I recently visited Cameroon for one month, and spent time working with the good folks at Better World Cameroon in both Bamenda and Yaoundé. I had traveled to Cameroon two years ago to do volunteer work on a different project, but met Joshua and Sampson while there, and was impressed with the vision they held for Better World. Having kept in touch with them since then, when I had the time and availability to return, I knew I wanted to offer my help to them.
Alas, my ability to really dig in deep with Better World was somewhat limited by time. One month was the most I could take from my job in the U.S., working in environmental education for local schools. At first thought, one month seems like a good bit of time – it’s more than most Americans can usually manage! However, I realized that traveling to a completely different continent/culture/setting, and hoping to offer authentic, relevant work within the local context takes time and patience.
Luckily, having traveled to Cameroon before, and having been in touch fairly regularly with Better World, and I had a general understanding of the context, activities, goals, and needs, and I was able to jump in as much as possible from the beginning. Still, I needed to experience some things firsthand – such as visiting the schools where BWC is working – before I was able to offer any feedback or ideas on how to implement those programs.
In the end, I feel that some time is better than no time. However, I think that especially for short-term volunteers, it is most important to remain flexible and be ready to help out in whatever way is needed, even if it is not the particular task you originally planned. Without the time to commit to a more long-term relationship with the organization, it’s most important that we remain open to the work that they need done, and offer our skills and abilities to that, rather than going in with minds set on how best we think we can serve them. We volunteers are there with hopes of helping further the cause of an organization that works on limited time, funds and staff. If we are there for only a short time, we risk using more of their resources than we are supplementing! I believe that the more we can communicate beforehand, the more “homework” we can do ourselves to learn about the organization, culture, and context, the more flexibility and openness we bring to our work, the more useful we can be with our limited time “on the ground”.