I took up a room at a resort where a staff member, sensing my disappointment and eagerness to don my volunteer hat, graciously offered to take me to three nearby orphanages on her day off. I had only one week left in Kenya but, by the following day, I was enthusiastically accepted as the first Western volunteer by the orphanage with the least amount of funding and assistance out of the three I visited.

That’s where it happened.

I was standing in front of a classroom of teenagers one afternoon, teaching the history of European colonization when, without a prelude or warning, a student dropped the question with the precision of a research scientist and the innocence of a lamb:

“Madam? Do you believe AIDS is a punishment by Jesus?”

Classroom at the Orphanage

Silence.

I had to catch my breath.

Kenya’s struggles with HIV and AIDS are well documented, but how was I to abruptly abandon the history of Old Ghana to answer a question about life, death, disease and Christ? As a traveler, I take curveballs as they come but, instead of “What kind of music do you like?” or “What’s your favorite country?” I was confronted with a megalithic question.

When cultures and world views collide, travel pushes boundaries, rattles the system of our core beliefs and tests our limits. It will answer questions—but then compel us to ask more.

Does the orphanage, which struggles to simply survive—to clothe, feed and provide school supplies to the 180 children—even have protocols in place to address such confounding subject matter? There was no time for conjecture. Ten pairs of brown eyes were on me, and they were waiting for a response.

In classic Socratic style, I turned the question back onto them: “Do you believe it is?”

“No,” they replied, collectively shaking their heads.

“And how do you think people who suffer from HIV or AIDS should be treated?”

“With fairness,” replied one student. I breathed a hidden sigh of relief.

Helen Suk - Helen with Children at Kenya Orphanage

By my next class with a new group of students, I was curious. It was their game time, and I posed the question: “Do you believe AIDS is a punishment by Jesus?”

One student was quick to respond. “Yes!”

I asked what the punishment is for. She exercised silence.

“So if you learn that one of your friends in this class has a parent with HIV, would you still be friends with that person?” I asked the class.

“No!” Their voices reverberated against the walls.

So deep-seated is the stigma of HIV and AIDS—the “curse”, I was later told it’s called—that, despite the fact one third of the children at the orphanage are HIV/AIDS orphans, no child would dare reveal the truth. It would be an act of social suicide.

With my Western presence came other questions that could only have magnified the gulf between the haves and have-nots

I presented a hypothetical situation. “So if I told you my mother has HIV, you wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore?”

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Suddenly, the students who vied for my attention all week began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. I had burdened myself with the curse. They snickered as they shot glances at each other.

And all I could bring myself toBreak do was underscore the importance of kindness and acceptance.

When cultures and world views collide, travel pushes boundaries, rattles the system of our core beliefs and tests our limits. It will answer questions—but then compel us to ask more.

And when we pair travel with acts of service, we have the opportunity to give a part of ourselves and leave an indelible impression on those we serve.

When it came time for me to leave Kenya, I was offered two coconuts by some of the students as a farewell gift. I melted.

But something else unexpected happened.

As much as I felt welcomed and appreciated by the staff and children of the orphanage, I still wonder if I left a stain on these young lives instead of the intended positive impact.

Girls in Classroom With my Western presence came other questions that could only have magnified the gulf between the haves and have-nots: How many countries have I travelled to? How much was my camera? What did my flight to Kenya cost? I answered truthfully. And, as the students processed the figures I gave them, they gazed at me in disbelief. I had become a reminder of the wealth outside the walls of the orphanage to which they do not have access.

Then there was the afternoon I taught students how to shoot selfies with my camera. One of them excitedly suggested, “Madam, when you come back, you can bring the pictures!” I confessed I didn’t know if I would return to Kenya. Her face sank into disappointment, as if betrayed for the 100th time. And my response, “But I promise to mail the photos,” seemed of little comfort.

 

Kid Running

More than ever, travelers are embarking on voluntourism trips to gain a deeper insight into a country and its people, and experience the feel-good sentiment of helping those in far-flung, “exotic” corners of the world.

But, while my experience was invaluable and enriching, it was also shamefully unsettling. Through the process, I’ve had to admit to myself that perhaps, despite my desire to give and my capacity for compassion, I made my fleeting time as a volunteer in Kenya more about me than those I wished to support. That I placed more self-indulgent importance on wanting to feel I made a difference than understanding the bigger picture and ensuring the impact I make will be truly beneficial and sustainable. A growing body of research tells us giving is good for our psychological and physical health, but do we focus on these benefits while neglecting those of the people and communities we want to help?

Break with Kids Waving In the months following my return home, I launched a local fundraising campaign. By Christmas, I sent all the proceeds directly to the orphanage.

And, as promised, I did mail those photos to the children. They captured that brief moment in time I stepped in and out of their lives. And I hope the difference I made, if I made one at all, was positive.

But I can only hope.

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Words and photos: Helen Suk. See more of Helen’s writing and photography at Not Without My Passport.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. Powerful story. I was just reading Paul Theroux’s “The Last Train to Zona Verde” where he talks about this parachute volunteerism and whether it actually benefits the people, is done to heal thyself, etc. I admire your courage and honesty.

    • Aw, thanks Lance. I may check out the Theroux book. It certainly is a complex issue that should compel us to look within and ask ourselves who we’re really doing it for.

  2. Helen,

    I appreciate your bravery in writing this. It’s beautifully written, but more than that, it forces the reader to think more carefully about a topic that isn’t discussed too often. If it makes any difference, I think you have helped and taught these kids more than you will ever know and have made a lasting positive impact. Sometimes when we think we could’ve done more or done something differently, we forget that it is just as important and rewarding to GIVE in the first place. You gave them your time and your heart and your compassion and that’s something they will always carry with them, even though you have returned home.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Elizabeth. I’d like to think that my time spent there was beneficial to the children, but I was only there for a week. In retrospect, I should have been there much longer. Volunteering abroad specifically with children, I realize now, should require a minimum commitment of at least 6-12 months. Otherwise, the orphanage risks becoming a revolving door of foreign volunteers where children quickly become attached to their new friends only to say goodbye shortly after. Also, in the same way some people have tried to help me in times of need but have inadvertently said or done something hurtful instead because they assumed they knew what I needed (although their hearts were in the right place), it’s much too easy for this to happen overseas in a volunteer setting. So the danger, I think, is in paternalism: Assuming we in the privileged West know what’s best for others in a different country and different social/cultural context when we actually have little understanding of them. But I do hope you’re right: That the children took something positive, however small, away from my time there. Thanks again for chiming in.

  3. What a beautiful read. How brave of you to share this experience and help others as well… I particularly liked how you used conversations that took place as a way to take the reader to the very moments you lived through. Well done.

    • I appreciate the kind words, David. I was completely unprepared for those conversations in that setting but they did give me a valuable glimpse into Kenyan society.

  4. Oh, wow. I think you did well – what a question to have lobbed at you.

    Hopefully if you have the opportunity to volunteer abroad again you’ll be able to go for a longer time. I think you’re right about needing months to make a real impact.

    • It definitely caught me off guard! To your second point, the voluntourism marketing machine, for the most part, is for-profit and serves tourists more than the communities they’re supposed help. In addition to making the time commitment, we have to take it upon ourselves to do the research before going down this path and find reputable organizations to work with.

  5. Helen, I am so glad I discovered your work. This piece is both emotional and informative. As someone who has considered ‘voluntourism’ in the past, it is definitely giving me a chance to stop, think, and seriously consider what my goals would be prior to visiting and volunteering. Thanks for this.

    • I appreciate your feedback, Kirsten, and I’m glad you’ve give the idea of voluntourism more thought. There is so much more that can be said about it, but I cite some resources below that you might find useful. All the best!

  6. Hey Helen,

    That was a beautiful article. I ended up in a state of thought and stared at the wall next to me for many minutes. I have thought about volunteering earlier but it never materialized. Could you give readers like me any ideas on how to go about it! I think its one of the best ways a person can serve in today’s society…

  7. Thank you, Harry. I haven’t really researched volunteer opportunities since my Kenya trip, but here’s somewhere to possibly start: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/how-to-change-the-world/. Nick Kristof, a Pulitzer prize-winning NYT journalist, is at the forefront of humanitarian and development issues. I also HIGHLY recommend the book “Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid” by Samantha Nutt, the founder of War Child Canada, especially chapter 5, which is devoted to this very topic. I hope this helps.

  8. Hi Helen,

    Great piece of writing! For all the comments made above. And because it resonates with my own experiences.

    I’d like to share two of my insights on this topic. The first one being that I believe one moment can have a positive impact. I understand the concerns by orphanages about short-term volunteering and possible adverse effects on the mental health of the kids. And I see the dangers in volunteering becoming more about the volunteer than the supposed beneficiaries. But in the Indian orphanage where I spent 3 weeks, I was ‘adult #9’. More importantly, I was an adult (26 at the time) that was in the position to spend quality time with them, as the other adults -four couples, one for each house- were very busy running the place. We played basketball. At least four small kids would sit on my lap and hang off me when I sat on the swing. And the teenage boys: not for the life of them would they have thought they’d ever play football/soccer with a female. let alone one that nutmegged them! For all of us, the trip to the cinema was an adventure we’ll all never forget -for me in part because it involved a ride squeezed on the balcony of a very local train.

    Secondly, the collision of cultures and views, rattling of cages and pushing of boundaries as you so eloquently put it, never stops. Not for me after four years in Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. And not for many other people I’ve seen there -if I may be so free to share my evaluation of what I’ve seen. The gap remains. And that’s ok. It is, after all, the source of why many set out in the first place. As long as we keep in mind that it exists, keep our tendency for paternalism in check, and go about admitting unintended faux pas gracefully.

    To finish off: I’ve had many ‘how much is this in your country?’ conversations with adults. Age does not necessarily determine whether or not they (we!) are able to bridge the gap. And at least in Myanma people there were still much less attached to possessions, even though they aspire to have them (more and more), and accepting of life. I (emphasis) seemed to have more ‘problems’ with saying goodbye after short meaningful and memorable encounters. But that could also have been because of the ‘Asian mask’ and the eternal smile!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Sook, kudos to you for being the conscientious traveller and volunteer that you are. I’m glad you made meaningful connections with the children and vice versa as I’m sure they have been most rewarding. My point is that we should never lose sight of the bigger picture and the potential negative impact on the communities we serve, which I don’t think you have. Thank you for your perspective and thoughtful comments.

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