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Volunteering in developing countries – beware not to cross the line

Humanity calls us to love, to care and to help others who seem to be in need. Volunteering is one of the ways that such tenets of humanity are put into practice. It is a vocation that has grown so much in popularity. It is taken up by people of different socio-economic status and even by those who have demanding paid jobs. It is only proper that this vocation is emphasized in schools as it tends to be these days. Volunteering is a precious way of living out our humanity.

It is admirable that some travel from their nation to a country or continent much further than theirs, to render their help where it can be used. Sadly, there is a conflict that emerges with this type of volunteering – a conflict between reinforcing our humanity as equals – and ethnocentrism. It should be said that this is not always the case with people who travel abroad to volunteer but it is common and to be fair, it is probably unconscious.

However, this conflict of what humanity should mean and the invasion of ethnocentrism started long ago. It was present during colonial times. Speaking from a Nigerian perspective, the British colonized Nigeria and disrupted our cultures, including our religious practices – e.g. through the missionaries who thought that they were being of help to Nigerians.

In more recent times, the conflict is manifested and made obvious through social media. It usually entails a Westerner going to a developing country. Frequent reports will be made on social media. The ethnocentrism may take the form of posting pictures of the ways of life in the new community that seem sub par to what you are used to. Sometimes, a caption will follow to express gratitude for the better standards of living in your own country. Then, to finally establish your niche as a wonderful human, you will post a picture with a starving child. A child that has a twinkle in his or her eye and smiles and seems to trust you as someone who has come to save. However, in the blink of an eye you are off to your ‘paradise’. You come all the way to help, you introduce and possibly like the British missionaries did in Nigeria – over-introduce but you do not empower in any way. The people that are left behind feel the need to meet up and there must be over-exaggerations in their passion because you came like a god and now they are brainwashed and if there was something positive to imitate, now they feel powerless. It is crucial to teach others to help themselves even as you render help. Human beings should empower each other and be sure to never demean the ways of life of a people.

Volunteers are power houses. They reinforce the natural mandate of humanity. This is why when that mandate clashes with superiority, a need to win hearts (changing your Facebook picture to one with a starving child), taking pictures and insinuating that life here is the crux of primitivity (without understanding that culture may be at play) – start over.

Love,

Chiamaka

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