Guest post by Kate Sunners, HHA Inc. Social Media Manager
Having been a development studies student, I was familiar with voluntourism and the side-effects of ‘development’ when done to communities by outsiders, rather than by and with locals. I’ve also known many well-intentioned folks who have had a voluntourist experience as a student, and witnessed their varying reactions ranging from the social media selfie-posting self-congratulatory phenomenon vs the uncomfortable itchiness of ‘poverty tourism’ in a questionably post-colonial world. But I hadn’t come across a personal narrative, describing the day to day experiences of volunteering in an orphanage or school, and it’s the detail of this experience recounted by Sally Hetherington in ‘It’s Not About Me’ that gripped me from the first pages.
Setting out with a desire to change the world as a voluntourist, Sally instead finds the interaction with Cambodian children and the tourists that come to ‘help’ with their education deeply troubling. As the instances of entitled foreigners demanding access to school children during classes to ‘teach’ by painting faces or singing songs begin to mount up, Sally’s worldview begins to change. She begins to see that voluntourism is getting in the way of local people providing local solutions, and is perpetuating a cycle of dependence without building capacity.
It’s Sally’s involvement with a local group of volunteers teaching English after work hours which provides the opportunity to help build local capacity, helping the teachers get on with teaching by becoming operations manager of what became Human and Hope Association (HHA). Her experiences and those of HHA’s staff make for a fascinating, sometimes horrifying, and often laugh out loud funny read, all narrated in Sally’s warm, no-nonsense and self-deprecating voice.
As the years pass and Sally works towards making herself redundant, the organisation strengthens its leadership and values, eventually putting in place a policy of no foreign tourists (the difficulty of implementing this policy makes for an interesting few pages!), and providing university scholarships for staff.
There are children Sally sees go from reluctant learners, to successful public school students with strong social skills, excelling in their studies. There are, heartbreakingly, other children who despite extra resources and visits from HHA staff to talk to parents, still disappear from school and are spotted working as rubbish pickers to enable their families to subsist. There are hairy moments of road accidents, ghosts, malaria, wrestling matches with cultural context and western ethics.
‘It’s Not About Me’ is a thought-provoking mix of travel memoir, biography, social commentary and development manifesto that all travellers and socially conscious readers will enjoy.