by Dahianira Camacho Monclova
Being a traveller of colour is different when you embark on a volunteer trip. Most destinations for this type of work are underdeveloped, economically poor and disadvantaged. When you are a tourist, you do not feel the need to fully immerse yourself in your new environment because your time there is spent superficially observing and experiencing everyday life in that country. When you are a volunteer, however, you live with communities, engage in their practices and, depending on the length of the project, may even start speaking their language.
By 2016, all of my trips had been volunteering. That year, I had the privilege of participating in an ongoing health promotion project in Haiti, just less than 400 miles from my home. As the first black republic in the world, Haiti has struggled since 1804 for international recognition from other nations. The country has also endured widespread poverty, food insecurity, dictatorships, inequality, infrastructure, and all other aspects that hinder a nation’s stability. Six years after being hit by an earthquake, an NGO from Puerto Rico, of which I was a part, went to a town near the capital, Blanchard. We spent a week giving conferences to residents of the community about preventative methods against various diseases, as well as teaching them about recycling and creating water filters.
“To link colour with need is the biggest fault in volunteer work, and it is imperative to erase the stereotypes that exist around this notion.”
As a Puerto Rican with a fair complexion, my biggest fear was being viewed as a “white Western saviour”. Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s inhabitants are black, and it is a shock how they still face racism from countries like the Dominican Republic, who share a pre-colonial history with them and a piece of land in the Caribbean Sea. The constant wave of volunteers that are predominantly light-skinned can influence the way in which Haitians perceive each other and their potential to move forward by themselves. With this in mind, we elected Haitian community leaders who could pass on the knowledge we provided them to their peers, with the aim of creating more educated neighbourhoods.
As an organisation, we do not want countries to get used to our help; our goal is to empower them to thrive independently. To link colour with need is the biggest fault in volunteer work, and it is imperative to erase the stereotypes that exist around this notion. We have a lot to learn from these communities; their struggles, their resilience, their potential. We must not let colour define a nation’s capacity for self-management and we must not let race be the base of superiority or inferiority complexes.
Nothing will get us farther than education, and nothing will get us closer than unconditional love.