Ben Whybrow volunteered in South Africa with Restless Development during the summer of 2016. He’s passionate about the politics of development and in particular, the neocolonialist implications of some development initiatives in developing countries. In this post, he explores his sense of purpose while volunteering overseas.

Sunlight bleeds into a gap in the wall where a window should have been, throwing shadows across the door as my class files outside. Behind the classroom stand two large green water tanks straddled by criss-crossing barbed wires that anchor them into blocks of sun-baked concrete.

Between these two tanks I stand with my co-facilitators – Batchie and Mfuci – as we face the expectant Grade 7 class. Mfuci briefs them on the task we want them to complete. I will read out a series of common gender stereotypes and then the kids will run to the left tank if they believe it’s true, and the right if they think it isn’t. It was a simple task but it got the kids energised and gave us a relaxed platform in which we could engage with their preconceptions.

The first question I see in my volunteer information pack seems to be a doozy: ‘Male children are more preferable to female children’. A nice, easy question to get the ball rolling so the class gets acquainted with the format. However, in response to my question, the class quickly crowds to the left tank. With a naivety spiked by arrogance, I repeat the rules of the exercise thinking that they had simply got confused about which tank meant what. After this apparent clarification, the kids stood motionless.

It was at that moment when I began to doubt my purpose in South Africa.

Any Restless volunteer can tell you that you can go through hard times on placement, however usually these difficulties are made worthwhile by the difference you think you make. But when you’re faced by sixteen young girls that truly believe that they are biologically inferior to their male counterparts; you begin to despair. This disagreement between class and the facilitators fell like a guillotine, leaving our rapport with the class severed. We knew that within this attitude laid the seeds of many of the problems we faced in the community:

  • Limiting of aspirations and opportunities for women
  • Gender-based violence – for both genders as expectations of subservience (for women) and the ability to provide (for men) creates in-built points of conflict for many relationships within the community
  • It feeds into a cult of masculinity within the community as young men are encouraged to act irresponsibly in order to prove their worth as a man, which was implicitly driven by a fear of appearing weak ‘like a girl’

I ask the group to discuss why they believe that girls are inferior. The class is comprised of sixteen girls and three boys (who were already quite quiet) so I was confident that the explanation I would get would be largely inspired by the girls’ own beliefs. Their justifications were based upon myths and stereotypes that we had spent previous lessons trying to disprove. This was entirely heart-breaking.

Of course, my co-facilitators and I talked to them, trying to encourage them to take a far more progressive view of the position of women, one that was unshackled from the bonds of tradition. Yet as we were walking home after class, my spirit began to crumble like the dried mud falling from my boots. What was the point of working with these young people if the views we wished to dismiss were ingrained with views from the day they were born?

It seems foolish to get upset about it. Surely the reason I’m over five thousand miles from home is to challenge poisonous preconceptions such as the one I had faced earlier that day. There would be no point of me being there if everyone agreed with the message we were offering.

Yet this is a hard pill to swallow for many volunteers, especially ones from the UK. I was brought up believing that my views were not only right but also that they were universal. The shattering of this illusion left my reality fragmented like cracks along stained glass, leaving its images disfigured. Perhaps I’m blinded by a commonly held conceit within the UK volunteering community, hoping that I could “fix” South Africa. Possibly there is a grain of truth in that, but if that ever was the case – it certainly isn’t now.

I learnt something valuable from that day. It may have taken longer than I’d like to admit to sink in but I think it’s a lesson that all future volunteers should heed. Your impact cannot be measured over weeks, or months, or cycles, it is measured in lifetimes. The lifetimes of the young people you worked with. The lifetimes of survivors you speak to. The lifetimes of locals you advised.

When I think of this journey of development within the kinds of communities Restless works in, I remember this meadow that backed onto my garden when I was a child. It was filled with tall brown grass that would lash at your calves whenever you tried to wade through it; populated by a host of bugs and weeds that would leave you red with bites. But snaking out of the back of our garden was a path of flattened grass steadily sweeping a narrow trail across the meadow. I did not make this passage of safety; it was made by the dozens of children foregoing us in that house. Those children would have been frustrated at the grass that never seemed to flatten which whipped them as they ran.

But in their footsteps laid the future convenience that I enjoyed.

That is what motivated me when my doubts began to creep into my mind on placement. There was hope despite the difficulties in changing the community I lived in – a challenge shared by other volunteers, community leaders and community residents alike. The hope that as slow as progress may seem, we are making a difference. Without this hope, nothing would be done at all.

What do you think?