Today, I am incredibly proud to share a blog post recapping this September’s Unearth the World/Wanderful trip to Zambia. This unique collaboration allowed eight members of Wanderful – the world’s number one network of women travelers – the chance to travel, explore and volunteer in Zambia and Botswana. As founder of Unearth the World, I am so proud of this transformative travel program. These vivacious ladies made tangible impact at Unearth the World’s partner site. But more importantly, they navigated the challenges and uncertainty of volunteering abroad with incredible grace. I asked Unearth the World’s trip faciliator – Erin – to write about her experience. The blog below highlights the roller coaster of emotions and depth of learning that can occur when volunteering abroad. Erin’s piece also does a great job of showing some of the benefits of volunteering abroad as a group. Enjoy.
By: Erin Morawetz
Volunteer travel can be transformative in so many ways.
By visiting another country and experiencing a culture not just through the lens of tourism, but also through the lenses of social issues, you can walk away with a much deeper understanding of the daily life — the joy and the challenges — of the local community.
Undoubtedly, you come home a changed person — maybe you’re still struggling through some of your learnings, maybe you can’t quite settle back into your regular routine. This period of adjustment is normal — reverse culture shock — but it’s not always easy.
It can, however, be easier with others.
Many times the volunteer journey is a solo one, which has its own intangible benefits: independence, resilience, self-confidence, and more. But group volunteer travel can bring its own powerful benefits, one I saw first hand as I guided a group of strong, empowered, “wanderful” women on a volunteer journey through Zambia and Botswana this past summer on behalf of Unearth the World.
Save for our group training calls led by Unearth the World’s co-owner and CEO Kathryn Pisco, the women our group of eight were all strangers when we met on the last Saturday in August at the small airport in Livingstone, Zambia. We hailed from all over North America, from Seattle to Philly to Toronto, and it was all of our first time in Zambia. Even though we were well prepared for how our next 10 days would go down, touching down in Livingstone felt surreal, uncertain and unknown. We eagerly anticipated our five days volunteering in the rural fishing village of Mwandi and the once-in-a-lifetime safari adventure in Botswana, but the potent cocktail of nerves and excitement was hard to put into words.
But we had each other. And we were all experiencing it together.
By our first night in Livingstone, we were already laughing and swapping travel stories (all the women on the trip, myself included, are members of Wanderful, a global homesharing community for women around the world). Some of us had volunteered abroad before; one of us had been to another African nation; all of us couldn’t wait to dive right in and serve the community of Mwandi the best way we could.
And throughout the next week, that’s exactly what we did. Our time in Mwandi was spent building a mud house that a local family would live in. The first morning on site, our site leader Gabi taught us how to mix mud — a task much more physically gruelling than it looks. He showed us how to slather mud on the walls of the home, smoothing it just so, to not leave any vulnerable cracks over the several layers of mud that had been smoothed by past volunteers. It is an understatement to say we were exhausted that first night.
Fast-forward five days, the home now complete but for its roof installation, and our group had a different spring in its proverbial step. We were now able to mix mud like pros (or so we felt). And we could not stop talking about what we had accomplished together as we stood back to look at a nearly finished home.
We had gotten through hours of work in the beating sun by chatting about our lives, our cities, and our upcoming travel plans. And more serious talks, too: like why we’d wanted to volunteer, what this meant to us, how we hoped we were putting the finishing touches on a home the owners could be proud of. On our last day in Mwandi, the owner of the home came to visit, thanking us for our service. Though recognition was not something we wanted or needed, it was an emotional moment to listen to this elderly man bless us and tell us how excited he is to move in with his grandchildren. It was a moment we experienced together, a journey only the members of this group could understand.
But our time in Mwandi was also not without its trials and tribulations. There were many times our group questioned whether our service was right for this community — a question that international volunteers should, and do, ask themselves all the time. Are we contributing in a positive way? Is this organization helping the community? Is there a place for international volunteers in Mwandi?
We sat around our kitchen table for hours in the evening, talking about these issues, debating all the prevalent discourses that exist in the voluntourism industry. And through moments of uncertainty, through thoughts of inadequacy, through evenings of frustrations, we had each other: to bounce ideas off of, to hear various perspectives, to share this profound experience.
Only the eight of us heard the shrieks of delight from the local children who would gather around our worksite every day, as we’d engage with impromptu jam sessions, ad hoc language lessons, maybe even a rogue water fight. Only the eight of us felt our frustration as we were blocked from some of our attempts to engage with the local community. The highs and the lows, the joys and the frustration, it’s all part of our transformative experience — one that we experienced individually, but also as part of this group.
We left Mwandi more bonded than you’d expect for eight women who’d only met each other the week before.
As we crossed into Botswana to begin the tourism aspect of our trip, the transformative aspect of our time in Mwandi was only just beginning to take effect. We still leaned on each other as we remembered our emotional goodbye with Gabi, as we thought back to our sobering visit to a rural hospital, as we continued our tough conversations. But we also took pleasure in the strong, cohesive bond we’d all created, as we experience once-in-a-lifetime adventures: a river safari, a day-long game drive, sitting on the edge of the Devil’s Pool in Victoria Falls. The look of joy on our faces during these days is some of the purest joy I’ve ever seen and felt: for through all the ups and downs of our journey, we’d come out the other side as sisters in this experience.
Coming home after a transformative volunteer travel experience can be one of the hardest parts; harder still when you’re suddenly ripped away from all the individuals who had made up your group, all the individuals who had been by your side through the challenges and the joy. But having those individuals within reach — just one text away, one phone call, one FaceTime — is just the antidote.
When you come home after volunteering abroad, it can be easy to be disconnected from your friends and family, disillusioned by your own culture, disenchanted by your new reality. The best way to readjust is to work through your experiences, to reflect on what you’ve learned, how you felt, how you want to move forward with this new knowledge of a culture, of a place, of yourself.
It’s not easy. It can, however, be easier with others. At least it was for me.
It’s been almost three months since our journey in Zambia and Botswana together ended. But in many ways, coming home was just our conjoined journey taking a different form. We don’t talk everyday — but we’re staying in touch. Some of us have even met up! We still have those tough conversations, and we still laugh at our inside jokes, and we still reminisce about our experience. We are the only people who understand the transformative journey we went through — and continuing to share and reflect and discuss our experiences together has been the greatest source of comfort.
From each other, we learned. With each other, we grew. To the Wanderful women who came on this Unearth the World experience, I thank you.
Want to learn more about group volunteering opportunities and transformative travel with Unearth the World? Click here for more information.
About the author: Erin Morawetz is a Partner Liaison & Trip Facilitator for Unearth the World.
Erin’s insatiable thirst for travel began at a young age and has led her to live in the UK, France, and Thailand, volunteer in Hungary, and travel — mostly independently — to nearly 40 countries (and counting!). After obtaining an undergraduate degree in geography and international studies from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, Erin only grew more curious about the world and went on to earn a Master of Journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, completing a thesis report on tourism in a niche area of Canada. Following a stint in government communications, Erin began to carve out a career in travel, first working in travel public relations and then taking on a strategic management role at Wanderful, a leading women’s travel community and homesharing network.