The Fear of Voluntourism: Downsides of a Bridge Year

It’s been a month now since I’ve entered my new community, and I’ve had an amazing time with my host family, exploring el Valle del Chota, Ibarra and the surrounding sierra region. From bathing in el rio Chota with my host brothers and the watchful mountain peaks surrounding us to experiencing a mix of traditional dancing from afroecuatorian and kichwa communities in Caldera, I’ve seen and experience a lot, both from the positive and negative side of things.  Of course, adaption is hard and getting accustomed to a completely new environment coupled with a drastic change in societal norms is a process that won’t happen overnight. However, I’ve found that me already being bicultural (that is, split between the French and English parts of Canada, which are fundamentally different) helped a lot in the process and that it also left me untouched by some aspect of culture shock. This allowed me to reflect and analyse thoroughly my surroundings, but most of all my role inside this tightly-knit community that is el Juncal.

For this blog post, I’ll be discussing something I’ve had problems coping with these past few weeks: my apprenticeship. Global Citizen Year has this great philosophy of giving fellows an experiential learning opportunity within their host country by arranging a volunteering opportunity for them. The problem arises from the very fact that I’m abroad and that I can’t speak my native language. This causes me to makes mistakes that sometimes are hard to fix due to language barrier, and the miscommunication can really hurt both me and the people I’m supposed to work with. In my case I’ve struggled a lot, because my apprenticeship wasn’t even structured when I arrived, so I had to do most of the scheduling and asking around. And while this might seem like a normal occurrence, I personally believe that the work I was assigned to doesn’t allow me to do so. I’m working as a full-time teacher in the morning within the village’s school because there’s isn’t any available English teacher yet from the nearby education center in Ibarra. Sometimes I find myself questioning why I was given this job, because for me education is a society’s cornerstone: you’re dealing with future citizens. If I mess up in the classroom, I mess up with a part of their future, and as a French/English speaker who’s babbling in Spanish to get around, I see my potential for failure as a threat for the education of these children. Of course you could say that it’s a great learning opportunity for me, but what I’m more concerned about is the impact I make on this community rather than what I would gain from it in terms of personal development.

I don’t pretend to have answers to solve some of Juncal’s problem, such as pollution in the form of trash in the nearby river (which is allowed to continue due to habits the population has coming from the time the village didn’t have a trash collecting system) or complex family issues affecting the whole community; instead I’m aiming to have a net zero impact at the end of my time here. However, trying to navigate the daily challenges at my apprenticeship makes me afraid that it won’t be the case. Still, this concern of mine doesn’t apply entirely to me, because my level of Spanish is good enough for me to understand everything and allows me to explain problematics I might be facing with a certain level of clarity, but others don’t have this chance or skill.

The current issue I’m facing brings about greater problematics linked with this kind of stay within a foreign, developing country. As an unskilled nineteen years old, I have a lot to learn and to gain from cultural shock and adaptation, but little to offer to my host family and community in terms of tangible skills. Yes, I play saxophone in the local salsa band and I can edit videos for the cultural center, but that’s very little in comparison to what an actually skilled volunteer could provide. How does the presence of volunteers like me affect rural communities such as Juncal? What is the impact of our attempt to participate in the daily lives of our host families for an extended period of time? Why are we allowed to experiment during this “bridge” year to the potential detriment of the people we work with? What should I do to prevent a traditional scheme of “voluntourism” to occur? Could we be assigned to more hands on tasks that have a lower potential for failure? These are questions that have been bouncing in my head recently. Then again I don’t have all the answers, but I found comfort in thinking that a voluntourist does what he wants, whereas a volunteer aware of his surroundings does what is needed. I say this because working within the school in the mornings and in the center for the elderly in the afternoons (one of the other parts of my apprenticeship) is not exactly within my field of interest, but strangely I feel relieved in knowing that at least in these places they truly need someone like me, and therefore I’m a bit more certain that my presence isn’t harmful.

If you’re still with me by that point, thank you. Swallowing all of this probably wasn’t easy, but I wanted to bring about concerns that I have in a more realistic approach rather than using the well-known-but-ignored social media trend to only show the positive and discard the negative when things don’t show up the way you expect them. However, things are doing really for me down here regardless: I’ve been to countless places around el Valle del Chota and Ibarra; I’ve visited Otavalo and its flamboyant indigenous market, the biggest in the whole of Latin America; I’ve made good friends in my community and I’ve gotten closer to my host family; and many other exciting adventures.

Experiencing challenging issues isn’t mutually exclusive to an enjoyable “bridge year”, but covering up the difficult times under a mask of false excitement doesn’t reflect what learning in a foreign cultural context means; it merely perpetuates both the “voluntourist” illusion of providing help without the potential for harm and the myth that a year off school doesn’t have its own set of complex challenges to navigate.