Just another white volunteer in Africa?


I’m sitting on the patio of my favourite restaurant in Bibiani, thinking about how unbelievable it is that I am in Ghana right now. I mean, I’ve been here for over two months so it’s not like I’ve had a sudden realization about my current location. What I mean to say is that I’m beginning to understand that I’m here not just for a few days or weeks; instead I’m measuring my time here in months. I’m away from my home, my country, my family, and my friends. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve done so far in my life. (I’ve had challenging things happen to me but this is the hardest thing I’ve chosen to experience.) But I’ve gone through the worst of the culture shock and now I feel quite settled. I walk through the streets of Bibiani and they are familiar, something I could hardly imagine even a month ago. Though it’s been a classic roller coaster experience – full of ups and downs – I know that I’m incredibly privileged to be here.

That’s just the thing, though: I’m privileged. As a Canadian citizen and a white woman from an educated background and a middle-class family, I am privileged. I remember, vividly, the moment that I began to learn just what that means. I was in my first year of university – my first term, even – and I was participating in an anti-oppression workshop, which was another first for me. The facilitator handed us each a piece of paper and a pen and told us to take ten minutes to write on a timeline the moments in our lives when we realized that we are different from other people. These differences could be physical, cultural, lingual, socio-economic; anything at all. It took me a long time to even think about anything and, by the end of the allotted time, I had written down a few things, but my timeline was not nearly as filled as other participants.

I’m grateful for those who chose to share their experiences with the group that day because it helped me grow. One young woman had been in daycare told that she had strange hair because she’s black. Another had faced fear from peers when she chose to start wearing a hijab in high school. As they spoke and others chimed in, I realized that the things I had written on my timeline were mostly moments when I learned that there are others in the world who, unlike me, face complicated struggles in their lives such as poverty, oppression, and injustice. For example, I wrote down the time in Baltimore when I was very young when I saw a homeless person living under a war memorial. I also wrote down the pain and confusion I felt when I read a book in grade school about the history of HIV/ AIDS. The timeline I’d drawn up during this workshop was mostly – except for a couple of times when I’d experienced sexism – evidence of my privilege. This was something I’d never been faced with so bluntly before.

It hit me hard and I remember being afraid of what all this meant for me. Was my degree in international development completely inappropriate? Does my privilege mean that I am condoning and even participating in neocolonialism as a development student? As a co-op student spending time abroad? Thankfully, as a result of some wake-up call conversations with some amazing people who’ve taught me a lot about anti-oppression, anti-racism, feminism, and social justice, I have learned to move past ‘white guilt’. And I’m learning when I need to sit down, shut up, and instead listen to the experiences of others and also when I simply should not be in a space because my presence would be disruptive to an open atmosphere. Despite this growth, the questions I first asked myself back in first year, in that workshop, are questions I still grapple with today.

Over the course of my undergraduate education, I have addressed many of these questions in the classroom and in conversation with friends and professors. (International development at the University of Toronto, after all, is housed under the Centre for Critical Development Studies). Importantly, I learned about ‘positionality’, which is how my presence relates to my context. (For example, as a white person, my physical appearance and my first language recall the British colonial legacy here in Ghana.) And I’ve had many debates over the purpose and appropriateness of the subjects I study – not only international development but also anthropology, both having come from an unfortunate and even devastating colonial background.

The most I’ve ever questioned my degree in relation to my positionality so far in my studies has been during my co-op placement. Ghana is a very popular destination for voluntourism, short term development projects that conclude with tourist adventures like visiting the castles, parks, beaches, and nightclubs. Volunteers pay thousands of dollars to have an ‘African experience’ and feel like their saving the world at the same time. I strongly agree with the critiques of voluntourism, which mostly argue that it is the result of a white saviour industrial complex. There are examples of serious negative consequences of these short-term-style development projects around the world, such as in orphanages that attract volunteers whose brief relationships with the children have negative impacts of their ability to connect with others.

I tend to think of my co-op placement as outside the realm of voluntourism. Yes, I paid co-op fees to be here. But I’m here for eight months, which is much more time to make a positive impact than most voluntourism projects. Also, I have spent three years studying international development, both its academic theories and practical applications so I have relevant knowledge and skills to offer. Moreover, I am very open about the fact that this overseas co-op experience is mostly for my personal and professional growth – I acknowledge that I will get much more out of it than the people I encounter along the way because this is only my first employment in the field of international development.

If all goes according to plan, what I learn here will be beneficial externally in the long run, once I put it into practice in a future career. Does this make it justifiable, though? In the grand scheme of things (as my mum would say), eight months is a very short period of time. I am in a country where my presence is often a burden since I don’t speak the local languages and since I often don’t understand the culture. Of course I’m throwing myself into learning these as best that I can but does that make up for the fact that I would be so much more useful as a co-op student in my home country? Is it okay to use Ghana as part of my university experience when I don’t know for certain if I’ll return to work here in the future?

A lot of what I’m learning here – life skills and professional skills – will make me a better student and a better development professional and hopefully a better person, too. But does my presence contribute positively to my host country? Am I any different from voluntourists in the context on these eight months in Ghana? Am I perpetuating the same stereotypes, continuing the same negative narratives? Am I condoning and participating in a paternalistic, neo-colonialist system? This is something I’m still figuring out. Perhaps it’s something I’ll never settle completely.

I wouldn’t say I’m becoming disillusioned with development. I would say, though, that this co-op experience so far has made me even more critical of how development should come about and what it should look like ‘on the ground’. That’s the problem with development, though; we never really for sure how it should occur because there are no easy answers and there’s no silver bullet. We’re heard it before and we’ll hear it again: no one-size-fits-all cookie cutter solution exists to solve the problems we face in this world. So, like many others before me, development students and scholars and practitioners alike, I am left wondering: am I doing the right thing?


2 thoughts on “Just another white volunteer in Africa?

  1. Just shared your post on the Scrap Short Term Tourist Visas to Ghana FB group page following an article on Millennials travel. Here’s how I prefaced your post…..”Christopher Scott whether in Ghana for eight months or for twenty-three years, questions, questions, questions…a thoughtful reverie on the international development experience by a Canadian millennial”

    Note, I still ask myself the same questions even though I am nearing the end of my career.

    • Thank you for sharing! While I worry that I’ll be asking myself these questions my entire career should I decide to work in int’l development, another part of me thinks that I don’t want people who aren’t constantly questioning themselves to work in development at all. That brings a little comfort, as does knowing that everyone faces these questions.

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