Am I a Tourist Or Volunteer? Compassion Fatigue.

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Ngaramtoni Primary School was the crown jewel of a successful community development project Convoy of Hope completed. Here families in Arusha want to send their kids to this school because of the feeding program established here, the children are excited about learning, and many of the mothers of children attending have successfully completed the women’s empowerment program. We all sat down with women associated with the school for a discussion on how their lives changed with Convoy of Hope.

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At this point, I was becoming ever so frustrated with my fellow classmates on this trip. I ended up sitting by myself in the back of the classroom and only hearing a snippet of the conversation being translated to us by Daudi. I was tired of saying “mambo” and “asanti” to everyone. I was mentally checking out, and acting like I cared when it was obvious I wasn’t. This frustrated feeling is what Hole In Our Gospel calls “compassion fatigue.” I was starting to become as Stearns put it detached and indifferent towards the constant and repeated images of poverty and adversity bombarding me (p88) and trying to drown out the hundred crashing jetliners all around me. I started to question am I just a tourist? Is this really volunteerism? Looking around it seemed that way.

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A few times throughout the trip, our group would be in settings of Convoy activity, performing jobs, touring places, asking questions that felt pointless, possibly interrupting a good day of work, school time for the locals and children. I saw the flawed systems that Lupton criticized in Toxic Charity about short-term trips as these often do more harm by having the trip miss the big picture because we see development through a narrow lens of need of our school purpose for this trip (to graduate). Toxic Charity goes further to say “some of us are motivated by showing compassion to the oppressed and believe serving others will at the very least change us.”

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We only stayed a few hours before heading for lunch. At lunch time my “compassion” fatigue was killed off by beans and ugali. To answer the question about tourist or volunteer, I believe a volunteer is a mostly accurate description of what I was personally doing by this time in the trip. The lesson learned from this is compassion fatigue is a real deal when on mission trips, and I can see why you need to take a time out to get your thoughts in order. Apathy is not helpful to anyone.

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