Ok, so you’ve decided you want to volunteer abroad. You’ve done your research and found an amazing grassroots organization that supports locally led initiatives. You’ve been accepted to the program and have purchased your plane tickets. You’re scouring the internet for stories and photos of what it will be like – you want to know EXACTLY what to bring. I get it, you’re excited, you’re educated, you’re well traveled. You want to be prepared to make the most impact possible… but wait, calm down. The discovery here is not in what TO bring, it’s in what NOT to bring.
Here’s my list:
1. THE NEED TO SOLVE EVERY ONE’S PROBLEMS
Understand that you are not needed, you are wanted. People on the receiving end of volunteer placements want to know you. They want to be exposed to new ideas. They are motivated in much the same way you are, they just don’t have the travel opportunities you do. So focus on sharing your story. Ask a lot of questions. Answer a lot of questions. Worry less about doing and more about being. This cultural exchange creates some seriously amazing impact.
2. A EURO-CENTRIC ATTITUDE
Your destination is its own normal. It’s not something to be compared against your home country and improved upon. Nor does it wish to become like other countries on any terms but its own. When communicating with local people, remember, you are the one with the weird ideas. Embrace that and learn. Be respectful and reciprocal and you’ll be heard.
3. TOO MANY ELECTRONICS
Yes, bring your camera, iphone, tablet, etc. Check in with your friends and family at home. Take a million photos and video the daily goings on. You’ll want to relive your experience once you leave. But also, remember to switch off sometimes. Disconnect from home. Jump into your new environment with both feet. Stop documenting for others and live in the moment.
4. FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
It’s totally normal to be a little nervous. Probably lots of people at home are freaking out about your seemingly crazy travel plans. But please, relax and trust the people who are hosting you. They wouldn’t want you in their home if it was going to cause trouble or be dangerous. If you’re stressed and afraid, you won’t be free to get involved fully with your program. Your hosts aren’t stupid either, they’ll know how you’re truly feeling. Building true relationships is impossible when fear sits at the table.
5. WESTERN CONCEPT OF IMPACT
This is the hardest one, for sure. When volunteering in a country not your own, you will not operate according to your regular schedule. Your productivity will be different. International volunteers enter into a completely difference space in their host country. What is deemed important at home may be considered silly in your new environment. Your impact must be judged by local standards. Step back a little and you’ll see just what those standards are. (Hint: go back and read numbers 1 though 4).
Want to know what TO bring? Patience, flexibility, encouragement, creativity, and love.
For a more comprehensive list, check out our East Africa Essentials Packing Guide.