I volunteered with Big Beyond for 2 months, mid 2015. I am a seasoned traveller, who has been to Africa a number of times. I am also very involved with an NGO that works in Africa - but which has a strict policy of only people of the country work in the country. I wanted to feel what it was like working embedded in a community, and hopefully feel that I could offer something useful. I have also trekked in to see the Mountain gorillas twice, so felt this was a good place for me to do some give back!
So those are my biases!
I really wanted to find an organisation that knew the community it worked in well, because it had worked there long enough to have great community input. BB has been in the community well over two years and employs members of the community as project coordinators and as staff. However in the two months I was there it was not evident that there is large scale community rapport.
The business of volunteer tourism is a new model and I am sure a very tricky one to get right. There was a new management team when I was there - and this certainly may have been causing hiccups! But the comments in previous reviews about better lines of communication - should be heeded.
I have thought long and hard before putting up a review. My honest experience was that I had a lovely time meeting and getting to know craftspeople there - something I would never have been able to do in any other way. I 'worked' with the craftspeople in the area. I saw a little tiny slither of what life is like to live in a small remote African township. And I certainly enjoyed the landscape, birdlife, and long walks along dirt roads in the area - also the hairy scary bike rides.
But like it or not, BB has not broken the mould on 'whitey knows best' - there were way too many examples of the project coordinators not being respected as the thoughtful and innovative local leaders they could be. There was too little evidence that programs had grown out of deep community consultation or request - but a lot of evidence it was shaped around volunteer's interests - maybe great busy work for us, not so good for locals.
I worked with the crafts people. I carve bowls, and have a knowledge of many aspects of different craft areas - so I loved sitting with the carvers and seeing how they worked and what they did. I spent time with the weavers, beadmakers and a blacksmith - all delightful. We talked, I tried some of their skills, offered some of mine, and we tried some new designs. But seriously, they were not asking for a volunteer to come to them. They wanted us to buy the work they were producing, or tell them what to make so we would buy it from them, and there it stops. Volunteers roll through there, changing over all the time some rapidly, some stay longer, but what the craftspeople wanted was a good way to speak with management, and they did not have it.
The tricky thing is, Big Beyond must have happy volunteers - because that is what brings in the money to pay management, infrastructure costs and programs - so they need to make the volunteers feel useful and worthwhile, but what happens when the community doesn't want or need what the volunteers want to do??? For BB - who is your real client? the volunteer or the community? I don't envy the management team trying to resolve this dilemma - and they are trying. I wish them all the very best. They offer an access point into an experience which is unique.
Community lunch is a very successful induction activity - enjoyed by every volunteer as a highlight - in fact the first two induction days are excellent, whomever in the team planned those two days, should be congratulated and PLEASE get involved in how volunteers can be better integrated through language lessons etc, so the barriers get chipped away. If volunteers contribute nothing else, they could at least help break down the myth that westerners know more than the locals about what's best for a community.