Recently, whenever someone has asked me what my plans are for this upcoming semester, I have struggled to come up with an adequate answer. I usually say something along the lines of: I’m going to Nairobi, Kenya, through UBC’s International Service Learning program. I’m undertaking an internship with a local NGO to implement malnutrition interventions in an urban slum. But I don’t feel like that quite captures exactly what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. So in an attempt to clear things up, here are a few things that I am not doing this semester.
I am not travelling to “Africa”. I am going to Kenya. I make a point never tell people that I am going to Africa, since that ignores the huge diversity of the 54 countries that make up the continent. In my mind, to say that I am going to “Africa” reinforces the stereotypic portrayals of the continent by the Western media, which a homogeneous place filled with empoverished, disease-ridden, sad, hopeless people waiting around for someone to come help them. And I’m not okay with that.
I am not going to get Ebola. Dozens of people have told me to be careful not to get Ebola during my trip, including a family doctor. All of these people have clearly never studied a map in much detail, since if they had, they would know that Paris is closer to Sierra Leone and Liberia than Nairobi. Incidentally, I’m also passing through Paris on my way to Kenya, but nobody is warning me about the dangers of Ebola there.
I am not going to “save Africa”. History is filled with stories of Westerners deciding to introduce indigenous people, and, later, people in developing countries to the “right” way of life. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work, usually because even though their hearts may (sometimes) be in the right place, foreigners have no idea what the local people actually need. That’s why the organization I am working with is so great. While it is funded through an American university, all of their employees working on the ground in Kibera are Kenyan. Many of them grew up in the community, and as a result, they know what needs to be done in order to help get people in the slum out of poverty. They are the folks who are in charge, who are making the plans and developing the vision. I am there to put my background in science and nutrition to good use, to write up reports and make spreadsheets, and basically do whatever they tell me they need in order to reach their goals. I’m not “saving” anyone.
I am not a voluntourist. For the past few years, I have struggled with my interest in development and global health and my burgeoning understanding of social justice. While in high school, I had looked into going on some short-term volunteer trips, but never actually ended up going through with it. The part-charity, part-vacation trips didn’t quite sit right with me, and when I came upon the term “voluntourism” I figured out why. But when I read about International Service Learning, I realized that it wasn’t just another volunteer trip. UBC framed it as a learning experience, built upon a foundation of ethical engagement and social justice. Once I entered the program, the other students and I had extensive training to ensure that we were adequately prepared. We learned about the history of development, and had long, difficult discussions about power and privilege. We researched Kenya and Kibera extensively, writing papers analyzing the current situation and how it came to be. We spoke with Western and African development workers about the merits and challenges of engaging in this type of work. We are not going to build a school that the community doesn’t even need, while lacking the proper skills to even lay bricks down properly. This is a learning experience, a cultural immersion program, and an internship, all wrapped up into one.
I am not doing this as a resume-booster. Nor am I going to get a sweet new profile picture with my arms around little African children. This is a learning experience for me, one that I could never imagine receiving in a classroom in Vancouver. I want to shrug off the stereotypes of “Africa” shown to me by the media. I want to be immersed in a culture different from my own. I want to see how development work is done in cooperation with the community. That being said, I’m not participating in the program for completely selfish reasons, either. I’m still hoping to do something helpful for the community. But I know that I am not the one to decide what that something will be.