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“When we arrived at the orphanage, it seemed like the children were forced to dance for us” – James's story

When James Boosey, 24, went to Uganda to volunteer four years ago, he hoped to build positive memories that would last a lifetime. Instead, shocked by his experience of seeing harmful orphanage volunteering, he came back to the UK frustrated and keen to share his story. This year he volunteered again – this time on an inclusive education placement in Kenya with International Citizen Service, a UK Government-backed volunteering for development programme led by VSO.  

I was 19 when I volunteered in Uganda. I went over believing I’d be making a difference. I’d fundraised £800 for the five-week trip, which involved teaching in schools in the cities of Masaka and Kampala, and later volunteering in an orphanage. 

Leading a class was a daunting experience. I was just a teenager, not more than seven years older than some of these children. I’d had no experience of teaching before, and certainly not in core subjects such as maths and science. There was very little support provided. On a few occasions, I wasn’t even given a briefing and had to come up with lessons on the spot. I vividly remember giving a history lesson on WW1 and WW2 because it was one of the only subjects I could teach from memory. I suspected this wasn’t useful for the children and it had the horrible feeling that valuable teaching time had been wasted. 

ethiopian school children sat on the floor
© VSO
James previously volunteered in a school in Uganda, teaching young children.

Later in the trip, I spent a week in an orphanage. When we arrived, it seemed like the children were forced to do a dance for us. Then they took us on a tour where they would ‘pretend’ to do activities such as picking maize from the fields and fetching water. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, there were many, many things wrong with that experience, but perhaps most worrying was the lack of safeguarding precautions. Before arriving, I’d had no background checks, and the other volunteer I arrived with was even accommodated in a room in the same building as the children. 

"My experience of ICS felt more sustainable and realistic in terms of how we were working with the community. I no longer had big visions of individually changing the world"
James Boosey
ICS volunteer

It was after I came back home that I became more aware of the fact my placement wasn’t as good as it should have been. I was younger and had not read any of the reports about the harmful nature of orphanage volunteering. Looking back makes me feel uncomfortable. Naturally, the children grew attached to us, and when it came to saying goodbye, it was difficult. It’s easy to see how experiencing this on a regular basis could lead to attachment issues in later life for these children. 

five volunteers stood at the front of the classroom, smiling
ICS volunteers in Kenya, where James carried out his ICS placement.

As a result, when I was thinking about volunteering again, I looked for a more reputable organisation. I trusted ICS with its government backing and reading perspectives of volunteers on their work gave me confidence. My experience of ICS felt more sustainable and realistic in terms of how we were working with the community. I no longer had big visions of individually changing the world and I knew that I was part of a long-term process of development. 

I feel frustrated that many voluntourism schemes are still being sold to young people on a false premise, that they’re contributing towards something impactful and sustainable. These young people are being kept in the dark about the harm that they’re causing to the very communities they’re seeking to ‘help’. We all have a role to play in ensuring volunteers know their responsibility to research organisations they go away with. 

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ICS is funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID) which leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty.

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