Working in the Voluntourism Industry isn’t easy. It sounds “sexy” but it is hard work, and dealing many people who may want to help but have agendas and issues of their own.
There’s a limit to what you can do for people when helping them adjust to a new environment. You can teach and preach, yet ultimately “everyone is their own man” and you can only hope and pray that when they eventually fall, while they may crash, they do not burn!
Among the many projects and relationships we are establishing here, one of my core missions is to help people coming to Samoa to “help” – helping the helpers, but it is not easy.
Samoa has an attraction to the Palagi Westerners. People come here, fall in love with the place, and with the people and they want to help. Some want to stay.
The locals here are used to it:
- Palagi visits,
- Palagi falls in love with the place,
- Palagi wants to help,
- Palagi “says”, “does”, “thinks” something,
- Palagi gets burned, and
- Palagi goes!
It’s happened for decades and I was no different, learning the hard way. But I’ve learned from the experience and stayed. I’m no quitter, especially when my faith gets caught up in the whole picture.
It can be a brutal experience for a those from a Western country engaging with Samoa, as it is with many third-world countries. I’ve watched many people come here and experience a touch of Paradise, then make the same mistakes that I did, as did hundreds before me.
I’ve now been involved in various ways with dozens of people who have wanted to help, and the pattern is always the same. I’ve watched the pain of Peace Corp volunteers adjust to reality in Samoa. I’ve watched our own SWAP Volunteers variously struggle with issues here. I’ve spoken to many visitors and Habitat for Humanity volunteers immediately after the Tsunami, and they all have the same struggles.
There are a myriad of issues that pop up, but here are some of the key ones, and my advice to people wanting to help Samoa.
1. LISTEN TO OTHERS
Learn the culture from and listen to someone who has already been there before you. Tourists drown here because they don’t listen to the locals about rips in the lagoons. Tourists who stand in the middle of the road without hats in the hot Apia sunshine complaining about the heat just don’t get it – wear a hat, walk in the shade and don’t go out in the midday sun. As Noel Coward puts it, only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” [lyrics]. Please . . . JUST TAKE THE ADVICE!
2. DEAL WITH YOUR OWN BAGGAGE FIRST
Recognise your own humanity and deal with your own issues before you try to help others. The keys here are flexibility and humility. Cross-cultural engagement can bring out the best as well as the worst in your own life. When you see things that are new; experience things that are highly challenging; have new depths of feelings about things that you’ve never felt before, or to a level that is new for you, please deal with your own stuff first – before trying to help others. I’ve seen many people fall because of WHO THEY were, not because of anything to do with Samoa. Mature, competent, confident men can become like puppies and therefore become targets if they are not very careful here.
3. LOOK LONG AND HARD FIRST
Don’t DO anything for a long time. Look before you leap, would be the advice that I would give. Yes, engage by all means, but ask questions first, and ask, ask, ask until you can truly say, “Yup! I actually understand. I’ve got it!” I’ve listened to many people talk about how things should be done here . . . roading, tourism, housing, fishing, politics, social, religious, health, family upbringing and so on. Once you have been here for 6 months or so, you will probably readjust your thinking as you see why things are done how they are. We laughed at John Campbell in his infamous TV3 story about missing Tsunami money when he showed pictures of the houses, and scoffed at them “They don’t even have walls!” was the theme. Well once you have been here a few months you don’t WANT walls on your house because they stop the nice cooling breeze coming through!
I too made a big mistake having only spent a couple of months here. I developed plans for a really cool hexagonal structure that we were going to call HoneyComb Resorts. They were easy to build, had high-tech roof structure, that used all the basic materials that were available here, that were totally cyclone-proof, that had a cool name, that gave the local community opportunity and I got it all wrong. The one thing I didn’t understand was the importance of airflow. A hexagonal structure is not the best use of cooling because half the rooms are always in the lee. I thought that it was a good idea but in the end, it was a bad idea when you need the cooling breeze on ALL units! I only really learned the importance of that AFTER I had been here and lived in a house with walls.
This quote from comments I read recently on a Voluntourism blog, draws out what many of us already know:
“Successful development needs to be led locally, sourced from within a community with spokespeople and leaders that are in touch with the society, customs and ways.”
Sure, offshore expertise, funding, ideas and initiatives are welcome, but at the end of the day people on the ground know best.
Helping the helpers, from within Samoa is a hard task, but we are here – wanting to be both the fence at the top of the cliff, and the ambulance at the bottom when things go wrong.
The coolest dude for me in the entire bible (apart from the Master of course) is my “mate” Pete. Simon Peter, Cephas (the rock) just has me in hysterics every time I think of him – telling the Lord what to do, say, think and feel left, right and centre. He was in there boots and all. If there was something that he could stuff up, then he would. He HAD to have a big mouth just so that his foot would fit into it so often.
Talk about being humbled – being told to “shut-up”, and that he was the devil, and being told that he would betray Jesus (by Jesus himself no less) and then getting into an argument with Him about it, and then actually denying Him just as the Lord predicted!
He was a real “goer”, but he was the only one who walked on water. Sure, he was the one who denied Jesus three times, but I tell you what . . . he was also the first preacher, and the one who received one of the most important revelations in the new age of Christianity (that the good news was for us all, not just the Jews), and a dude who oozed miracles as he walked the rest of his days. The Catholic faith also calls him a smidgen more than “my mate Pete!” too.
Jesus understood how to help His helpers. He taught. He preached, healed, loved and gave all for His team, but the remarkable thing about the Master, is that He knew Pete’s heart. He knew that he was a bumbling loud-mouthed [whatever] who always got in the way, but He came back especially to Peter after He had done the resurrection thing and He had a little conversation, one-on-one.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
So there it is. Jesus knew. Denied Him three times, but got confession from Peter three times to “undo” the damage done.
Sure, Pete crashed, but Jesus made sure that he wouldn’t burn. I like that.
I have friends and acquaintances in Samoa, and I’m sure that there will be many others over the years ahead who have big hearts and want to help, but are likely to hurt as they step out and do things here. I preach, teach and do all I can to help them, but at the end of the day if or when they crash, we’ll be here to help.
Helping the helpers – now there’s a calling!