In Defense of the Voluntourist and the real “Problem with Little White Girls”

Two weeks ago, I helped build a home in Nicaragua for Dora.

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Dora is a 73-year-old mother of 13 children, none of whom support her financially. One of her children, Blanca, still lives with her and is mentally disabled.

I was on a Global Village trip with Habitat for Humanity. In truth, we built a “home addition” and not a full-sized home, but now she and her daughter have a solid living space. It will be the first time Dora has lived in a house with more than a dirt floor.

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I and eight other volunteers arrived at the work site to find the foundation just completed. Over the course of five days we assisted the Nicaraguan construction team with the build.  On my first day, I helped cut, bend,and tie rebar.  On my second day I got down and dirty with the mortar – laying it for the next layer and putting it between the blocks.

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Day three was concrete for extra cinder block stability.  Day four was shoveling.  I shoveled gravel and fine sand.  I went to a quarry where we used pick axes and shovels to gather more dirt to level out the flooring.  It was hour after hour of moving dirt and rock by hand, shovel, and wheelbarrow.  Day five, the last day, we mixed batch after batch of concrete (again, with only shovels for tools) and poured Dora her new floor.

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I was hot, dirty, and downright proud of working hard enough to get crusts of dirt in my elbows.

A week or two before my trip to Nicaragua a blog article was getting buzz on the Internets.  A young woman wrote a hot article called The Problem with Little White Girls. In it, she questioned the idea of being a “voluntourist.”  I’m paraphrasing, but in a sense she was arguing that unskilled volunteers were, more or less, useless.  That, instead, the money used for a plane ticket, food, etc, would be put to much better use simply being donated to a cause. I even got some flack from people I knew when I asked for donations for my trip, all stemming from this article.

At the time, I disagreed.  After doing this trip, I disagree even more.  While I do think she makes some good points and I understand her intention in writing the article wasn’t to cause harm, I do think that she missed a lot of the point of being a voluntourist. In her blog, she assumed that the sole motivation people have when they volunteer is to help others. It may sound strange, but that wasn’t my goal at all. I will be honest with you. I had the following three reasons and none of them had much to do with helping other people.

1) I wanted to go on a short vacation.
2) I wanted to vacation to a country that I felt was unsafe for me, as a 25-year old white girl, to go to alone.
3) I wanted to think that the money I was spending on my vacation would go to more than just the tourism industry (although I knew that would happen, too).

This is what I got:

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SUCCESS. All of my goals for this trip were met. I saw an incredible country, I met some wonderful people – both local and foreign.  I relaxed in hammocks and ate good food and did super touristy things like go to a volcano crater for 5 minutes worth of picture snapping.

There is the true Problem with Little White Girls and my main issue with the blog post against being a voluntourist. We too often stop ourselves from doing something because we’re not an expert.  I may have been a little white girl but my best turned out to be better than I expected. With only minimal instruction from the Project Manager I learned tasks quickly. I kept myself busy. I surprised myself with my own physical ability to do real work all day.

They didn’t need a project manager or a mason for this project – they had already hired all the qualified, skilled Nicaraguan workers they needed.  What they needed were the people willing to do the physical labor, and I was there to do my best. I couldn’t shovel as long as the other workers, but I did shovel.  I couldn’t take a full wheelbarrow up the hill, so I just went twice.  Yes, I was smaller, weaker, and slower than the professionals – but that doesn’t mean that my work wasn’t valid.

If you’re thinking about doing it, then do it.  There are so many volunteer opportunities out there – if you want to do one then figure out which one suits you best and make it happen. Your skills, your money, your kind smile will help someone out there, I promise.

P.S. I’m probably going ahead this time next year to Bolivia – if anyone wants to join, let me know!

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of the Voluntourist and the real “Problem with Little White Girls”

  1. Hello, first time here. This gives new meaning to “work & travel”.

  2. Molly hodson

    Wow Ashley, you’ve created quite a response! We have so many like minded great volunteers out there

  3. I’m a frequent Habitat volunteer and what people who haven’t done it, and don’t get is…we build so much more than houses. We build communities, we build relationships, we share cultures. Many of the local people were amazed that we volunteered to do this…it sends a pretty good message of love. And the cross-cultural boundaries begin to fade away. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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