Part 2: A Story from Abroad; Kelsey Newsham


Part 2: A Story from Abroad; Kelsey Newsham

By: Kelsey Newsham | OLC Host
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In the final of this two part series,Kelsey Newsham talks more about her volunteer experience in Tanzania. Kelsey had originally planned on volunteering in Nairobi, Kenya until she arrived to violence and fighting in the city and slum where she was to work. While hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Arusha, Tanzania, her Assistant Guide suggested working in Arusha at a local school. Kelsey jumped at the opportunity and is back to talk about her work and experience in part 2.

Don’t treat it like a 9 to 5, but treat it like a 9 to 5

As the only volunteer at her school, Kelsey found the staff extremely appreciative of her presence and excited to have her. However, she quickly learned that they also held her to the same standards as they did other employees. As with any volunteer position, it is important to be reliable and responsible and in an international setting, this is crucial to gain respect and acceptance within the community organization. But as Kelsey recounts, your helping hand does not retract when the students head home.  “It is not about going to work, spending your day “volunteering” and then returning home” she says. “The spirit behind voluntary action—specifically international voluntary action—is a lifestyle.” This became more apparent after she integrated into her community, which is something Kelsey says “just happens when you are a part of any community for a longer period of time.” 

You don’t have to be a superhero either, she points out. You just have to be more present in the community, notice the familiar faces and pay attention to whatever issues surround you. For Kelsey, it was usually something as simple as hanging out with the community kids on the walk home and teaching them games and activities to keep them away from the busy road where she was worried they would get injured by passing vehicles. She also integrated the older children into the games to get their help with the younger children. She researched where in the city her friend’s medical supplies would be best used and helped deliver them. The point is: there are always needs to be addressed and you will find them by opening your eyes, even on your walk home.

Chapati making

Don’t isolate yourself

The most important thing you can do for yourself while abroad is to integrate into the community. Kelsey says that the locals in Arusha were curious about her at first and many were unsure as to why a foreigner would be living in their community. She also found that they were hesitant to be friendly with her because of her implied or assumed wealth and social status.  However, once she worked herself into the fabric of the community, they were able to provide her with a wealth of knowledge about the area that no guidebook could ever tell you—which doctors to see in an emergency, what restaurants to eat at, what information other volunteers have needed to know during their stays in the community, etc.

Kelsey says that by being a consistent and friendly presence, she was able to gain the trust of the locals and no longer feel like a tourist. “As a volunteer, you get the chance to be a part of people’s lives in a way you would never be able to as a traveler” she says. “I think as a tourist, you are always in the business of consuming so it was important for me to give back and add to the community instead of taking away—that’s why I wanted to volunteer.”

Another community Kelsey integrated into was the community of other volunteers in the area. Arusha is home to theInternational Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and as such, it houses many foreign volunteers. Kelsey found the other volunteers to be irreplaceable companions and another knowledgeable resource as they had been in her position and understood her emotions, her culture shock and the challenges that she faced.

Don’t feel bad about indulging

Many times as a volunteer abroad especially in a developing country, you live in conditions very different to those you live with in Canada. In the community in which Kelsey lived, people often walked long distances for groceries and had little amenities such as hot water and 24 hour electricity. She says at first she struggled with guilt over her desire to indulge in little things, not wanting to add to misconceptions that all travelers had extra income to spend frivolously.

After busing many miles to the place where she volunteered, Kelsey was often too tired to walk to get groceries after work and thus, after almost two months, she broke down and rented a car to get to the grocery store. As Kelsey puts it, she reframed the choice to indulge.  “Sometimes” she says, “it is ok to indulge because you didn’t grow up the same way and it takes your body awhile to get used to the new conditions. Stomach upset? It may just need a western meal. And that is ok.” The combination of culture shock and of being away from home for that extended period of time can wear you down. Give in to little “luxuries” if they will help you become a more effective volunteer—and don’t feel too guilty to enjoy it. 

Green hills of Africa

Don’t be afraid to be emotional

Volunteering in general can be a very emotional endeavour, so volunteering in the slums of a developing country, like Kelsey did, can sometimes be hard to handle. “I saw difficult things on every walk to and from the school,” Kelsey says. “At times, it was overwhelming.” But it is also a humbling experience, she adds. “Fewer things get to you when you get home because you have developed a new perspective,” Kelsey explains.  “Getting mud on your pants doesn’t bother you as before because kids would walk through mud in their uniforms just to get to school.” Many of her experiences also moved her to tears and she advocates that it is important not to deny those emotions. While it may sometimes be easier (and occasionally necessary depending on your experience) to ignore or suppress your emotions, when you allow yourself to be emotional, you allow yourself to be in the moment and feel the full experience of joy or grief or compassion—and thus, the full weight of where you are and what you are doing. 

As with local organizations in Canada, there is a need for volunteers abroad, so long as the positions and the volunteers are well matched. As a volunteer, these opportunities present the chance to adapt your knowledge and skills to fit into a global perspective and allow you to incite change for a cause about which you feel passionate. And yet, often it is the volunteer who leaves more changed than the place they are leaving. Kelsey’s experience in Arusha gave her perspective on the “little things” and left her with the desire to return one day and continue working in an international capacity.

“I always imagined Africa to be the place of darkness and despair, having known about people starving in Ethiopia, inhumane acts against the very essence of humanity in Uganda and inner turmoil in the Congo” Kelsey reflects. “It turns out volunteering did indeed take me places where despair lived, but suddenly I looked to my left and right and discovered hope, joy, and kindness lived there too. I am fortunate to be able to be one of the many who come to a country and hold a small flashlight unveiling the hope, joy and kindness that I saw, so that others will see the same.”

Beyond the Article

Posted on March 04, 2011