I’m carrying two-year-old Elijah, seeking shade to escape the Kenyan sun. My wife Julie and I are volunteering for two weeks at the Calvary Zion children’s home near Mombasa, helping (we hope) the home’s three “mothers,” who care for 40 kids, from infants to teens.
“Ah-dahh,” says Elijah.
It’s his one word. He repeats it, pointing at a lone tree, then the one-level house.
“Good point,” I say.
Most of Calvary Zion’s young residents are at school. Julie and I watch the remaining toddlers and help with simple yet sizeable tasks, from washing dishes to folding clothes.
“I know God loves these children,” the home’s founder, Jane Karigo, told us our first day. “They deserve fulfillment, and they deserve opportunities, like any other children.”
We’re both moved by Jane’s mission—but I wonder how much we’re helping. I’ve wondered this at every stop on my volunteer journey: a six-country quest to find purpose by helping others after my father’s sudden death. But I particularly wonder it here, because the painful, inescapable fact about Calvary Zion is that every child has suffered. Some lost their parents to HIV. Others were abandoned: one infant was found in a department store bathroom, discarded by his mother. Elijah’s incestuous birth to a 14-year-old mother brought shame to the family, and he spent his first year of life in isolation—no nurturing, no love. When he arrived at Calvary Zion, he barely knew how to eat.
“He just lay there with his mouth open,” one of the mothers said.
Elijah often runs to us in his baby-ish, bowlegged way, wanting to be held, and I think—How can you say no to this child? But it worries me: we’ve entered these kids’ lives and then, boom—we’ll leave. The bulk of our time is spent with the mothers, but small children can feel quick attachments to volunteers, creating a cycle of abandonment, a journal article on South Africa orphans found.
Criticism of volunteers has intensified since 2010, when Julie and I worked at Calvary Zion. The controversy stems largely from the exploitation of children in Cambodia, where unscrupulous orphanages trap kids in squalor to attract funds from donors and volunteers (many of the “orphans” have at least one parent). In July 2013, the UK-based travel agency ResponsibleTravel.com removed orphanage volunteering programs from its site. Mainstream media stories have questioned if volunteers do more harm than good; bloggers have blasted voluntourists as guilt-ridden neocolonialists more interested in boosting their self-esteem than in helping others.
So by trying to do good, were Julie and I doing, you know… bad?
I’d shared my concerns in Kenya with our host, Karimu. She’s a local woman who runs volunteer programs for Travellers Worldwide, an organization offering everything from medical internships to marine programs. We stayed with Karimu and her kids, which was a joy, whether eating nyama choma or jumping rope with her niece.
Karimu thinks volunteers are valuable to Calvary Zion.
“The children have the mothers and Jane,” she said of the home. “They have plenty of familiar faces. They get attention from you guys. No one has time to cuddle the little ones, and if even if there was time there are too many kids. Would the babies be better off if you didn’t hold them? And what about the older kids you help with their homework?”
The critics rarely ask locals what they think about volunteers, so recently I contacted Jane and asked a simple question: are volunteers useful?
Absolutely, she said by e-mail—but sometimes it’s problematic. A British volunteer insisted on taking the kids for a play day at a go-cart track. His intentions were good, “But the children won’t remember the go-carts when they are crying for bread,” said Jane. Another volunteer gave a child an iPod, which the boy sold for 200 shillings, fueling jealousy and fights. Sometimes volunteers make adoption promises they can’t keep, giving the children false hope.
So the problems are real—and yet so are the benefits. Julie and I did work the mothers don’t have time for, whether washing windows or sorting donated clothes. We helped with daily chores, like cutting vegetables and ironing school uniforms. But there’s an intangible benefit as well, which I found throughout my volunteer travels: interactions occur that would never happen otherwise. People learn about other people. Stereotypes are smashed. When the mothers taught Julie to make ugali, they laughed as she labored over the pot. I found this same effect when I volunteered at a special needs school in China: for the teachers, we were a happy novelty, a break from the monotony of difficult days.
Our team leader in China said that short-term volunteers are like links in a chain. I’d dismissed that as orientation rhetoric, but I see some truth in it now, mainly because of Elijah.
The mystery of Elijah is the anguish that must lurk inside; the blankness that tugs his face, widening his eyes. But those big eyes never look blank. Those big eyes made me think there’s something fierce, and smart, and thoughtful inside.
Here’s the thing I can’t shake:
Before we came to Kenya, some volunteers held Elijah. And when we were there, we held Elijah. And after we left, other volunteers held Elijah. And that is far, FAR from a perfect system. But it seems better than me to the alternative. Because without volunteers, fierce Elijah, so deprived of human contact, would’ve spent much of his time on the floor, alone. The mothers love Elijah, but individual attention is a necessity in short supply.
The children’s well-being is all that matters, whether in Kenya or Cambodia. If volunteer programs are harming children, those programs should end. But successful programs and successful homes should not be ignored. Without Jane Karigo, the children of Calvary Zion would live on the streets. Instead, they go to school. They learn. They eat. They grow. In July 2013, three of the home’s children, now 18-year-old women, opened their own business. Volunteers, in their own microscopic way, have helped support this.
“This is my mission,” Jane said of Calvary Zion. “If I don’t care for these children, who will?”
About the Author: Ken Budd is author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. All of his earnings from the book are going back to the places and organizations where he volunteered. Since May 2012, money from The Voluntourist has paid annual school fees for 11 of the children at Calvary Zion. You can connect with Ken on Twitter and Facebook.