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Revisiting Voluntourism

By Siavash Zamirpour, Crimson Opinion Writer

During winter recess, I embarked on a five-day trip to Estelí, Nicaragua with a group of Harvard undergraduates as part of a Global Medical Brigade. On the first day, we contributed to a long-term effort to build a distribution system for clean water. On the following four days, we prepared medicines for and assisted a clinic led by a local team of health care professionals and community volunteers.

At first glance, such a trip seemed like voluntourism. How much could a group of undergraduates actually accomplish in five days? Whereas volunteers might gain resume points or social media capital, the communities would likely be left with unfinished projects, no better than where they had started. Thankfully, taking advantage of communities outright was less of a concern on this trip; Global Brigades is a scrupulous international non-profit with full-time professionals on-location, and we could count on them to follow up with communities.

This in mind, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn and determined to find some way to be helpful. But I worried still that we would overestimate our impact, disrespect the communities who hosted us, or forget that we might benefit more from the trip than they did. I felt that we had focused too much on how disadvantaged Nicaraguans are and not enough on their vibrant culture during our weekly meetings the semester leading up to the trip.

During a reflection session the evening following our first day, many of us had happy stories to share about connecting with community members while working together and again when they treated us to a tour of their local pottery business.

It became clear, however, that many still had the doubts I had coming into the trip. One group voiced to the trip coordinator their dismay at how little we had done; the digging in the morning had lasted no more than two hours, and the tour of the pottery facility was effectively an afternoon off. Why had we not simply donated the money raised for the trip, allowing the community to hire its own local workers to complete the project in a fraction of the time?

The coordinator, a local, full-time Global Brigades worker who understood the needs of the communities better than any of us, patiently explained how the Nicaraguan government is closely involved in planning and subsidizing brigades in ways it may not be for local, independent projects. Moreover, the community members wanted to share their stories with us.

Indeed, in what would become a routine end-of-day ceremony, local community leaders working on the water project had gathered us around earlier and thanked us for joining them, reassured us that the work we had done was good, and implored us not to forget their communities.

As undergraduates from a well-known American university—as long as we treated local communities with the utmost respect, owned up to the limited individual difference we made, and did not pretend to be doctors—maybe we offered a certain sense of legitimacy that benefited all parties involved.

We were not the only brigade in Nicaragua, however, or even at our hotel in Estelí, which showed us that not all trips like ours walk this line well. Undergraduates from another Boston-area college repeatedly spoke over the group of Nicaraguan health care professionals we hosted for a Q&A on our penultimate evening of the trip.

The eve of our first clinical day represented the final opportunity to practice taking blood pressure for triage, and a sizable portion of the group partook. I had not been able to take a single blood pressure throughout all our meetings the past semester.

“Watch, he’s going to get it his first try,” someone said, referring to one of the few volunteers who wasn’t a pre-med. We laughed; nothing says Harvard pre-med like not being able to take a blood pressure. In the three days that followed, I did not see a single volunteer try to diagnose a patient, allaying one of my biggest concerns about the trip.

On our last clinic day, I was assigned to be the kids’ “charla,” a coveted role that combines dental hygiene educator, ultimate frisbee player, and babysitter. I was joined by a friend and fellow volunteer who brought to the trip the kind of energy, personality, and compassion that sometimes means the difference between a dreadful Harvard experience and a transformative one.

He had arrived in Managua with frisbees, footballs, soccer balls, and tennis balls, steadily giving them away at the end of each day until one tennis ball remained.

One of the kids had a cannon of an arm and soon drew a small crowd of spectators. We marveled as the ball sailed across a long field to my friend. A short while later, his mother and brother were waiting for him, and he sped off.

“Wait!” my friend shouted the boy’s name. He held up the ball. “Es tuyo." The boy hesitated. “Es tuyo. Llévatelo.” Don’t worry, it’s yours. “Gracias,” the boy said.

He tossed the boy the ball.

Siavash Zamirpour ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a Chemistry concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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