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"Looking back, I question all of this": Maja's Story

Orphanage Tourism

"Looking back, I question all of this": Maja's Story

You must be truly brave. I admire you. Most people who decide to volunteer abroad may hear similar statements.

It happened to me when I decided to volunteer in Zambia in 2015. I was 20 years old. It wasn’t a holiday, but a chance to develop myself. I wanted to do my best in the orphanage school, where I was about to start work with a friend.

I was well-intentioned and ready to work hard to improve the lives of other people. I didn’t consider that a young woman from Europe – with no knowledge of working with vulnerable children – might not be suitable for an orphanage volunteering position. Now I think differently.

Trip training

I know many organisations send their volunteers without any training, but in my case, I prepared for a year. We participated in weekend training sessions once a month before leaving for Zambia. I learned a lot about the work, the challenges and the required attitude towards children. It wasn’t guaranteed that you’d be allowed to volunteer either, they were serious about selection. But I still wasn’t prepared to face the reality of an orphanage.

In July 2015, I arrived in Lusaka, Zambia, with my fellow volunteer and friend. We were going to work in a girls-only orphanage. The youngest child was around 4 years old and the oldest girls were perhaps 3 or 4 years younger than me. We weren’t the only volunteers. During our 3-month stay, I met 10 or more volunteers from around the world.

Good intentions

The orphanage was connected to a school and we helped there too. We assisted during lessons, ran extracurricular classes, and helped the girls in the orphanage in the afternoon. Sometimes we had to be creative and come up with activities to keep the girls busy. I just wanted to help them forget about their loneliness, traumas or just make friends with someone new. I wasn’t the only volunteer like that, who just wanted to ‘make a difference’.

I was warned about getting too attached to the children. I was only in the orphanage for a while, and life would continue for the children when I left. But it’s so difficult not to get to emotionally attached. If it was difficult for me, how did it feel for the girls who were abandoned – every week, every month, every year – by different volunteers?

Broken promises

I began to question the idea of sending inexperienced volunteers to work with vulnerable children. Girls in the orphanage told stories about ex-volunteers who had promised them that they would come back. Promises of a better future that were broken. Some of the girls kept volunteers’ addresses, believing that they would come back. None of them ever did.

Volunteers would sometimes visit for a few days. They would give the girls presents, take pictures, play and leave. That was a common experience for children in the orphanage. Looking back, I question all of this. Placing inexperienced, sometimes reckless young people with vulnerable children. Volunteers who could spend time with young girls without any supervision. How could an orphanage system like that be prioritising children’s welfare?

Child-centred solutions

Now I think good intentions can do more harm than good. Why support the voluntourism industry instead of concentrating on ways to help families stay together – and support them to raise their children in a safe environment? Orphanages should always be a last resort.

I still think that volunteering is a noble thing to do. But orphanage volunteering – especially by young, inexperienced people – can definitely be harmful to children. Five years after my experience, I’d really like to change people’s perception of volunteering in orphanages. We can all support services that help families and foster families to raise children instead.

We can make children’s lives better. But it’s vital to place their needs before our own desire to feel better about ourselves.