November 5, 2019

Ghana: Service Learning or Voluntourism?

A contradiction that has presented itself throughout my Global Studies undergrad was the distinction between service learning and voluntourism. Ethics was always a major point of reference when analyzing the benefits of travelling abroad and offering our volunteer services. Are we taking away jobs? Why aren't we volunteering locally? Are we really providing the help they need? Are we taking advantage solely to use this experience to further our networking, careers and resume lists? These are all arguments that have been brought up by scholars and ones that I had to navigate throughout my Global Studies Experience (GSE) placement in Ghana. 

What Did I Do and Why I Was There? 
Two years ago, while attending university, an opportunity presented itself to travel to Accra, Ghana. The university called this opportunity an International Service Learning (ISL) placement as part of the GSE program. This one paired with the Queen Elizabeth II summer internship program in affiliation with the University of Ghana. This partnership allowed me to travel to Ghana for 3 months and intern at the Child Research and Resource Center (CRRECENT). My internship was primarily a research position in the Juvenile Justice Department with their overall focus being to try and determine the potential factors as to why children turn to delinquency and create programs and awareness to curve the issue. 

What Did They Gain? 
I found the placement pairing worthwhile and beneficial for both parties involved. I was able to provide a new perspective and was able to access resources, such as the University reserves, that they couldn’t. In addition, because I was delegated to researching potential cause and effects of juvenile delinquency, my findings can go on to support their programs or inform further research. I was able to harness skills learned throughout university such as academic writing and researching techniques in order to better inform the assignment at hand. This gave me a sense of usefulness, especially during the final dissemination of my findings where I got to share the results with the organization and various community members that they invited.

What Did I Gain? 
Even though this placement taught me that I don’t want a job focused solely on research, the experience still provided me with a chance to develop my academic skills and conduct critical research in a real-life context. It also gave me the opportunity to increase my social skills, intercultural competence, language skills, appreciation of cultural difference and a more experiential understanding of complex global problems. I was able to witness the inequalities, the structural barriers, and the way another country lives and organizes itself, and I can now apply this new knowledge to the rest of my schooling and life. It allowed me to harness social skills such as collaboration with an organization, speaking with community leaders (principals and teachers) and interacting with children. I gained a stronger sense of self through my ability to establish independence and navigate a new country and culture without my family and typical friends. And finally, I was able to gather experience to put on my resume and I was able to obtain a reference letter for future endeavors.

Service Learning or Voluntourism? 
In my opinion, I think that this experience was both voluntourism and service learning. This is because during the week my priority was going to my placement and getting my work done, however on the weekends I largely removed myself from that mindset and participated in more of the tourism aspects of the experience.  Although I would argue that both the placement and the weekend trips lead to different forms of learning. It also helped that I was immersed in Ghana for 3 months rather than only a week or two. I think the ISL placement can be service learning but is largely dependent on one’s genuine commitment to the experience. If one takes the tasks seriously and treats the placement with as much importance as school or a job, then the experience will be more fulfilling on both parts.

Overall, I think that the GSE program is a great opportunity because it combines both real world experience with the support of academic learning. I think this pairing better prepares a person to get the most out of their experience and it allows them to digest their experience upon return. In doing so, I think it becomes less of a “vacation” or “voluntourism” type trip where as soon as you get back you move on as though it barely happened. Actively having a space with which you reflect on the encounters and situations that arose throughout the placement is important, especially being able to do it with others who gone through a similar experience. In addition, the second part of the GSE program required each student to volunteer locally as well, therefore, reducing the ethical contradiction of why people are willing to travel abroad and volunteer but not dedicate that same time in their own community. Ultimately, the more thought and exposure that is given to the placement, the more likely it is for somebody to have a more meaningful reflection.

October 30, 2019

Ghana: Ethical Considerations When Travelling Abroad

Throughout my 4 years in the Global Studies program at Wilfrid Laurier University I have been enlightened into some of the considerations that need to be made when travelling abroad. Appropriation and cultural stereotyping have been a discussion point in terms of how the West gets a large say in how we view the "Other". How are our own personal biases clouding our judgement? How do we minimize the voices and image of those we are unfamiliar with? How do we contribute to this single story that is being applied onto other countries and people? These are all questions that I faced when going through my undergrad and a few years back I got the opportunity to challenge myself with these issues first hand by travelling to Accra, Ghana (West Africa), while undergoing an international placement.

Challenges While Abroad
As expected, when you travel to a foreign country for a lengthier amount of time, challenges begin to arise. A major challenge for me was all of the unwanted attention I got simply because I was foreign. The main contributor to this was verbal harassment of people following me around saying they want to be my "friend" and having my picture taken without warning and approval. I remember one time I was walking in the mall and this guy with his group of friends took a picture on his camera with his flash on and just kept walking. It was interactions like this that just kept piling together until the point where I felt self-conscious and that I was always be watched or filmed or something. I also remember having to say no to random people who came up to me on the streets asking to take pictures with me or those saying they wanted my number. Other challenges included the feeling of being stuck at the hostel due to it being unsafe to go very far alone, especially at night. Also, transportation started getting frustrating since I was always reliant on Ubers that were not always time efficient. This "Ghanaian time" of there being no set deadlines, of always being late and not having the need or desire to be efficient with time was a big societal difference when it came to how we interpret respect and reliability.

Overcoming Challenges While Abroad
However, the aspect that we studied in global studies however was how our privilege and biases play a role when judging and evaluating another country's dynamics. Having a global studies background we learned the importance of not being rude about differences in front of locals who could take offence to passing comments that are made. This could relate to commenting on their pollution, food, appearance, music, language, etc. Even comments such as "this is so cheap" could be taken offensively since to another individual 10GHC ($2.40 CAD) could be considered expensive. Having that background knowledge of how to conduct yourself in a foreign country was important. Being able to limit showing negative reactions to certain elements that we were unfamiliar or uncomfortable with and being conscientious of the appropriations that go on in society and how we shouldn't stereotype based on one experience. 

Therefore, in order to handle our varying emotions while there we confided in the relations, we had with others in the group who were also going through similar stages. Not taking out our frustration on the locals and not being disrespectful during the initial interaction was key to maintaining moral during those tougher times. Learning how operations work within their culture did help to manage our expectations when facing a situation. Preparing ourselves that a commute will always have heavy traffic, in hot weather or that when going to restaurants our food will be served at different times within the overall 2 hours wait helped us come to terms with what we will be encountering. Other ways that we distracted ourselves in our down time was travelling to other regions in Ghana on the weekends, playing cards at night, going out for dinner together and since I was taking two online courses while there, I also had that to fall back on as well.

Processing Stage Upon Return
Since being back I am still processing how my privilege was treated while abroad. While I was there, I remember being annoyed by people always wanting to be my “friend” simply due to my foreignness and their constant desire to sell me things. At the time I saw this degrading in some way since I was simply trying to mind my own business and I was never left alone when walking to get dinner or on my way to work. Since being back however, and after taking the post-trip class (GS399), I’ve started to consider the situation from a more objective point of view. In my mind, I don’t have endless money to spend, but in their eyes, I am still more well off then them therefore it shouldn't be a hassle to spare some coins. That unequal relationship is something I am still coming to terms with, especially now that I’m back and spending money on materialistic items. It is also confusing to process this inequality and not frame it in a way that defends the typical notion that foreigners need to be their savior.

Another consideration that came to mind occurred after reading an article by Erin K. Sharpe and Samantha Dear. They reflected on how their intentions and actions did not match up, especially in terms of how their privilege played roles in ways that were unintended. After reading that article I began considering the potential ways the locals I knew during my placement interpreted my weekend travel and daily expenses. We travelled almost every weekend and there were a few cases where we invited others (some local friends we had met) to come with us. It didn’t occur to me how they would perceive the price of some of these trips and how our ability to participate in them was an inherent visibility of not only our foreignness but also our monetary privilege. While I was aware to be conscientious of the comments that I made about money, for example, not saying if I thought something was expensive or inexpensive, I largely overlooked how my activities gave off an impression despite not meaning too. This really demonstrates the difficulty in successfully showcasing our desire to be considerate and humble about financial, social, economic, environmental, political, etc. societal structures. While we may take the precautions to be unbiased and open-minded to the new culture and environment, just by living our day to day lives overseas and wanting to immerse ourselves in the "full experience" of a foreign place can be the divide that pinpoints and announces one's privilege over the other.

October 3, 2019

Alaska: Temporary Presence but a Lasting Interference

The day ended up being much colder than the earlier days of the trip. The sun was in the sky, but it did not produce the heat that one would expect to gain from it. The ship was moving slowly. I think partially because of the potential danger of disrupting the environment surrounding us but also to give us tourists a better and more prolonged view of the scenery. Looking out the window, I saw little pieces of ice floating atop the water. It looked cold but still inviting, unlike the water back home. As we were passing by a row of glaciers, we decided to make our way up to the top deck of the ship for a better view, exposing ourselves to the full climate of the outdoors. 

The top deck allowed the breeze of the air to hit us. I shuddered but continued to look out at the ice banks on either side of the boat. They were far away, yet close enough to see the chips and cracks in the ice. I didn’t consider that detail much further. Despite the other guests who were also on the balcony the noise levels weren’t distracting. My mom had her camera out, taking pictures of the natural wonder that at one point would have towered over us. I too did the same.

There was a slight mist in the air that made the scene even more eerie and arresting. It was a vision that forced me to pause for a moment. I had no difficulty ignoring the fact that others were gazing at the same object, I thought that they couldn’t possibly be feeling the same emotions that I was. Maybe I convinced myself that their intentions were different from mine. That they weren’t as genuine, that they were taking this scene for granted.

A rumble sounded from deep down in the waters. At first barely audible and then increasingly it demanded attention. Heads turned, cameras shifted focus. My breathing slowed and movements ceased in anticipation. There was a pause and then without any other warning, one of the glaciers split. Snow puffed on either side of the crack and began to trickle down. As the glacier continued to break, larger chunks of ice began to hit the water. The continuous roar of the shifting ice only added to the marvelous wonder. It was a natural occurrence that could have happened without our presence, but it didn’t, and I was one of the few who got to witness this change. 


Erik Cohen, an academic in the realm of tourism studies, challenges us to reflect on our tourist experiences and consider what the motivations were behind our desire to travel. Were they based on trivial and superficial reasons or was there an earnest quest for the authentic? Arguably, one of the main motivators for people to travel is to engage in leisure activities and new experiences. However, it should be noted how tourism, and in this case, viewing glaciers from the confines of a massive cruise ship, introduces complexities from a critical analysis standpoint.

The major factor that I wanted to discuss was the idea of temporary presence but lasting interference. The tourist attraction life cycle seems to take on the form of discovery, development and destruction. This cycle resonates as true since we tend to exploit and misuse something until it is unrecognizable. For example, Glacier Bay is a coveted destination for visitors due to its pristine forests, glaciers and marine wildlife, however, as the promotion of this tourist attraction increases, so will the traffic in the area. For companies it is all about what will make the most money regardless of the life forms that may be harmed. It is now common knowledge that ice-sheet thickness is starting to thin and glaciers are starting to melt. What is alarming however, is that instead of caution to this unknown and anticipated future, the destination is being marketed as a "last chance" wherein people need to visit it before it is lost. I am not excluded from being susceptible from this marketing. Many, like myself, chose to visit Glacier Bay because they know it’s a landscape they may never get to see in person again.

Not only are destinations like Glacier Bay already susceptible to enormous changes as a result of human actions, but the temporary visits of tourists don't convince them to be considerate. This is obviously an issue because if tourists are not reflexive they largely overlook the need to be accountable to themselves. Despite being aware that the ice was breaking because of global warming I overlooked how me being there and witnessing it added to its destruction. Therefore, there is a paradox of climate change and tourism. Visitors to the park arrive on large cruise ships which emit huge amounts of pollution into the air and water, however, we tend to rest on the naive side that our presence couldn't possibly be that big of a deal in the grander scheme. Ultimately, the public and the officials need to understand that the pollution situation is an important prerequisite for successful actions in the future. In many ways, it is a matter of priorities. Companies promote the tours as being “last chance” but do not entertain the thought of restricting access to the glaciers for sustainable reasons.

With all of that being said however, it would be hypocritical for me to say that everyone should have come to these realizations already and honestly, i'm not sure if the solution is as straightforward as simply promoting the harmful actions to get people to care. If I repeated the trip I would be more knowledgeable of the issues but if I had to change anything I’m not sure I would know what to change. Do I simply cease to travel due to the ethical issues that come with it? It would be easier to convince myself that the problem lies with the cruise ship companies and the tourism industry rather than my actions to simply participate like everyone else because despite being more aware of the harmful effects of tourism there are still places I want to travel to. My reasoning not being necessity or to critically assess but rather for pleasure. However, I do advocate that all individuals need to reflect on the long-lasting effects that tourism, in this case, glacier touring, will have on civilization and how our actions along the way ultimately led us to this predicament. I believe that long term sustainability should take precedent over temporary amusement because when dealing with any natural commodity the result of losing it will affect everybody, even those who at one point thought they were benefiting.

© Where The Art Is
Maira Gall