You’d think when one goes to volunteer in Africa the experience would move them. Afterwards one would understand things on a higher plain, become a champion of the poor and underrepresented. Nope. Not in my case.
I volunteered in Zambia for 5 months. (If you get paid can you still call it volunteering? I mean, it was local wages; not enough to actually live on. I couldn’t even afford a bi-weekly cappuccino. The NGO called the pay a stipend. I think that’s development talk for shitty pay.)
Anyways. I was volunteering in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. My role was to infiltrate small to medium size agribusinesses, and use my engineering knowledge to impart business skills (engineers have no business skills) to my Zambian coworkers.
I wish I could have done that. Development is a complex issue and I’m not a complex man. I tried my best and was adequately successful.
In Zambia I learned how to harvest and process honey, and that entrepreneurs in Africa have it hard. They face corruption and insufficient infrastructure. Zambians also have to cope with their zealous belief in religion, a lack of education, taking daytime naps, and not wanting to screw with a condom on. It’s a complex set of problems.
I made friends in Zambia because the people were awesome (except for the ones that were dicks). Friends invited me to meals and parties and I met their families. One in seven of them had AIDS. That was sad.
When I returned to Canada, people asked what volunteering in Zambia was like. I didn’t have a good answer because it was moving and depressing, and I cannot express it in a single conversation.
When I listen to people talk about the “development problem” in Africa, I don’t comment at all. Not because I have a deep knowledge of what the true and unrecognized answer is. It’s because after seeing the complicated mess that is development, I have no idea how to solve it, or even if it’s the type of problem that can be “solved” at all.
Want to see photos from Zambia? I guest posted a photo essay “From the Road” at My Travel Affairs.