Asking questions

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So why is the thinking part so hard and what can you do as a traveller to complete the action-reflection cycle and actually learn something new about those you visit rather than just confirm what you already knew? The thinking part is hard because it requires effort, it requires you to seek out more information and information that is below the surface level; information that goes beyond the good weather, the crazy music and the cheap beer. It requires that you ask questions, it requires you to open the car bonnet and be ready to learn from other people and from books about the complexities of the internal combustion engine. You will never be able to make sense of the poverty or the Chinese cotton in Mali if you do not stop to find out a bit about international trade relations, a bit of history and a bit of the complexity of international development.

As a volunteer, there is a lot that you can do to open up a world of learning from your experiences. The key to all the following suggestions is to remember that, just as in whatever country it is that you come from, there will be different opinions, thoughts and interpretations. Like any learning, learning from overseas volunteering takes some effort, some curiosity and the asking of a whole lot of questions. Here are a few suggestions for practical things you can do to help you learn from your international volunteering experience:

  • Perhaps the first thing to do is find out as much as possible about where you are going before you get there. The internet, books, international newspapers, and if you are lucky maybe someone you know, are potential sources of information. Just make sure you look to a few different sources and seek out contradictory information and stories.
  • Literature, especially by authors from your chosen country, can be a wonderful way to explore some of the cultural subtleties of where you are going. If these are not available in a local library, bookshop or resource centre, they can be ordered from a variety of internet sites.
  • When you get to wherever it is you are going, as already stated, don’t just rely on what you can ‘see’. Read the local papers, if they are not in a language you can read, look to the BBC World Service. Find out about the local political situation, what people care about in culture, sport and so on and go to a local football game, or whatever it is people like to watch. Participate in local social activities.
  • Talk to local people, and not just to book a bus ticket or find out where the cheapest restaurant in town is. If you are a volunteer then you have a wonderful opportunity to stay in one place, to get to know local people and to learn from them.
  • Expatriate communities can be interesting, but remember they often have particular relationships to local people and issues that will be shaped by their own reasons and business for being in the country.
  • Seek out local organisations. These might be local development groups, councils or other forms of social movements. As a volunteer you might be part of one. This will help you understand how people are organising themselves and what changes they are seeking to make in their own lives.
  • As we so often hear, we now live in a globalised world. Every country everywhere is affected by the global economy, politics and decisions made in other countries. If you want to understand why a country is poor, then you need to look to understanding their relationship to other countries and to the global world economy.

Doing all these things, seeking out all these different sources of information and opinions, will give you the perspectives and knowledge you need to reflect on your own experiences, and to begin to understand the complexities and the realities of the country in which you are volunteering and travelling.

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