My journey to empowerment and sustainability started as me being a voluntourist. I honestly thought that I was helping. Looking back though, I realise that I didn’t bring any benefit to the organisation. What those children from vulnerable backgrounds needed was consistency in their lives. My one month of sub-standard, often hungover teaching didn’t give them that. And you know what? There are some people who go to organisations and do the same thing I did for as little as one hour. They visit organisations and ‘teach’ children topics that they have surely learnt ten times over. Parents are sending their children to study at schools and NGO’s in the hope of a better future for them. Often, it can be a struggle to get them to send their children in the first place, as many parents expect their children to look after their siblings, walk their cows or take care of their shops. So, to then provide children with inconsistent and sub-standard education just isn’t right. Children (and their parents) deserve better.
When I was working at the organisation I originally moved to Cambodia for, a group of tourists one day rocked up without an appointment. I went to the closed gate and looked out at them, already knowing this was going to be an awkward encounter.
“Hello, can I help you?” I asked.
“Yes, hello,” one lady spoke on behalf of the group of four. “We are from Japan, and we have come to your organisation to help the children. We have face paint and balloons so we can paint their faces and play games.”
Yep, this was awkward. I had to try and control my reaction so as not to blow a fuse while I looked at the group, all with cameras around their necks, ready to capture the moment they saved Cambodia with their colourful paints.
“Ummmmm, did you make an appointment?” I asked them, already knowing the answer. Even though the organisation did permit people to come for short periods of time, I knew that even they wouldn’t have allowed this.
“No, we don’t”, the lady responded.
“Well, I’m sorry,” [not sorry], “but we don’t allow visitors to come here without an appointment. And even when we do, we don’t allow people to just come and play games with the children and paint their faces. They have to study.” [and seriously, who the fuck just assumes they can rock up to a school and play with kids? Do they do that in Japan? I highly doubt it].
“Oh,” the lady said, then turned to her friends and translated. I watched as their faces dropped and a look of confusion hit them. They thought that it would be an honour for children to be in their presence, get their faces painted and have a laugh. They, like many others, were mistaken.
“Can we come in and look around anyway?” the lady then asked me.
“Not without an appointment,” I stood my ground. “So, if you did want to come for a tour, I will happily show you around if you organise a day and time with us.”
“Okay, thank you,” the lady responded, that look of confusion still on her face. She and her friends got in the tuk tuk and drove away while I watched, knowing that they were just going to take their show to one of the other thousand schools in Siem Reap.