Leave Your Values at Home

When you volunteer abroad, you will probably have your first “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moment very early on in the trip.

It might go something like:

> A school teacher whacking a misbehaving child with a bamboo stick.

> Your taxi driver offering a marriage proposal.

> The Director not showing up on your first day volunteering at an orphanage.

One volunteer in Ghana wrote to us:

My values and belief systems were confronted daily in Ghana and I had to reconsider things that I had taken for granted. I don’t know if I’m more worldly as a result, but it definitely changed the way that I view societies.

Say What?

Perfectly nice locals in our host countries will often ask seemingly intrusive questions about your appearance, marital status, religion, education level, and income.

Your host family will not understand your desire to come-and-go as you please. They will have a strong paternalistic sense of responsibility for you and will get very worried if you are not home by sunset; they might call your mobile in a panic.

Thousands of pre-teen girls sell goods on the street everyday in our host countries (often in lieu of going to school). Yes this is child labor, but to her family the girl’s income is their only way buying food. Do you ignore the girls or buy from them? 

Elders, especially in village areas, expect people to greet them by crouching down with their arms resting on their knees. In Nepal and India, you will even see family member literally kissing the feet of parents before going on a journey. Are you going to do the same?

What To Think?

First of all, understand that you are in a very different country now. You’re living and volunteering in communities abroad that have cultural practices, life experiences, histories, needs, infrastructure (lack of), and world views that are likely very different from yours.

You can either fight this type of reality or learn to adapt to it.

We strongly suggest the latter.

You have to accept the responsibility that comes with being a stranger in a strange land.

This is their house; not yours.

What To Do?

Here are some strategies for dealing with your new culture when volunteering overseas:

  • Be humble and respectful
  • Observe & Listen
  • Be Inquisitive
  • Ask Questions
  • Do not judge
  • Do not act offended by comments or questions
  • Offer your help
  • See yourself in others
  • Smile

Oh, and how does Dorothy deal with her own culture shock in Oz?

I think she said something like, “There’s no place like Philly home…”

Let’s listen:

Orphanages no place for infants, Cambodian government says

The Ministry of Social Affairs in Cambodia has just announced that children under the age of three will no longer be accommodated in residential care centres by the end of next year.

Cambodia also announced that the building of new orphanages will be banned.

That last announcement is especially hopeful.

But it’s not the first time a country has made such a promise but did not keep it:

In 2004 Romania government officials promised that by 2007 all its orphanages (which then housed about 35,000 children) would be closed down. But in 2010 there were still over 19,000 at orphanages in Romania.

We at Cosmic Volunteers no longer send volunteers to orphanages.


Over the years, many international organizations including UNICEF have uncovered the often horrible treatment of children in orphanages. Also they estimate that 80 to 90 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent.

The good news:

There are many organizations and individuals who are helping to reunite children with their biological families. And for true orphans, to find caring families who will adopt them.

One such organization is Hope and Homes for Children in the UK.

Hope and Homes for Children works alongside governments and civil society organisations in over 30 countries to dismantle orphanage-based care systems.

As Halya Postliuk, their Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, writes [emphasis mine]:

“[In Ukraine] orphans make up only 9% of all the children confined to orphanages…The remaining children are placed in institutions at their parents’ requests as a result of poverty…because this is the only way they can access education, health and rehabilitation services for their children. Our research also demonstrated that not a single family of a child placed in an institution because of poor living conditions received adequate social support.”

Another NGO, called Next Generation Nepal (NGN), works alongside the Nepali government to rescue children from abusive orphanages and bring them to a transit home. The transit homes provide shelter, protection, health care and education, until the team at Next Generation Nepal can find the child’s parents and reunite them with their family.

Founded in 2006 by Conor Grennan, NGN has linked hundreds of trafficked children in its care to their home communities in Nepal through a careful process of reconnection and reunification.

Conor wrote a best-selling book Little Princes that describes his work with NGN.

As always, we at Cosmic Volunteers will continue monitoring important aspects of voluntourism for you, especially as it relates to the people we try to help through our volunteer programs abroad.

Karl’s Conservation Volunteering in Nepal

Cosmic’s Note: Karl Harrison worked as a conservation volunteer in Nepal in the summer of 2003.

I’ve been back in England for over a month now, but every day I think about my trip to Nepal or Nepali words still go through my head. 

The majority of my stay was spent in the flat plains, jungle and industrial zone of Nepal called the Terai. There’s a lot of Indian influence here (especially since Nepalis and Indians can cross the nearby borders freely) which became more apparent when I spent time in the hill areas in the latter part of my trip.

When in Biratnagar (Nepal’s second city about 5Km from the Indian border) I would stay with Pradeep Banskota’s family. Pradeep is the secretary of the NGO that helped to take care of me when I was in this part of the world. In the city I’d visit the office and help out where I could, such as with English translation and letter writing, and giving support at the training seminars they held.

People in Biratnagar were relatively ‘liberal’ thinking and more accustomed to foreigners, but I wasn’t keen on spending a lot of time in an industrial type city area. Lorries from India would plough up and down the rickshaw-lined highway all day, beeping their horns to clear the road in front. It’s quite a green city but it gets almost unbearably hot…over 40 degrees some days.

But it was good to go and lose myself in the city and be able to email my family (when it worked). One thing I found strange is the mix of ‘new’ and ‘old’. Using a computer, then going home and washing my clothes by hand for example, or watching a Hindi film on video disc while eating flat bread cooked on a clay stove.

I spent a great deal of my time living in Prakashpur with Raju Subedi. A village in the north eastern side of the Koshi Tappu wildlife Reserve. Most of the people here (as in the majority of Nepal) live off the land or are involved with agriculture in some way – whether driving a tractor or selling bananas at the local market. 

The family I stayed with were really good to me, it wasn’t just a house I lived in, but felt like a home. They had lots of foreigners stay there in the past and seemed happy enough to let another one drop by for a while!

Each day I’d wake up with no idea of what was going to happen next, which for someone who’d had the same routine in a job for the last 3 years was exciting but very challenging. I loved the simple way of life in Prakashpur. The family grew fruit and vegetables in their garden to eat and had some more land about 5 – 10 mins walk away on which they would grow either sugar cane, bamboo, rice, maize, wheat, etc. to sell.

A lot of the things we in the western world waste our time and money on – like shopping for the latest, most expensive designer clothes – just didn’t matter.

But to paint life in Nepal as perfect is not true. This was my first time in Asia and first trip away from home for a long period of time. Plus, I was on my own. It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t prepared for time. There was attention I received because I had white skin and was a foreigner, and a lot of people would just stare at me. Nepal is a developing country, one of the poorest in the world, so without going in to too much details there are problems!!

Above all I’m grateful I had the chance to visit Nepal. I feel proud to have made a dream become reality and happy to know that the world isn’t confined to the place you grew up or the place you work. If anyone else feels they need a challenge or change, I recommend you get on the next plane to Kathmandu…

Scott, deepest THANKS for your support and help in getting me out to Koshi Tappu.