A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to Ethiopia with American Jewish charity JDC. The 8 day trip was aimed at Jewish young professionals from all over the world who ‘seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues’. Having always wanted to visit Ethiopia, I jumped at the chance to participate in this trip.
However, upon receiving the itinerary which emphasized a ‘service’ or volunteering aspect of the trip, I felt the need to ask myself a few questions.
Was I doing more harm than good by spending a few hours doing ‘service work’ – helping to paint the Alphabet on a school building, giving out de-worming tablets to children or mixing sand to make cement in order to build a new school building? Surely the experienced local builders could build the school much faster and with much more skill than we ever could. Were we taking away local jobs just to have a photo opportunity? What was the impact of 25 young people from the Global North turning up in Africa in order to ‘help’ local impoverished communities for a few days and then leaving the residents to get on with their lives?
During our volunteer work on a building site, I stopped for a moment to look around. I watched as what seemed like the entire local community came out of their homes in order to stop and stare at this unique phenomenon. The children ran around us asking for money and water, but were soon roped into helping with building work. It became almost a game, 3 white people with a trail of Ethiopian children following, everyone taking hold of a brick and bringing it to the building site.
I am sure that the builders did not appreciate our help whilst we painstakingly and slowly mixed sand and water to make cement, however I do feel that there is a small value in us all working together for a common purpose. During our work, conversations in broken English and a few words of Amharic flew across the bricks, with much laughter and jokes at our own inadequacies.
I have come to feel that the key to short term trips which combine tourism and volunteering or ‘voluntourism’ is for the organisers and participants to act responsibly. It should be made clear that by our visit we were not even close to ‘saving the world’ or ‘helping solve extreme poverty’. Rather, by participating in these trips, we are helping ourselves further understand the culture of the region we are visiting, learning from the residents and attempting to appreciate what it is really like living in conditions of extreme poverty.
By learning about another culture and way of life, we can help ourselves to become more socially aware, more tolerant and more open-minded. We must be able to see the value in diversity and learn to respect and even admire how people all over the world can share and learn equally from each other. Only with a responsible attitude can we find meaning in trips such as these, allowing ourselves to understand the context of our actions and perhaps one day to pursue overseas volunteering opportunities that match our skill set.
The highlight of my trip to Ethiopia was certainly not the volunteering aspect of the trip, rather the meeting of local people, learning a few words of Amharic in order to communicate with others who have fascinating life stories as well as visiting JDC funded NGO’s who have created microfinance and water projects.
I met Magda, who works at reception at the Deselygn Hotel in Addis Ababa. She graduated from public university last year having studied management and hopes to work her way up in the hotel system. Magda is 24 and has wild curly hair which she says takes her an hour in the morning to tame!
At JDC Medical Director Rick Hodes’ house in Addis, I chatted to a 14 year old girl whose brother has been given life changing spinal surgery in Ghana, paid for by American Dr Rick, who has been working in Ethiopia for over 20 years. Dr Rick has saved the lives of hundreds of spinal TB patients, giving them a future. Many of his patients are now studying in universities, having been given the opportunities they would never have had if they had not met Dr Rick. Not only does he help his patients, but their families as well. His house has become a hostel, where over 20 young people are staying whilst waiting or recovering from their surgery. The 14 year old girl I met had run away from her village and her abusive husband 2 years ago. Dr Rick has given her a new lease on life and she is now in school and has aspirations to become a doctor, just like him.
Fassil, a JDC taxi driver has lived in Gondar all his life and has visited Addis Ababa once. His family are farmers and grow Tef, a grain grown in Ethiopia and used to make injera (a kind of sour dough bread). He has 3 brothers and a sister who are all in school and he, at 22 is the eldest with the most responsibilities. I was honoured when Fassil gave me an Ethiopian name – Genet, meaning Paradise!
Ethiopians share their food in a way which does not exist in the UK. A big plate of injera arrives with lentils, beans and other curried veg or stews. A group of 2 or more people will sit together around the large circular plate, tearing strips off the bread with their hands and dipping into the delicious vegetables.
There is so much more I could say about Ethiopia, but my short visit to this beautiful country has taught me to appreciate the importance of community and caring for others. I hope to be able to infuse these ideals into my own community in London, always seeking to find value in multiculturalism, becoming a more informed and responsible citizen and advocating and educating about my African experiences.
One day, I would love to be able to visit again, hopefully for a longer trip! As Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.
If you would like to know more about JDC, visit http://www.jdc.org/
To learn about Dr Rick Hodes and his valuable work in Ethiopia, visit his website: http://rickhodes.org/