Being a volunteer is undoubtedly a highly rewarding experience. As a volunteer, you get to become a part of a new community of people, who at first sight might seem very different from you because of their language, culture, religion, ethnicity etc. However, you quickly discover that despite these differences, as human beings we are very much alike. This beauty we find in the unity and human solidarity is a beacon of light in the times when our societies become increasingly polarised over so many political and social issues.
However, volunteering has also its pitfalls. Much coverage has been already given to the so-called "voluntourism" and the harm it does to communities it tries to help. By joining a professional volunteer programme like EU Aid Volunteers you can avoid many traps of irresponsible volunteerism done in the name of “saving the world’s poor” without any substantial knowledge of tested approaches and practices that help alleviate poverty and build people’s resilience. However, even when joining a well-structured programme that offers an opportunity for technical learning and field experience in development or emergency contexts, there are still quite a few things that make volunteering challenging. Here are some insights based on my personal experience.
A new place is always new
Does that sound weird? Let me explain what I mean by that. Sometimes, when you already accumulated some years of experience working in developing countries, you might think that all this previous experience will make going to a new place a piece of cake. However, switching from one cultural context to another is no easy task, no matter how adaptable and flexible you believe yourself to be. I have spent some years living in Latin America before coming to Malawi, my first African country. I had not made any assumptions about what it would be like to live in Malawi. I just knew it would be different and thus could be more challenging. But I also secretly hoped that my previous experience would make me better prepared for this new one. And it probably did, but it does not mean that it has been an easy process. It still costs me a lot to shake off my Latin vibe and get into African one, especially since I got profoundly immersed in Latin culture. So even now in Malawi, I actively seek out Latin community, joined salsa classes and even set up my own Latin dancing community. This adjustment to new culture definitely takes its time and I believe it can be as difficult for someone who spent some time living in Asia, the Middle East or even another African country. The challenge can be even bigger if you leave Europe for the first time. This brings me to another piece about what you need to survive in the new environment.
Cultural readjustment takes time and patience
You definitely need to give yourself some time to get used to a new place. I know it might sound trivial, but believe me, the more you travel, the more you believe yourself adequately prepared to settle in a new place. It is true that some people have a magical ability to feel at home the moment they board off the plane. However, the reality for most of us is that it is not so simple. That is why I cringe when people start asking how I am settling in within two weeks of my arrival. The standard answer I give, and you probably too, is that it is grand and you are loving your new place. When you want to give a more honest answer, you might say ‘you are getting there, although it’s challenging’. However, cultural adaptation can take more than a few weeks. For me, it was not before my first three months in Malawi when I felt at ease and really settled in. Now I know my way around, where to find fresh fruit and veggies, got to know local street vendors and even take public transport (and whoever lived in Africa knows that taking public transport is a challenge). I know whom to ask for information or instructions. Rule number one, always rely on what local people tell you, as they are the best source of information. Rule number two, learn to filter the information through a contextual and cultural lens.
Forget everyone else’s experience, yours is the one that matters
What can be tricky is the information you are exposed to before coming to a new place. Especially if you know people who used to live in the same country and many of them share similar opinions about it. To some extent, it puts pressure on you. If everyone loves the place, I surely will too! And if I do not, there must be something wrong with me, right? You might even try to talk yourself into liking something purely because of the perspectives of other people. If you ever felt this way in any situation, I want to give you a shout out and simply tell you not to feel pressured to be in awe or utterly disappointed with your duty station. We all come from different places in our life. Some might love the calm and peace of the new environment, while others might find it boring and unchallenging if they are in this moment of their life when they need constant thrill and amusement. You are the only one who knows your current need. You are also the one in the unique position to evaluate whether the new place meets your needs or falls short of it. The good thing is that there is probably always someone out there sharing your thoughts, so instead of putting yourself down for not belonging with the main group, seek out those who share your feelings. You probably have more in common with them than you think!
Building your community takes time
Another pressure you will inevitably be dealing with is to find friends in a new place, the sooner the better. In fact, after “How you’re settling in?”, “Have you made any friends?” is the second most common question. The emotional need to find people you belong with, coupled with the pressure of external environment - your family, friends and colleagues back at home, who simply worry about you being lonely, can be quite stressful. Your age and gender can be a factor too. When you are in your teens or twenties, you meet people everywhere because you are also in the prime of your socializing years. However, the older you become, you discover that many of your friends have their own families and less time to socialise. When you work as a volunteer abroad, and most of your work colleagues are local people, you will quickly discover that socialising with them can also be a challenge as they have their own families and routines, and you do not necessarily fit into that picture. It is only natural that finding your tribe can take a lot of time, months, if not years. You should not stress too much about it. If you feel lonely in a new place, remember about those people out there who love you and care for you, and reach to them regularly to get some reassurance.
Find your routine and stick to it
Finally, what I find very helpful is to have your routine, and that should include at least an honest attempt to exercise regularly. Being in a new place, confronted with all the internal and external pressures, is always stressful. You will do yourself a great favour if you admit it from the beginning and come up with a plan that will help you to release that stress. There are plenty of resources on stress management and positive coping mechanisms. Stress does not affect only managers or directors; it can affect anyone, including volunteers. Being in a new place and facing the challenges described above is no easy thing. As simple as it may sound, if you do not take care of your physical and mental health, no one else will. A steady exercise routine, keeping in touch with your loved ones, and pursuing your hobbies and interests can help you find balance.
All in all, volunteering can have its challenges but it is certainly a life experience. It is about testing yourself in a new environment and growing your personal resilience. It is about how you confront emerging challenges and how you grow stronger by doing it. Volunteering shapes you as a person. It connects you with the global community of likeminded people who want to contribute to changing the world. It can definitely jump start your career in international development, but most importantly it can help you find yourself and your place in the world.