Travel and do good: just gringo spinning?

English lessons in the village school without payment: Is socially engaged globetrotting a help or a neocolonial masturbation?

Feeding cows on an organic farm. Volunteer opportunities are also available nearby Photo: imago/epd

The room vibrates from what feels like 100 decibels. In front of me sit 25 happily chattering schoolchildren. "Good morning, students!", I shout into the din. "Good morning, teacher!" it echoes back. I have their attention, first win. Now holding the ball in the air, building little sentences with fruit that I stretch into the room in pictures. "I love bananas." Have them repeat, in chorus and individually, correct pronunciation, introduce negation and question, thus igniting little conversations, holding curiosity, stopping disruptions, being everywhere at once: Feels like being a tamer.

English lessons at the village school of Los Cedros in the central Andes of Colombia. After one lesson I am exhausted. The principal comes in. "Muchas gracias," Maria Eugenia smiles, encouragingly handing me a fresh lulus juice. She is grateful for the support. The country wants to be bilingual by 2020. Most of the inhabitants, including the teachers, are at war with English. It’s still an arduous journey. The village school is receiving support from Hostel la Finca. This is a hostel for backpackers and globetrotters, half an hour downhill in this impassable Cordillera world.

I am one of the guests at the hostel who wants to get involved socially. These volunteers on the finca are called volunteers. For six weeks, every morning at eight o’clock, I teach the campesino children the bulky foreign language. The hostel is a spot of paradise, clinging steeply to the mountain, with many mango trees, palm trees around the pool, hummingbirds and cockatoos in the crowns, situated at 1,300 meters above sea level in the pleasantly temperate climate zone. It is a 16-hour bus ride to the Caribbean beaches in the north and a two-hour flight to the Amazon in the south.

In this environment, the German-Colombian Alexis and his partner Mathilde have been running the hostel for four years. It has the epithet Cultures United, in the founder’s definition: "Where cultures meet, spirit and soul grow." The five rustic country-style rooms accommodate up to 25 travelers. Cooking is done in an open communal kitchen. Many come to chill by the pool. Guests can lend a hand with hostel cleaning, maintenance and gardening. In return, they get free accommodation.

UN Volunteers: UN volunteer service, professional qualification preferred, www.unv.org

European Volunteer Service: EU funded with worldwide focus on mentoring, www.freiwilligenarbeit.de

Weltwarts: Development policy volunteer service of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), www.weltwaerts.de/de

kulturweit: Education policy volunteer service of the Federal Foreign Office,www.kulturweit.de

Misereor: Volunteers for 10 months to Asia, Latin America, Africa, www.misereor.de

Aktion Suhnezeichen | Peace Services: Volunteers to countries that suffered under Nazi Germany, www.asf-ev.de

Address: Hostal la Finca, hostallafinca.com

This is the basic package of the volunteer service. Complementary to this is the school partnership. Often native speakers from the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia take over the English lessons. Thanks to a donation from a German publishing house, modern teaching aids have been purchased for the didactic support. In addition, the hostel organizes training for English teachers in the region.

Volunteering is experimenting

I witness the seminar room transform into a lively stage. A pedagogically skilled volunteer works with storytelling, sketches, speed dating. This helps the teachers to switch from the typical frontal teaching to the interactive teaching mode. They experience how fun it is to deal with language in a playful way – more motivating than a cathartic style of lecturing.

In the hostel, I am able to get to know a new form of vacation from many perspectives: voluntourism. Travelers often perform a private voluntary service in a hostel or under the guidance of an organization. In this way, they reduce their travel costs. At the same time, they perform a social service in the host country. In the end, they benefit themselves. As stressful as my English assignment in Los Cedros was, I’ve felt hardened with 1,000 fires ever since. With my communication training at the Munich Volkshochschule, no one can do anything to me anymore!

Volunteering is experimenting. During my stay, Julian from Salzburg also lives in the hostel. He teaches campesinos sustainable agriculture: permaculture. This works, among other things, with spiral beds optimally illuminated by the sun. "Gringo spinning" grins the neighbors. "Even with our own gardener, we struggle," Mathilde reports. Isaias is of local grit. He knows from an early age: Weeds and bugs belong eradicated with the chemical club. "Almost impossible to get that out of him," Mathilde says. "It’s easy and convenient," is his winning argument.

Hidden in the exchange of crops is a can of ugly worms. International volunteerism has been controversial since the 1960s, when Kennedy launched the Peace Corps. When young people go to countries in the South to do good, the question arises: don’t they also have an ideological effect in their idealism by helping to spread our capitalist, consumer-driven way of life through their persoVolunteering is experimentation? Dicey hangs the accusation of neocolonialism in the air.

Volunteer services are more popular than ever

This criticism does not stop at Germany. International volunteer services are more popular than ever, partly because of government funding (info box). In the media, there is talk of "ego trips," "piracy," uncontrolled "black market aid." Jorn Fischer, one of the most knowledgeable experts on the volunteer scene, knows: The scientific findings are too scanty to determine sense and nonsense. The voluntary service journal Voluntaris, co-edited by Fischer, who researches at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Cologne, discusses necessary quality standards.

One thing is clear: Cooperation of this kind is always a two-way street, a give and take, at eye level, a negotiation of wishes and needs. This requires a lot of listening, communication and moderation on all sides. Old, outdated thought patterns can only disappear if new, positive models are exemplified.

It is also clear that most of the volunteers have returned home from the Colombian highlands with a profit. Hannes now knows seven recycling tricks for what an old bicycle inner tube can be reused for.

"Volunteering gives your life new perspectives," Cat sums up, "helps you get involved at home, too. "Life-changing, that’s what it was for Jonathan. In his application, he referenced volunteering and his hostel credentials. This enabled him to make the leap from unemployment back into his profession.

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