When I stopped a student from suturing a man’s arm back together, I knew something was horribly wrong.
He had never dealt with patients. He was 21, from England, and in his second year of a medical degree. But Richard had decided to come to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, to the hospital where I had been working for a few months, so he could advance his medical career. He, like many hundreds of students from the UK, was capitalising on the opportunities provided by Work the World and subsequent work experience providers. He, like so many students from the west, was damning to African healthcare.
“Voluntourism” is a term used to describe those who travel with a charity or organisation to teach or work in developing nations. They are often students and have no expertise, but it makes their resumés pop and gives their parents something to boast about around the Christmas dinner table – not to mention the mandatory “holding an African orphan” Facebook profile picture.
I was working towards a career with MSF having previously taught first aid in Tanzania with First Aid Africa. I was a registered nurse in Tanzania and started working at Muhimbili National Hospital in the arid city of Dar es Salaam. Like a cold wind blowing through the hot summer corridors of the modern hospital compound where I lived, Richard, along with four other students, entered the emergency department – all of them wearing elephant print harem pants and sandals.
In one week, one student would get an needlestick injury and refuse treatment despite the alarming rate of HIV patients we treated. One would get food poising from eating food from street vendors we told them not to eat from. Two would get mugged for walking alone at night. All would get homesick and utter that they “hate it in Africa” and all would be patronising to the hard work of the nursing staff, who worked with unbelievable strength given their less than marginal resources. Don’t get me started on the vile content some of them would post on their personal blogs.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. Because unlike normal clinical placements in the UK, these students didn’t have to fill in the same standard of paperwork. When they return to their mummies and daddies and their universities it is their word and no one else’s. No one will confirm how terrible they were.
International development is sexy, and living in the bleak grey shroud of the UK is not. But a five-week stint in Dar es Salaam, with a week of scuba diving and a visit to a (fake) tribal village might sound like quite a nice way to spend the summer – it is not development work.
“Whether you choose adult, paediatric or mental health nursing, under your supervisor’s wing you’ll have the chance to help diagnose and treat unfamiliar conditions such as dengue fever, malaria, rabies and more” says the Work the World website.
I wouldn’t dare attempt to treat anyone or anything I had no knowledge of. Never mind the fact I can’t speak the local language to even gather basic diagnostic information – family history, medical history, events leading up to, allergies, and so on.
Although Work the World admits it is not a development organisation and only offers elective placements, none of the students I met understood their limits. If I didn’t stop Richard, that man would have died, and his blood would have been on my hands.
It’s not just health; construction and education are also targets for voluntourism in international development. After experiencing it for herself, Pippa Biddle wrote in the Huffington Post that, “our mission was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that we would be unaware of our failure.”
The Voluntourist documentary investigates Cambodian orphanages where children are ‘pimped out’ to support the voluntourism industry. An ex-volunteer, Richard Stupart, wrote: “It was cost effective for orphanage-pimps to rent them off their parents for the day so that they could play or perform for gullible tourists for a healthy profit in donations.”
The job market is tough for today’s youth, but the depths of voluntourism can only worsen if the market is open to it. Travelling is great, so just travel. There is nothing wrong with just being a tourist, especially since tourism supports local economies. If you want to save the world then learn some skills, be passionate and care about something – don’t just open your wallet and fork out to leer at the sick and needy.
And whatever you do, leave the harem pants at home.