volunteer student & researcher – positive experience in The Gambia

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in volunteer stories  |  
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AnkeUKMy name is Anke Winchenbach and I recently spent five weeks as a volunteer through People and Places in The Gambia. I had a fantastic experience and would like to share my positive volunteer story.

The project I was involved in still continues after my return to the UK and will hopefully continue for the years to come. I just finished a MA in Tourism, Environment and Development and developed an interest in Responsible Tourism and pro-poor tourism during my studies.

Inevitably, the names Harold Goodwin and Adama Bah occurred frequently when I started considering responsible tourism to be my dissertation topic, so which volunteer company could have been more suitable than p&p, which are strongly connected to both of them.

My dissertation topic partly shaped based on local needs, which was “monitoring the impact of tourism training which ITTOG (Institute for Travel and Tourism in The Gambia) provided for ASSET (Association of Small Scale Enterprises in Tourism) members”. Through my volunteer placement, ASSET received an assessment of the impact training had on rural tourism businesses in The Gambia. Without the amazing and on-going support of local p&p partners and the ambitious, driven, friendly and open ITTOG students and ASSET members, I would certainly not have been able to conduct my in-depth research. The fact that my skills as a tourism professional and researcher matched local needs made my volunteer placement hopefully a win-win situation.

Pre departure preparation The thorough screening process felt daunting at times, but completely made sense and hopefully ensures that volunteers get placed where their skills are valued and where support is needed. Speaking to previous volunteers has been extremely useful and provided a fantastic opportunity to hear first hand stories. I felt well prepared and part of a community before I even went. I appreciated the fact that I was asked before I arrived if I’m happy to travel upcountry in order to monitor the training impact in more remote areas of the country. This way, I had time to familiarise myself with various destinations and the challenges of travelling in rural Gambia and could adjust my packing accordingly (e.g. torch, mosquito net, medicine – all which is much less of an issue when staying in more urban areas).

My orientation after arrival was interesting and went smoothly and I felt that all my questions I had at that time got answered. From the very beginning, I felt that I would have great support from the local partners, which proofed to be true. Everybody was approachable, fun and challenged me intellectually throughout my stay by sharing their thoughts and being honest and reflective about issues I faced during my research. We had fruitful discussions, listened to and questioned each other and I feel everybody involved learned a lot.

My experience and work

Volunteering with p&p was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.anke upcountry2

I am almost certain that I would never have been able to get access to the interviewees and documents I was able to through the local support I received. Also, working, travelling and socialising mainly with locals gave me a good insight into the local culture (and cuisine!) and helped me to better understand issues regarding Responsible Tourism practices in The Gambia and beyond.

For the first few days, I met with the head of ITTOG and ITTOG teachers and Board members to establish what they expect from me and what I thought would be the best way to monitor the impact their training had. As our communication was open and honest, it was easy to agree on how to proceed so the project would be beneficial for everybody involved.

ITTOG regularly provides training on various topics such as sustainable tourism, customer service, food & hygiene, responsible tourism and tour guiding for ASSET members and other organisations. Due to a lack of financial and human resources, monitoring the training success usually stops at the post-training questionnaire. However, often issues arise at a later stage when trainees are trying to implement changes in their businesses or communities. As the overall aim of the trainings is to practice tourism in a more responsible and (also financially) sustainable manner, I was asked to visit previous trainees to uncover the main obstacles they are facing, how the training can be improved and what future trainings are needed.

The mode of transport to the sites wasn’t quite clear when I arrived, however, in the end we found an affordable yet comfortable way to travel by renting the car from a local hotel owner. This way, my concern (convenience, heat, travel time) using public transport was taken into account and the project agreed to use part of my volunteer money for renting the car. I think it is very important to make sure you as a volunteer are clear about your needs too in order to benefit the project. A tired, scared, sick or uncomfortable volunteer is unlikely to make a valuable contribution, so listen to your physical and mental needs and address them with your local partners immediately. I always felt my concerns were taken seriously and together we found the best way to keep focus on the overall aim of the volunteer placement, which ideally matches both party’s expectations.

This trip gave me the opportunity to hear, see and experience how local people understand responsible tourism and what factors influence the success of the training they had. Some individuals/ communities find it easier than others to implement what they learned and the research will hopefully help to find ways in how to improve the situation. The days spent in rural Gambia were the highlight of my placement, even though every single day of the five weeks seemed like a school day and I felt constantly challenged in my world views. Experiencing the challenges of tourism development and education in a developing country first-hand certainly contributed to my professional knowledge.

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At ITTOG, I was given the opportunity to sit in classroom teachings to get a better idea of how teaching is done and what the level of students’ understanding of responsible tourism is. This has

This has been a valuable experience and I fed back my observations to ITTOG teachers, who were open for my feedback. While spending time at ITTOG, I had the chance to chat to a lot of students and teachers in a more informal way, which also helped me learning more about which obstacles exist in regards of tourism education, employment and responsible tourism development in The Gambia. I further got the chance to lecture at ITTOG and held a Q&A session for some students who were about to finish their degrees and draw on my 20 years experience in the tourism industry.

During my placement, some volunteers got approached by various local people for supporting them financially or otherwise. Of course support is needed, but if you are aiming to help everybody who asks you for support, you will never get anything done and for sure disappoint people. In doubt, ask local people or p&p for their advice, they will help you to filter where support is needed. I would advise future volunteers to be very clear on what they can and can’t do and for whom, so there is little scope for disappointment and misunderstanding. The aim of philanthropy has to be to enable self-sustainability long-term, so please make the effort to investigate how you can make a difference.

Another highlight of my placement was when I was invited to be part of “Tourism Bantaba”, a radio call-in programme about issues around tourism in The Gambia.Anke in radio station

It’s every Tuesday from 8 – 9pm Gambia time on Paradise fm. I was listening to the programme twice before I went live, which helped me to get a better idea of what the programme is about. A previous volunteer, started the programme a couple of weeks ago. It now has a sponsor and will continue, so I felt proud to be part of a successful continuation of a previous volunteer’s work. We talked about the importance of educating tourists to avoid exploitive behaviour and how and by whom this can be done. The callers made very valuable contributions to the show and some students who listened to the programme commented positively over the following days.

Overall, I had a fantastic experience. I felt needed and valued and could clearly see that the work I was doing, particularly the monitoring training impact aspect, would have not been done for a while (or maybe never) without my financial and time-wise contribution and particular skills. I really hope that future volunteers (with the support and advice of local people) will continue where I stopped, as regular monitoring of projects and businesses will make them much more likely to be successful. Assuming that training automatically means meaningful implementation of what was taught, seems like the general assumption of many NGOs and businesses I came across during my stay. It would be desirable that with the support of volunteers, ASSET and ITTOG can be ahead of the game and implement a regular monitoring system so interventions can be done before it’s too late. Knowing which areas need more support, can help making the tourism industry in The Gambia more crises resilient and sustainable. Tourism is one of the most important industries and the biggest foreign exchange earner in The Gambia.

During my placement, I met plenty of ambitious, clever, creative and driven people, who are ready to change the face of Gambia’s tourism practices for the better. I don’t know what exactly I expected, but I kept being impressed by the positive vibe and hope that overshadowed by far the minor challenges I experienced. The strength of people & places is to match volunteer’s skills with the projects’ needs, which is absolutely true for my placement.

Would I recommend volunteering to other people?
I would certainly recommend volunteering to other people; however, it’s not for everybody. The country and the culture do matter a lot and the projects need to be managed carefully. The Gambian people are extremely friendly with a good sense of humour and have their heart in the right place. The projects I saw seemed well managed and I regularly came across previous volunteer’s work which still was relevant, such as the radio programme and very pretty dressing gowns, which are now sold at a high end hotel.
Some other volunteer projects seemed less well managed. I spoke to a couple of frustrated VSO volunteers whose projects seemed pointless and the local management was said to be very poor. Also, it is important to know that there is a portion of mistrust by some local people about the mission volunteers have in the country. I understood that this is based on decades of unsustainable NGO and volunteer work in various sectors. So be prepared for people being suspicious and questioning what you are doing – they have plenty of reasons to do so. Make sure you have a good reason to be there. I myself keep thinking if my work could have been done by a local person. The answer is yes, but most likely not now, not as quickly (the trip would have taken much longer by public transport) and the number of HE tourism professionals is very limited (and the ones I met seemed to be involved in plenty of projects already). My advice: keep being reflective all the way through and take nothing for granted.

What else?

I could not have asked for a better placement. I met the most amazing and ambitious people from all sorts of walks of life. Particularly the local representative of p&p went above and beyond at all times and his support was invaluable for my placement, but also for the projects overall. The contacts I made continue far beyond my volunteer placement and I really hope to have the chance to go to The Gambia again. For now, I’m meeting one Gambian co-workers in 2 days in London to discuss how I can support their Responsible Tourism work from the UK – this is what making a difference is all about I guess.
The support from p&p has been great from the initial contact until now after my return. I was able to chat with them through facebook messenger, which meant I could keep them in the loop about my whereabouts and thoughts while abroad and got advice when needed.
Please do volunteer, but do your research before you go and make sure your skills are needed and the project aims for sustainability.

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