Service Travel: What is the real story? My experience volunteering in Africa

I recently heard about a reporter named Laura who was writing an article about the no-guild vacation; the rise of service travel.  In her words:

“From laying the foundation for a new school in Kenya to creating sustainable homes in India to digging wells in Guatemala, this short form reported piece will explore this educational and philanthropic segment of the elite travel market through organizations like Me to We and Global Works.”

Sounds great, right? But there’s a catch…..

I quickly wrote her back, and begged her to include the other side of the argument. The part that explains why volunteer trips are riddled with dangers for the traveler & most importantly the locals! 

I never heard back. But assumingly she stuck to her 1 sided perspective. Before I joined the pro-travel moment, I too believed that service travel was a great option. But what’s the real story?

My 1st Service Travel Trip:

Back in 2009, I volunteered at an orphange in Guatemala. The babies, who learned to call every volunteer, “mommy,” (growing up they’ll no doubt have a dysfunctional belief that moms are people who come into your life and leave you within a few weeks) gave me the first insight into the damage of volunteering. The caretakers would not let us hold the babies because when we left at the end of summer they would cry when they couldn’t be held. The caretakers just couldn’t hold the 20 something babies enough to make up for our absense.

While sitting on the orphange floor, I had a baby reaching out its arms to be held saying, “Mommy….” and I had to look at the child and do nothing. On the other hand, I saw children who had no emotion, no spark in their eyes anymore because they had simply succumbed to their institutionalized fate. I’m still not sure which breaks my heart more.

Service travel, Volunteering in Africa, Volunteering abroad, backpacking africa for beginners

One of the kids I met in Guatemala

My 2nd Service Travel Trip:

Next, I volunteered in 2010 at an orphanage in Ethiopia. That’s when I realized most orphans in Africa aren’t actually orphans. They still have parents! Only the parents can no longer afford to feed them. What they truly needed was sustainable income for their families so they could stay with their families. Instead they got transferred to multiple orphanages and suffered a host of new awful challenges. (And that includes the damaging effects of volunteerism!)

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Besides the issues I began having with my own orgranization, I saw that other NGO’s*:

  • Weren’t making a sustainable impact
  • Painted a terrible picture of the local culture
  • Disregarded all legal laws of the country (they came to help, yet think it’s okay to work illegally?)
  • Using profits that only benefited the Admin…..little went to the people


Service travel, Volunteering in Africa, Volunteering abroad, backpacking africa for beginners

I’m so obsessed with monkeys! I found this guy in a forest in Ethiopia.

(*My problems with service travel goes far farther than these two experiences. I’ve done multiple community service trips in the US and have been inside dozens of NGO’s in the US (I’m a social worker by training) & can tell you that while some are great…. the majority have severe issues. More than anybody, I want to believe in service trips, but unfortunately they are NOT what they appear). 

My Next Experience Abroad:

Despite realizing all the problems with service travel, I really loved my time in Ethiopia. So much so that I wondered, “What are other African countries like?” That’s why my next trip to the continent was when I backpacked the entire length of Africa (from Cape to Cairo).

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While traveling, I met a lot of travelers and a lot of volunteers. The volunteers were always frustrated. How could one person, who knows nothing about that country, actually make any difference after all? Plus volunteering had put them in a position, whether they liked it or not, of superiority over the locals. That’s no way to make friends! Not to mention that these do-gooders never liked the countries they were in because inheritantly they had to focus on all its problems. I could actually go on and on why volunteering in Africa is NOT a good idea….

Service travel, Volunteering in Africa, Volunteering abroad, backpacking africa for beginners

Some cool dutch travelers I met during my trip. We hiked the Victorian Falls together.

Why Travel in Africa

I believe that traveling Africa is not only an amazing experience, but also reduces poverty too. Traveling puts money into the pockets of locals.

Why does this matter?

Because then moms and dads can buy food, medicine, and school supplies for their children themselves. Think about it. If you’re a parent, wouldn’t it kill you to see your child walking around barefoot getting cuts on their toes because you can’t buy them shoes? How good would it feel to go to the market and easily buy your kids everything they need?

After my backpacking trip, I moved to Ethiopia. Now I’m starting a vegan snack social impact business that hires at-risk women. By working for my company, these ladies will receive regular income to care for their children.

And while my first trip to Ethiopia showed me problems, my second trip (while backpacking) helped me appreciate the amazing culture. That includes the food! My travels literally led to starting a snack business that will help reduce poverty. That’s more powerful than any volunteer trip!

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Back to the reporter Laura

While service travel sounds great, it’s actually pretty messed up. Here’s the deal:

volunteering in malawi, volunteering in africa, service travel,

I met a backpacker named Stefan from New Zealand. He came just to travel. But along the way, he found a computer club in Malawi. Since he loved the culture, he decided to stay and teach these kids some coding. This is awesome because it was a mutual exchange. He loved their country & they loved learning new skills.

Take a look at what Laura said & read into it closer.

From laying the foundation for a new school in Kenya to creating sustainable homes in India to digging wells in Guatemala (Again– locals struggle because they don’t have sustainable income. Orphans are kids given up by their parents because their families have no money. The solution is sustainable income. So when volunteers lay foundations for a school or dig wells or construct anything….. guess what? They just took money out of the pockets of locals who could do the same thing. Locals can dig holes. Locals can pour cement. Don’t STEAL work from them!)

this short form reported piece will explore this educational (There is nothing wrong with an educational trip. You can learn A LOT from travel. But a ‘Learning Service” trip (or just plain travel!) is much better for you and those in the country)


and philanthropic segment (There is nothing wrong with philanthropy or giving back. But do it smart! My favorite ways to help are:

  • teaching English or other skills,
  • promoting/importing/selling products made in the countries,
  • investing in a local company,
  • or giving to a locally run organization)

of the elite travel market through organizations like Me to We and Global Works. (Keyword here: market. Service travel is a billion dollar industry. They promote it because it makes them money not because it helps locals.)

Bottom Line? Just travel! It will change you & help African communities. What do you think? Am I off based? Leave your questions, comments, or stories below! 🙂


6 responses to “Service Travel: What is the real story? My experience volunteering in Africa”

  1. Leila says:

    I love this article. I’ve travelled quite a lot in Africa and decided last year for the first time to do some voluntary work. It turned out to be a big mistake. I’m a teacher and teacher trainer in the UK, so naturally I decided I’d like to teach over there. On my first day I asked other volunteers what the kids were learning at that time. The response was “whatever you want. They’re really good at colours and love singing songs”. I don’t want to disparage anyone who has given their time, but what the volunteers at that school were doing was evidently not beneficial.

    I’d love to volunteer again, actually, but have decided to look into training local teachers, many of whom in my last school were also volunteers. I’m wondering if you know of any foreign volunteers who have done this and whether you think it could be beneficial? I certainly don’t want to barrel in as the know-it-all white person, but I think with my background I could really help.

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey! I’m glad you liked the article. And it’s so cool you’ve already traveled so much of Africa. And your experience sounds so familiar. It’s amazing how much volunteering is being promoted even though as you realized it’s not all that beneficial.

      But I really do like your new idea of training local teachers. Volunteering is bad when it’s taking jobs from locals, causing attachment disorders, or generally just there to make volunteers feel good. But something like promoting business or creating a sustainable difference– like teachers teaching better is a great thing. Because that’s leading to more capable locals and improved education for kids. I don’t know about other countries, but in Ethiopia there can be up to a 100 kids in one class– all different ages. So the need for good skilled teachers is huge!

      And I know it’s awkward feeling like the white person helping Africa, even if that’s not your intention. But I think because you traveled you already have a greater appreciation of the culture. And when you help think of it as a partnership… Like you’re teaching them something you know, but don’t feel bad to receive. Like enjoying their culture or learning something they are good at. Anyways, keep me updated! I would love to hear what you end up doing– and perhaps we can encourage more people to create a sustainable difference.

  2. Hi, i live in Kenya and i do travel bloggin as well (in spanish though), im actually lucky that i found your article just as i am writing an article on volunteering. Im glad to see we share many points!

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey! That’s so cool. We’re neighbors 🙂 🙂 And it’s so nice hearing someone else feels the same way. We’re definitely the minority. I like your website by the way… I can’t understand too much of it.. as I forgot almost all my spanish… but it looks like you’ve had some cool adventures. Anyways, I just emailed you with a blog idea. Check it and let me know what you think 🙂

  3. auspicious says:

    I had the most amazing experiences volunteering as a teacher in Eastern Europe – so I hate to disagree. But I do. I have nothing against simply traveling as a tourist and experiencing adventures. But it is at heart a consumer activity. It is important to learn that the whole world does not live like we do in the west and have to face this without the option of just packing up and moving on when you are uncomfortable.

    • Val Bowden says:

      Hey! Haha, no problem. Different opinions are always nice. And I think that if people want to volunteer in Africa– there is a a way to do it. Teaching, like you did, is one way. But I am against the volunteering that takes jobs from locals (painting a school when a local could have been paid), donating stuff (that puts local business out of business), etc. But certainly it’s good for those in the West to see realities of developing countries and contribute when it’s in a dignifying, equal, and sustainable manner 🙂

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