“So why do you like doing this?” Mike asked, leaning forward in the plastic chair.  “Volunteering, charity work?”

Mike was from the north of England, and had met Amadou in the Volta region in December.  According to him, you need at least three months to know a country.  He was gone from England three to six months of every year; he had already told me he saw something in my eyes that said I should go to India, which surprised me because he wasn’t a mystical or fuzzy thinker.  I had just finished telling him about the depressing and suspicious poker fundraisers in which a Chicago theater company I once belonged to had participated.

I looked at him, surprised.  I said the first thing that came into my head.  “I don’t.  I fuckin’ hate it.”

I avoid other volunteers here.  This tends to mean that I avoid all other obrunis, avoid anyone I can identify as a foreigner.  I’m not partial to tourists or exchange students either.  Since I’ve grown defensive in my desire to fend off the pseudo-romantic or sexual advances of Ghanaian men, this leaves me alone more often than not.  I recognize the attitude as somewhat self-defeating, and I recognize that, technically, I am a volunteer.   I have a stipend that covers my rent, some food, and a little bit of transportation, and a very, very small budget for supplies, several of which are indeed unusual in the Volunteer Industry, but I’m still covering snacks for my students out of pocket, and I’m certainly not earning a living.  However, I see myself as someone who is here to do work, as I do when I’m getting paid.  I say I am “going to work” when I leave the hostel to go to Pokuase.  When people on the tro-tro ask if I am a student, I say, “No, I work here.”  I have not yet reached any conclusions as to whether or not this is deceitful or misleading.

I considered my attitude, and continued.  “I just love the work,” I said.  “I love teaching, and I love theater.  And sometimes it’s hard to get paid for doing those things, certainly hard to get paid well.”

Mike nodded.

I am not a classroom teacher.  I considered the prospect a few times.  But I’m a terribly ornery human being, relentlessly stubborn, with a pressing need to be In Charge.  I have only become more short-tempered with colleagues and bosses–and even friends–over the last five years.  Hearing from my friends who work in school systems or have done Teach for America, I feel I’m ill-suited to the task.  I consider myself an excellent theater teacher, and a fairly good teacher in general, but I like having classes that are genuinely my own, and I plan in a few years to have an organization, a youth theater company, that is genuinely my own.  I have not yet put much thought into Earning My Living in a more financially comfortable way.

“Yeah, when I was in Kumasi,” Mike continued, “I met these two guys who said they wished they’d gone to a really rural area, where they could have really made a difference, where they wouldn’t just be more volunteers.”

I rolled my eyes, recognizing a sentiment that seems to pervade all those who volunteer in big cities that have fancy hotels in them, no matter how far from those fancy hotels they may stay.  I didn’t express my frustration and confusion any further than that.  Mike seemed to understand me; this was why I enjoyed spending time with him.  I was sad that Amadou would be driving him to the airport within the hour.

“EVERYBODY is just more volunteers,” I want to scream on a fairly regular basis.  “It’s an INDUSTRY!”  Very few people seem to understand this, so naturally, in my uniquely snotty manner, I consider myself superior to all of them.  But it is true.  Most volunteer programs require you to pay serious fees to help the poor Africans (or South Asians, or whathaveyou).  “You” are, presumably, a Westerner exorbitantly rich compared to any resident of a third-world nation you could ever possibly meet, and you will of course be gaining the experience of a lifetime, your perspective becoming superior to all those other wealthy Westerners who have never “given back.”  The fee sometimes goes to buy the supplies for the project you are doing, in addition to paying your guides or organizations.  A substantive number of people, of many and varied nationalities, make their money by hosting volunteers.  You are always just a part of the industry.  Only the relationships you form can make you unique.  You can form unique relationships in any geographical area with any level of population, and I am sick and tired of people saying otherwise.  I want to be in an area more rural than this, but that’s simply because I am sick and tired of cities.  People should have the self-assessment to admit that openly.

Mike, like Amadou, was an unapologetic capitalist.  He spent most of his nights in drinking spots around the country, often telling young Ghanaian men who dreamed of going to England or America that if they couldn’t figure out how to make money here, it was unlikely they’d get rich in the Western world, either.  Amadou’s friend William, who spent four years living in London, toasts the truth of this statement.  I see myself as a democratic socialist, for the most part, but my reaction to volunteering does not always bear this philosophy out.  I think my work is valuable wherever I go.  I think I’m doing something important to the world.  And I am bitter that the world is not compensating me for it.

This is not necessarily a good attitude for the kind of life I lead.  I held an unpaid internship for a year and a half while I was in college, with an organization I admired that Made Theater and Helped Children.  I have written, directed and produced plays for no money at all–on one occasion at a considerable financial loss, though not nearly so considerable as it could have been.  And right now I am spending the third of six months living in Ghana, teaching drama to children for room and board halfway across the region.  (Regions, in Ghana, are the approximate equivalent of states, although they have not nearly so much governmental autonomy.  There are ten of them.)

People seem to think that volunteering is somehow ethically superior to unpaid internships, or to rehearsing for a play three hours a day, six days a week, performing for six weeks, and receiving a $100 stipend.  It is not.  All these things seem of a piece, to me.  They’re making the decision that an experience you have is more important than money.  I recently read Amadou’s copy of Rich Dad Poor Dad, and found I agreed with many arguments that the author made, if I could get past his assumptions that a) taxes should be avoided as thorougly as possible and b) everyone who isn’t afraid of independence has a pressing desire to be exorbitantly rich.  I believe in well-regulated taxation, and while I feel a need to earn more money than I’ve earned for the last couple of years, I feel no need to be rich.  I certainly won’t give up the only kinds of work that clear my head, that shut my brain up for once and make me feel full, in order to become rich.

What, then, is my problem with volunteers?  Why do I need to be so hostile and keep myself so separate?

I have several answers to these questions, some of which I have detailed above.  None of them are complete yet.  I object to having my work belittled because I am not paid for it; just as strongly, I object to valuing my work as ethically superior because I am not paid for it.  I have a hard time meeting people who genuinely fall between those two things.

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