My goal in coming to The Gambia was to contribute altruistically to a legitimate cause with a reliable organization. After years of long hours and stressful grafting as a chef and consultant in fast paced kitchens, I felt it was time to step aside for a little while and try to decompress. I’ve always had a keen interest in politics, international development, and travel. In recent years I’ve started volunteering in London and found it extremely rewarding. With those things in mind I came to the conclusion that taking a sabbatical and spending a significant portion of that time volunteering abroad was a perfect fit for me.
I thought (perhaps naively) that finding an organization to volunteer with would be relatively easy, and that surely people needed so much help that simply offering my two hands would be enough to secure a rewarding itinerary. As I dug deeper, what I found was quite the opposite. A “volunteering abroad” google search brings up millions of hits, the most prominent ones were almost too easy, with a pay to play philosophy, complete with enticing photos of Westerners cuddling children and feeding endangered animals – surely my good nature was qualification enough for these types of opportunities. However, I had suspicions that this was too good to be true, and it was. Just underneath the surface I discovered quite a seedy underbelly of profit driven “volunteering” experiences that paired those willing to pay, with the experience of their choice – regardless of skills, qualifications, and without any type of vetting process. Imagine the concept of paid access to vulnerable children and wildlife in the U.K: this would be highly illegal – so why was it not only legal but being monetized in the developing world? These questions sent me on a deep dive of painstaking research: literature, ted talks, university lectures recorded on YouTube, even going as far as reaching out to several highly regarded academics at prestigious U.K institutions. What I discovered was disheartening, that about 99% of so called “voluntourrism” was at best ethically neutral, at worst completely destructive, unethical, and clearly contributing to the proliferation of the exact issues and circumstances that most well intentioned would be volunteers seek to alleviate by giving up their time.
The silver lining: not all organizations were bad. Although, for a volunteer tourist with a limited timeframe (and budget) there were only a few proper options: People and Places was one of the very few organizations that came up over and over again in the conversation about “How to volunteer abroad ethically”. After speaking with Sallie and Dianne, the two key figures at People and Places, I was confident that this organization was equipped to provide me with a transparent, ethical, and appropriately organized opportunity to take my skills and put them to good use in the developing world.
Initially, I was interested in going to Madagascar to work with SEED, one of the other organizations that came up with positive marks repeatedly, and one that is, in fact, partnered with People and Places (a pleasant and reassuring surprise). After some dialogue with Sallie and Dianne, it was proposed to me that their projects in The Gambia were actually well suited to my skill set. One of the most common themes in all of the research I did was, that using the professional skills you already have is a great starting point when considering what you can ACTUALLY offer in a meaningful way. I chose to take this onboard and we got the ball rolling, two months later I arrived in Banjul.
I have been working with an NGO called “No Woman Left Behind” (NWLB) which trains vulnerable women (trafficked, displaced, victims of abuse) in professional cookery and entrepreneurship with the intention of helping these women to gain independence and work towards building the future they want for themselves. This is done under the umbrella of the Institute of Travel and Tourism of The Gambia (ITTOG) When I arrived, NWLB were in the early stage of building a small cafe restaurant to employ these women and give them practical experience. I’ve been assisting with menu planning, costing, systems implementation, and just generally consulting on the fundamentals of laying the foundations of a successful restaurant. Most of my time has been spent working with Fatou Hydara, the president of NWLB, an inspiring woman herself. We meet daily, discuss the project, creating itineraries to push things forward. We’ve tried to establish networks with suppliers and mentors who have had success in the hospitality/food business locally. All of this is done in correspondence with Dr. Adama Bah, an executive at ITTOG and leading global voice on ethical and responsible tourism.
All in all, adjusting to life in The Gambia has been made relatively easy by People and Places, Fatou and Adama. The pace is much slower than London, which was hard to digest at first but has actually been quite refreshing and has forced me to take it easy, just as I set out to do. That being said, as the restaurant has now moved into its early opening phase, the pace has picked up rapidly and I’ve been in my element, identifying issues and trying to gently offer solutions, with the understanding that I can only make suggestions – the decisions are ultimately in the hands of NWLB (and rightfully so!).
In my free time I’ve been able to join a football team, which is something I’m quite passionate about and has been a real highlight for me. I’ve also been able to take trips to various places in The Gambia, sometimes on official NWLB business, sometimes in my own free time. Fatou and Adama have been receptive and encouraging when I indicate a desire to do something or go somewhere, I’ve never really felt any social pressure, which is exactly what I was looking for. In addition, they are invaluable resources when looking for things to do, places to visit and people to meet in The Gambia, Senegal, and other areas of the African continent.
For me, it’s been an incredible experience, and I feel like I’ve been able to make a meaningful contribution, sometimes not at the pace I’d like, but maybe it’s the pace I’ve needed in order to actually decompress, gain perspective and learn things about myself and the world around me.
To learn more about volunteering with No Woman Left Behind take a look here or email firstname.lastname@example.org