Students should go to Africa with open mind

By Bu Xian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/16 19:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In the past summer, hundreds, if not thousands, of young Chinese volunteered in Africa, some for a few months, some several days. This is becoming a new trend as more Chinese students hope to study abroad in Western countries and the competition is becoming more intense. Good grades and high test scores combined cannot guarantee admission, so many Chinese students want to add to their lists of qualifications the unique experience of volunteering in less developed areas, such as Africa.

Targeting this young population, organizations have started to arrange service trips to Africa. Prices vary a lot. Some charge a few thousand yuan per week and usually arrange volunteers to stay at African volunteer reception centers where several students share a few bunk beds in one bedroom. Some are as expensive as tens of thousands of yuan a week, excluding flight ticket costs. The more expensive services target relatively wealthy families, and include professional assistance in English writing and guaranteed opportunities to publish articles.

I recently went on a service trip with 14 Chinese high school volunteers to Kenya. I was hired to help them write and publish articles. We took students to Maasai villages to learn about the traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). It means removing some or all of the external female genitalia from girls generally between five and 15 years of age. In Kenya, an anti-FGM law was passed in 2011. However in Maasai culture, females were traditionally required to undergo FGM in order to get married. Therefore, villagers still practice it secretly.

One of the Chinese students told me she had read books on women's empowerment in the West. She didn't know how females were treated in Africa, so she wanted to come and discover this for herself. I was amazed. Looking back, I never paid attention to these issues at her age. Another said she was young and could not change anything. However, she wanted to show African girls affected by FGM that they have outside support and therefore encourage them to fight for normal lives and dreams. True.

Then, a few said they came to save lives and help remove evil, backward elements from the local culture. I was stunned. I witnessed that they were quite critical of the issue at hand and acted like they were saviors. They talked about giving money and rescuing people without actually knowing the deep causes of the problems.

I would like to suggest that Chinese students volunteering in Africa respect the local people and culture. Please don't act like our culture is above theirs. For example, on the issue of FGM, don't automatically think it's a sign the entire culture is backward. Hadn't the practice of foot binding lasted thousands of years in China before it was abandoned? Similarly, FGM has existed for thousands of years for reasons. Please don't starting criticizing anything before you know its roots.

One should keep an open mind and an attitude of learning in order to benefit more from such a trip. During your time in Africa, talk to the locals as much as you can. Learn about the issues and their causes before jumping to conclusions. And don't think giving money is the all-powerful solution. At minimum, you need to have a comprehensive understanding of the issues in order to give money to the right people to be used effectively.

For example, toward the end of our trip, one Chinese student said he saw a boy wearing shoes made from tire and thought the boy was very poor. I felt sorry for the student because days had passed, and he didn't realize all Maasai men wear those shoes when they walk their cattle and goats hundreds of kilometers for water and grass. Those shoes are quite durable, and wearing them does not mean being poorer than others.

Since such trips can be so expensive, you don't want to end up experiencing no more than the feeling that Africa is poor. If you write in your college application essay that Africa is poor and its culture is backward, I wouldn't want to read it if I were an admissions officer.

When we came back from Africa, I saw a student immediately posted online, "Finally back to the civilized world."

The author holds a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School and has reported from China, the US and Africa. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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