Before I go into detail about the trip itself, I want to explain how I heard about MEDLIFE, and why I decided to participate. I first heard about MEDLIFE back in April 2014, when an acquaintance of mine was advertising this new RSO on campus, which involved setting up mobile clinics within impoverished communities in developing countries during winter break. There used to be a chapter on campus a few years past, and now a bunch of juniors and seniors wanted to start a new one. Being a geography whiz and a travel enthusiast, the first thought that came to mind was, “Yay! This could be a great excuse- I mean, opportunity to travel to a foreign country while ostensibly doing something related to my career goals!” At that point, I didn’t care what the cost and implications of participating in a mobile clinic were, all I knew was this was a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit South America for one week in December. First chance I got, I rushed back to my dorm, fired up my laptop, and opened the chapter application tab on my browser.
It wasn’t until a few months later when I thought about what a mobile clinic trip might actually entail. After I had joined the mobile clinic team, I stumbled upon an article about this thing called “voluntourism”. It talked about the recent rise of overseas volunteering opportunities, including international health brigades, and how a lot of these trips seemed geared more toward ensuring the participants had a good time than actually helping people through volunteer work. As someone who’s all for willing doing unpaid work for the benefit of the community and giving back to others, the possibility that my desire to volunteer for a week across the world was rooted in a subconscious douchiness was crushing, and it really made me think about what I wanted to get out of this trip. While I had personal reasons for participating, I also genuinely wanted to help impoverished shantytown Peruvians receive free healthcare that they wouldn’t have other wise had access to. That meant what I was going to do was ultimately a good thing, right?
Not quite. As I scrolled down the webpage, the author started talking about the psychology behind taking selfies with local children on these trips. While selfies aren’t exactly my thing, I always thought of taking tons of pictures on major trips and events as a way to immortalize the moment, so I could look back fondly on my experience. I didn’t realize there was a hidden meaning behind changing one’s profile picture to a group selfie with Ghanaian schoolchildren or Cambodian orphans. By making oneself the center of attention, these photos reinforce the so-called “white savior” mentality, where a relatively privileged college student, presumably white, who’s never experienced poverty or hunger reaches out to “help” suffering, destitute, foreign children of color in an exotic, backwards setting, so that they might “enjoy” some of the “luxuries” that “First World civilization” brings. It was a subtle message that reinforced the stigma attached to the place they were traveling to and the people they were supposed to help, while reaffirming the superiority of the voluntourist. While only visible through posting selfies, this mindset seemed to permeate every aspect of going on the trip, from being driven around the city on a bus to attempting to converse with the locals in broken gringo Spanish. The implications of my eagerness to participate in MEDLIFE were quite sobering.
Thanks to that article, I can’t read, hear, or think of the word voluntourism without also thinking of narcissism, hypocrisy, and shameless marketing appeals to our baser desires. However, I realized that just because MEDLIFE constitutes voluntourism didn’t mean that all voluntourism is inherently bad. (In fact, some would argue that the backlash against travel-focused volunteer trips in general is worse than the narcissism and conceit they supposedly promote.) Nor did it mean I had to let my trip be defined by being a privileged outsider or that it looked good on my resume. At the end of the day, I still had my own reasons and motivations for going, and one cynical article on the superficiality and self-centeredness of some voluntourists wasn’t going to stop me.
Nonetheless, the article still influenced me. First of all, it convinced me not to whip out my phone and take pictures indiscriminately while working on site. While taking selfies with adorable little kids was narcissistic in its own right, I felt that having my phone out while we were supposed to help provide healthcare was disrespectful to the people we were serving and unprofessional volunteer conduct. Secondly, it made me think about writing a journal of thoughts, feelings, impressions, and notable happenings that I could post on my blog later on (which I’m still in the process of). It seemed more fitting to write a journal of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, since putting thoughts down on paper makes them more concrete, and in my opinion makes them easier to remember. It also gave me a benchmark to compare my experience with, and a set of expectations that made anticipating and planning for the trip more rewarding. While I can’t deny that there was some superficiality and narcissism involved, I made a conscious effort not to let that define my trip, and I’d say being aware of that enriched my overall experience.
Update: Our MEDLIFE chapter made a picture slideshow of our trip. 2:10 is an example of the kind of playing with local kids that is freaking adorable and, according to the Onion, often encourages narcissistic selfies intended as new profile pictures.