The word “orphanage” has almost become a dirty word in the volunteer and tourism industries of late. I realize that this perception has been driven by some very negative experiences where disadvantaged and orphaned children have become tourist attractions and thus exploited in some way. However, I think it’s time that we all wake up and realize that to black mark orphanages all together is entirely the wrong way to go about this issue.
On a case by case basis, each volunteer program involving children must be carefully evaluated and researched. ISV for one supports many children’s programs which involve children’s homes or orphanages and I know from experience that these programs have significant short and long-term benefits for the children. I also know the arguments of short term volunteer placements and their potential negative social impacts upon children; however if managed correctly, it’s a win-win situation. ISV does our homework and we constantly evaluate to make sure it’s not just our volunteers who are having positive life changing experiences, but that the net benefits to children are the most important outcome.
Regardless, the reason I entered into this topic is that yesterday, on tour in Swaziland in Southern Africa, our ISV group visited a Swazi village just near Mlilwene Game Reserve. I was fortunate to be able to join them and experience this for myself. It was an optional activity that our tour leader, Cornelius, had explained to our students ahead of time as a chance to learn a little about Swazi culture and at the end, we can visit the orphanage, make a donation and interact with the children.
How this came about is that we were discussing the village activity with Mlilwane management and specifically who benefits from the activity fees. In the process they told ISV about the orphanage which cares for over 350 orphaned or vulnerable children. Swaziland has an HIV-AIDS epidemic where up to 1 in 3 people suffer and often die from the disease. This in turn has brought about immense social issue that impact thousands of children. Mlilwane asked ISV if we wanted to show our participants where the money was going and naturally, ISV asked if there were any other ways in which we could contribute. The answer was yes- donations, but not of cash; of food.
So, on the way into Swaziland our leaders describe the village activity and ask students if they’d like to make an additional donation. Cornelius (or Gareth, our other tour leader) then goes to the local markets and buys up around 2000 Rand (average donation from the first 6 groups this season) of rice, cabbages, carrots, tomatoes, fruit and juice, to give to the orphanage. Our students get to help handing out some of these things to the kids. When we were there, each child received an apple, orange and a glass of juice. The rest of the stock was safely stored for later. Many of these kids get 1 or 2 meals per day, so that really is a treat. Afterwards, a little soccer and running around was enjoyed by all.
Yes, unashamedly our volunteers got that ‘feel good’ feeling and from the smiles on the faces of the kids – they felt good from the interaction too, plus they received a few extra nutritious meals. Maybe in our midst we have a person who then takes it another step, such as the Swiss couple (Walter and Hildah Lusternburger) and also ‘Voices for Africa’ that sponsor the orphanage to provide on an ongoing basis with basic foods such as pap (corn) and beans plus paid for the infrastructure and schooling of the children. However, clearly they could use some more support.
This started as a blog about looking beyond the negative publicity that orphanages have received particularly in volunteerism, and a whole book of case studies could be discussed. But what I really wanted to highlight is that there’s an orphanage next to Mlilwane Game Park with over 350 kids who need help, and I’m proud of the little extra that ISV volunteers contributed. If anyone wants to give more, consider contacting Voices for Africa directly.
Narelle Webber, ISV International Program Director