Learning from the locals can be fun and educational!
For many, a gap year is a chance to see the world, make new friends, and use your time to help those less fortunate than yourself. Whilst you may think that setting off to build a school in rural Africa will be life-changing for both you and the communities involved, this may in fact be far from the truth. Choose the right project, however, and you could both help in doing something amazing that will benefit local communities and help you find yourself.
But surely building a school can't be bad?
Building a school is a wonderful ideal that helps to empower and educate, and allows you to 'find yourself' whilst learning from those in abject poverty. But let's dig a little deeper. If you weren't building the school, who would be?
Take Uganda, for example, where, according to charity Amigos, the unemployment rate for 18-25 year-olds is a staggering 83%. With so many companies profiteering on people's desires to go and 'change the world,' it makes you wonder how much of what you're doing is benefitting the community.
If a charity really wanted to help rural Ugandans, they wouldn't be charging Westerners extortionate amounts of money to lay a few bricks; they would be raising funds to employ local people to build it themselves.
Let's look at an example.
To illustrate this, I'd like to compare two very different charity experiences I have had in East Africa.
During my 'gap year' I went to Tanzania and Kenya with 'Organisation A' for two months, albeit several thousand pounds out of pocket. I did the usual things - helped build a school, taught in classes - and generally was very well looked after.
But did I feel I had made a big difference? No, not really. Yes, I laid a few bricks, mixed some cement, and was able to say 'I helped build a part of that school.' But the earth did not shake beneath my feet, revealing a whole new sense of wellbeing and changing my life forever.
Filming the students in Uganda was so rewarding.
What I do remember, is meeting the director of the company, who lived in a very luxurious mansion on the beach, while the Tanzanian staff resided in their own mud huts, with barely enough money to get by.
And that was the point at which I realised exactly where my money had gone.
But then there was 'Organisation B', which I visited almost by accident much more recently. Although I only went for two weeks this time, the cost was minimal and was in the form of a direct donation to the charity. All of the staff were Ugandan, all of the ideas were Ugandan, and all of the students at the training centre I was volunteering at were happy.
Not only did this centre employ a lot of local people, but all of the directors were in-country, with only one man--the founder of the charity--at home in England, dedicating everything he could straight to the project.
This time, I used my skills as a journalist to interview the students about their past (including former child soldiers, AIDS orphans, and former sex slaves) and make a video for the charity to promote their efforts back in the UK.
Back at home, when I saw people crying at the video I had made and handing donations over willy-nilly, the ground finally shook.
So what should I do?
You can make a difference, both to the local communities and to yourself, if you just follow these basic rules...
Building the foundations of a school dining hall; who benefitted?
- Utilize your skills and share them. Everybody has skills, whether in a trade or profession - even basic IT or teaching your native language. In developing countries, teaching your skills to someone could help them get a job and lift themselves out of poverty, and you will feel as if you have made a real difference to someone's life.
- Research the project. Many people who travel with 'gap year' companies will be more than willing to name and shame if they feel they have been conned into a project that only benefits a few. Do your research before booking anything, and don't be afraid to ask the organisation questions about how much of what you're paying goes into the project and the local community.
- Get involved in at home. I stumbled across 'Organisation B' at home, and it was only through volunteering with them in their office that I got the opportunity to travel to Uganda. It meant that I also had a far better understanding of the project when I arrived, and I knew my money was going straight to where it was needed.
- Find a project in-country. If you're planning on travelling to a developing country, the chances are that you won't be able to go far without stumbling upon a local project looking for volunteers. This will inevitably be a lot cheaper than going through a gap year company, and ultimately may prove to be more rewarding.
Just remember: It's your gap year, and if you want to go with a major company and build a school or other-such project, there is nothing wrong with that. Just be aware of the company you are travelling with, never be afraid to ask questions, and don't expect to change the whole world with a few bricks and mortar. Travel with the right company, and you can make a real difference to people's lives; just make sure you take the time to research exactly where your money is going and choose your project wisely.