A few weeks ago, I went on a journey to Kenya and Tanzania. As you may know from reading this blog, I spent a decent amount of time this summer investigating what was happening in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, near the border with Somalia. My colleague Rebecca and I took a look at the camp, trying to understand who was working there, what they were doing and what could be improved.
Research from a cozy coffee shop in the states is one thing, but there are things that can only be understood by experiencing a situation firsthand. There’s something to be said for meshing external research with time actually spent working in the field, so to speak. So when a friend of mine asked if I wanted to travel to East Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania, just south of Kenya), I figured it’d be an excellent way to experience a bit of the culture I had been blogging about for the better part of the summer. I planned a three-week trip, with the last week focused on our climb and the first two open to whatever I wanted to do.
The more I read about what was happening in Dadaab, the stronger my desire to see it for myself became. I don’t mean this in a morbid way – there is nothing pleasant about being around such immense suffering as what is happening in and around Dadaab right now – but I wanted to connect my research to something real, something tangible. With only a couple weeks left before my trip, I didn’t have any real plan on how to get near the camp. I only knew that it was a day bus ride away from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya where I was flying into, and that there was a slew of organizations working in the camp. How hard could it be to hop on an eastward bus and volunteer at the gates? With proof of up to date vaccinations and a couple of open weeks, I set out on my journey.
On a quick flight from Adis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, I sat next to an Italian gentleman who managed an orphanage in a slum nearly an hour outside of Nairobi. We introduced ourselves on the tarmac at Adis and as we talked, I told him the reasons I was travelling to Kenya in the first place – part adventure, part vacation, part research, part whatever. After he described the work he was doing in Kenya, I asked what I would have to do to volunteer at his orphanage. Not quite the reason I came to Kenya, but I figured I might as well help out however I could while I was there. He told me about the lengthy application process and the even lengthier approval process for helping out – three months at least, he told me. When I told him I’d only be in town for a couple of weeks, he simply pointed me in the direction of his organization’s website and told me to check them out for the future.
It didn’t take long to realize that months long application processes were commonplace for aid organizations working in Kenya. A friend of mine who lives in a suburb of Nairobi introduced me to many people who had done volunteer work of one sort or another in the area. Every one of them told me the same thing – there really wasn’t any place they knew of where I could just show up and start lending a hand. Disheartened, I found my way to an internet café to search out opportunities for aid work in southern Kenya. Perhaps you can guess the result of my Google queries. While there were hundreds of organizations working in an aid capacity in Kenya with active websites, none of the ones I clicked on offered volunteer opportunities without a lengthy application process.
I had never before considered this aspect of volunteering, that there is a lot more to it than just a willing spirit and some free time. These organizations I wanted to lend a hand to probably would have had to spend a good amount of time training me in their practices – after all, I’ve never worked in a refugee camp before. In the end, I may have taken up the time of a trained worker who could have been spending that time helping refugees instead. Perhaps there is a reason for a lengthy application process. Considering the strained resources many aid organizations deal with, it’s important that they make the most of their time and money, maximizing the benefit of the people they are trying to help. The random two-week volunteer, while well intentioned, is probably not the best use of those resources.
This sort of realization, while disheartening at the time, is the reason why I have always loved to travel. What I learned seems relatively basic, but I never would have learned it had I not made the journey. Experiences like this lend fresh perspective to deeply ingrained ideas and concepts. My trip challenged my concept of volunteerism and helped me develop a more realistic picture of how to help others. Next time I head to Kenya, I’ll have a plan that will allow me to accomplish what I hoped to achieve on this trip.Ryan Pavel is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focusing on foreign military involvement, policy and strategy into conflicts and motivations behind and impact of foreign aid. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org