Before coming to Zimbabwe, one of our biggest fears was whether we would be just more Westerners going to Africa as part of some voyeuristic voluntourism trip. We didn’t want to contribute to the already prolific “white-saviour” complex, which has contributed significantly to painting countries in Africa as backward and in need of saving from us ‘enlightened’ people in the Global North, a narrative which has existed for centuries. However, having now reached the half-way point in the placement, these concerns have lifted. Rather than being a group of UK volunteers doing ‘good works’ for one week before going on a safari, Progressio focuses on bringing together UK and Zimbabwean volunteers who work together for 12 weeks with a locally based charity. This is an introduction into meaningful social development work for both the UK and Zimbabwean volunteers, which focuses on grassroots projects aiming to educate and affect sexual health behavioural change within the community. Moreover, the work we are doing is driven first and foremost by the local organisation with whom we work in very close partnership.
Our partner organisation is the Midlands Aids Service Organisation (MASO), which is situated in the heart of Gweru and is widely known and respected throughout the region. While we are technically working on a Progressio organised placement, in practice we are interns for MASO, who tailor and define the curriculum and programme we are delivering to the community. To us, this gives the work a high level of legitimacy. Rather than imposing our own ideas, which is highly problematic and damaging, as history knows all too well, we are taking the lead from MASO and from the Zimbabwean volunteers in terms of how we work within the community.
The central theme to Progressio’s programme is UK and Zimbabwean volunteers working in unison as a single team, which has given us better access to and understanding of the communities we are working in, as half of the team come from these very communities. The UK volunteers are following their lead, learning the language and customs from the Zimbabwean volunteers allowing us to operate with greater cultural sensitivity and awareness. This set-up has again given the placement more credibility; we are working with local volunteers and taking our direction from the people who actually understand the needs and expectations of their community.
For anyone who has similar fears as ours, we would say that Progressio as an organisation is clearly very aware of the problematic nature of UK volunteers abroad and has gone to great lengths to create a programme that provides meaningful outcomes for the communities within which they operate. Our placement is not about giving UK volunteers the ‘experience of a lifetime in Africa’, but about carrying out long term projects to try and achieve significant change within the areas we work, driven, of course, by local voices and opinions.
Written by ICS Team Leader Patricia Stephenson