Navshika Beeharry is a British-Mauritian blogger, speaker, and interculturalist.
She shares her experience of volunteering overseas and advocates for intercultural awareness to be at the heart of charity and aid efforts to improve foreign assistance in the motherland.
In this article, she also provides consultancy for sustainability advice, strategy development and/or content creation.
Shika, as she is fondly called, believes it is important for NGOs to develop empowering stories of self-managed income/resources to challenge the mindset that success derives from external donors as opposed to the people themselves.
In 2015, when she returned home from a volunteer placement in Tanzania, she founded “Becoming Africquainted” as an initiative to candidly recounting the life-changing memories she made, including some difficult observations of when Western intercultural communication goes badly wrong.
Since then, it has grown into a platform of its own that provides discussion and resources to all aspiring volunteers or expats, encouraging them to undertake their service overseas responsibly and respectfully.
Shika on Intercultural Awareness
For Shika, intercultural awareness is an unmissable step that any foreign volunteer must be willing to take to better know their own cultural limitations and how to healthily navigate new ones.
However, this must be reciprocated by host communities within Africa too, by ensuring they take responsibility for their own narrative and how they wish for it to be told and remembered long after any volunteer exchange has ended.
It will take time to help visitors to form new associations of Africa they see, but the benefits to sewing two-way intercultural connections are fruitful and increasingly necessary for the prosperity of the interconnected world we live in.
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To be a successful foreign volunteer, Shika believes it begins with an understanding of yourself / skillset and a genuine desire to be of service to someone. Such a person is often thought to be self-sacrificing with care for their wider community and an unrelenting passion to contribute to a cause bigger than themselves.
However, to be able to add accountability and value to foreign volunteering efforts in Africa, one needs to;
1. Have a good knowledge of the country and organization whose aims you would like to champion.
Each summer in Africa, this ‘higher cause’ has all too often displayed itself as ‘saviourism’, ‘privilege’ and ‘Western ideas’ – to name a few.
What usually begins as a selfless summer trip quickly manifests itself into self-serving behavior when culture shock takes over, conditions become unfavorable to live in and personal expectations are not met.
These circumstances fuel a type of instinctive desire to fix things that do not exist ‘back home’.
Though the intention may come from a good place, the means by which it is executed becomes misplaced and frequently results in misunderstanding and conflict.
A lack of intercultural awareness. A large number of young people in the West – diaspora included – are conditioned into thinking that volunteering overseas is a worthy extra-curricular life experience or a means of personal development.
These reasons are problematic because they refer to an underlying tone of personal gain that volunteering is based upon.
The emphasis is rarely ever to learn about culture itself – something which really should underpin any healthy volunteer exchange.
2. Acquire traits that enable you to observe, recognize, perceive and positively respond to new and unfamiliar intercultural interactions.
Some markers of intercultural awareness within international development are:
- Humility – being receptive to, and accepting of, new and unfamiliar situations
- Patience – in recognizing that positive outcomes take time to reveal themselves
- Humanity – acting humanely with a trusted concern for the community being served.
These traits are not something we can quantify or expect anyone to learn quickly in a crash-course.
But volunteer exchanges can be measured by the quality of relationships being built, along with their participation and respect for our cultures once they arrive.
One indication of this lies in how well volunteer behaviors are recognized and reciprocated by the communities which they serve.
3. Volunteers should be given guided self-reflection time.
This is to serve like one-to-one inductions in a paid workplace where their observations and experiences are discussed to foster a dialogue which enables them to explain their realities so that they can be better understood.
Doing this not only prevents them from distancing themselves from problems they see by claiming ignorance, but it also provides a space for healthy goals to be set, contributions to be assessed and accountability to take place.
This is important to help redefine the negative African post-colonial perceptions that many foreign volunteers have unconsciously grown up with.
After all, what better way to rewrite the story than if told it ourselves to those who do have a desire to listen, by virtue of visiting the continent first-hand?
A good start for non-profit-organisations is to offer their own guides into standards of behavior that outlines an interpretation of volunteer ideas and expectations during their stay.
This formalizes the process whilst mitigating the risk of volunteers unhelpfully referring back to their (often biased) perception of problems and methods of solving them.
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