Volunteering abroad from the perspective of a former volunteer

Rather then utilising this space to conduct a research analysis of “voluntourism”, I’m going to write about my time spent volunteering abroad, what I learnt from the experience and debunking a few myths that revolve around volunteering.

Firstly, I found this topic to be a touchy one. I 100% comprehend and understand the problems surrounding volunteering, or voluntourism, but I found that I somewhat disagree with some of the arguments that were being made.
We’ll start off with my story. In 2011 I volunteered at an HIV/AIDS rehab centre in Nepal. To put it short, this trip was very eye opening, educational and at times hard. A criticism that is often made with regards to volunteering is the ideologies that the “privileged white people volunteers” go over thinking; I’m doing something good for me and society, I am helping those less fortunate than I, I am going to have fun and see touristy sites whilst playing with children etc etc. None of these reasons for wanting to volunteer are ill intentioned, so it’s not so much a criticism that is being made, but perhaps a warning.
If you’re going abroad with that mind-set, let me tell you, you’re in for a huge shock! To be honest, I didn’t go volunteering abroad with any mind-sets. If anything, I was just shit-scared! I had no idea what to expect of a, Nepal and b, my placement. Upon arrival in Nepal I experienced culture shock, something that you can’t prepare for! And going in to the rehab centre for the first time, I was apprehensive, until I met the infected children and their mothers, who were very welcoming and friendly.

A few things that I learnt abroad that are worth sharing:

  1. Research volunteer companies well! I was made well aware of this issue one night when talking to my host Mum, who told me how much money she received for each volunteer she housed. I was shocked to learn that she only received a small fraction of what I paid to be abroad! So make sure you take the time to find a company that isn’t thinking of dollar signs – a good starting point in deciphering is the less it costs, the better.
  1. Look for companies that require skills in their volunteers! I didn’t have any issues with this as the rehab centre I worked at was run by a local woman, who only used the volunteer company in order to find extra workers, so she knew what she wanted us to do. Typically my day looked like this:
    – 9am: admin/translating work in the office

– 11: children have a break from schoolwork so can spend time with them doing an organised activity (dancing, drawing,           origami etc)
– 12noon: Help prepare food for lunches/help clean up kitchen
– 2: Help nurse in station (organise meds/filing) or fix up anything that needed it or spend time with mothers.
– 4: home time.

However, there are lots of companies who seek volunteers with no skills, these companies are the ones to beware of!


  1. Don’t go with the intention to see tourist sites. A lot of companies sell themselves by stating how many sites you can see. If you want to go abroad to see things, don’t volunteer.
  2. Don’t expect to make a difference in a short period of time. Real change happens over a long period of time. Although, this doesn’t mean that your time spent volunteering abroad is a waste! Volunteering is great and does make a difference, and the time you spend helping (while it may only be short) is a vital part of the greater change!

    For me, I obviously didn’t see any miraculous changes whilst abroad. However, my time in Nepal has given me drive to make a change. I was very upset to see how ill-stigmatised HIV/AIDS still is in Nepal and a trip to the hospital with the children had me in an even greater state of disbelief (there was a hospital 10 minutes up the road from the rehab centre, yet HIV+ people were not allowed there and instead had to travel an hour to get to the nearest hospital that allowed HIV+ patients)!
    During that trip I promised myself that one day I will make a change. Since Nepal I have remained active in working for different HIV/AIDS awareness foundations, have volunteered at raising awareness events and now am just about to complete a degree that will act as a good base for making a change!

So to anyone wanting to volunteer, my message to you is this: Don’t be put off by the negative things we hear/read/see in the media. Instead, approach the topic with a realistic mind-set, research companies in order to find the right one for you and prepare to work hard!


Women in Hollywood

“ Nobody’s to blame for the situation in Hollywood. But you can either sit around and talk about how bad it is, or you can do something about it”. Reese Witherspoon.

For many, Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in the film ‘Boyhood’ at the 2015 Oscars is unforgettable. Why? She utilised the time to address gender inequality in Hollywood, attributing her award “To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation: we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and to fight for equal rights for women in America.”
And if Arquette’s powerful plea wasn’t memorable enough, Meryl Streep’s reaction is pretty hard to forget.


Arquette isn’t the first Hollywood celebrity to raise the issue. Cate Blanchett used her Oscars 2014 Best Actress in Blue Jasmine speech to chastise Hollywood for not valuing female protagonists, berating those, “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the centre are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

Outside of passionate Oscars speeches, word has also been leaked that stars such as Amanda Seyfried and Jennifer Lawrence have been paid only a fraction of what their fellow male co-stars have been paid in big budget films. So what exactly is being done in order to change this inherent gap?

As it turns out, there are actually plenty of female Hollywood icons that are empowering their fellow female workers via a means of platforms. For instance, in 2012 Reese Witherspoon teamed up with Australian Producer Bruna Papandrea to create Pacific Standard, a production company run by women, with the aim to create more meaningful roles for women. Within two years the company has already produced three major-hit films including Gone Girl, Wild and Hot Pursuit, with several more films in production now.

Also in America is The Writers Lab, an initiative run by New York Women in Film and Television, and funded by Meryl Streep, which annually brings together 12 women over the age of 40 for an intimate gathering and intense workshop.

Locally, there is The Dollhouse Collective, a Sydney based Production Company run by Rose Byrne, Krew Boylan, Shannon Murphy, Gracie Otto and Jessica Carrera whose aim is to produce films from a female perspective.

With statistics reported by Stacey Smith of the University of Southern California showing a sad reality (Of the top 250 grossing films of 2014, only 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers were women. And of 5799 characters of 120 popular global films of the same year, only 30.9% were female, with only 23.3% of those films having a female lead or co-lead) I think it’s gone past the time that we need to band together as women to make a change. Change needs to happen now! So whether it is supporting the films that are produced by these female-empowering companies or protesting in equal rights rallies, I think it’s important that we all do our bit to make a difference.


Dimmitt M (2015), ‘Girls on Film’, Renegade Collective, no. 22, pp. 52 – 55.

Manelis M (2015), ‘Reese Witherspoon’, Renegade Collective, no. 23, pp.47 – 49

Differentiating Between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation

The last couple of years have seen a rise in the popularity of Native American ‘inspired/themed’ clothing, events and keepsakes. I never understood why, but I always felt a pang of annoyance whenever someone would post a photo of his or her new dream catcher tattoo, or their arrow tattoo or really anything that popularized these symbols for their aesthetics. I’m not saying that I don’t think these items are pretty – they are beautiful – but I always felt that these people who were tattooing these sacred images on their bodies or buying them from non-Native market sellers were not appreciative (or even aware of) the sacred meaning these items behold.

I am not of Native American heritage; however growing up I did spend some time at the Hopi Reservation (where my name originates from) in North-Eastern Arizona, where I learnt a lot about the Native American history, their beliefs and sacred practices. As a little girl I would make dream catchers and hang them in my room in an area where the sun could reach the circle in the centre so that my bad dreams would disappear and only good thoughts could enter my mind. Whilst the dream catcher has been used cross-culturally, it originally comes from the Ojibwe tribe, where it is still considered sacred.

This is where my frustration with the dream catcher tattoos and general popularization of the figure stemmed from. I had grown up knowing and respecting the traditions surrounding the dream catcher, and I couldn’t (and still can’t) help but shake the feeling that a lot of people decorating their bodies and personal spaces with this sacred item had/have no clue of its meaning, and instead enjoy the item for its pretty appearance.

Learning about cultural appropriation helped me make sense of the dream catcher’s popularity in the Western world and explained my annoyance with people exploiting it. So what is cultural appropriation? Scafidi, the author of ‘Who owns culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law’, describes it as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission … This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

In a Jezebel article by Katie Baker, the journalist asks Scafidi if non-Natives should refrain from buying Native American made or inspired goods out of respect. Scafidi denied this notion, but advises considering what she calls the 3 S’s; Source (has the source community invited you to share this particular part of its culture?), Significance/Sacredness (what is the cultural significance of the item – is it an everyday item or a religious artefact that requires greater respect?) and Similarity (How similar is it to the original?).
Or if you are still troubled, Taté Walker outlines 4 ways in which one can honour Native Americans without Appropriating, including supporting Native Artists, Considering Native-led movements, by calling out appropriation and supporting non-Native companies or organisations that actively honour Native Culture.

Because dream catchers have been adapted cross-culturally, a Non-Native adorning their space with dream catchers is less problematic than, for example, wearing a war bonnet, however when considering purchasing Native American inspired goods, I think it’s very important that one researches the item before buying it.

Further References:

Johnson M, 2015, What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm, Everyday Feminism, weblog, 14 June, viewed 31 August, <http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/?utm_source=SocialWarfare&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare&gt;

Native Appropriations, 2010, Native Appropriations, Weblog, viewed 31 August 2015 <http://nativeappropriations.com&gt;

Walsh K, 2015, IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Have a Culturally Insensitive Tattoo, xojane, weblog, 9 June, viewed 31 August, <http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/cultural-appropriation-tattoo&gt;

The Truth Within the Paleo Diet

“ADHD, Autism, Allergies, Anxiety, Asthma, Bi-Polar, Cancer, Chronic Fatigue, Depression, Dementia, Diabetes, Dyslexia, Heart Disease, Schizophrenia, Obesity are all diseases that begin in the gut…. You know what else begins in the gut? A great big load of shit.” Charlie Pickering, 2015.

The Paleo Diet. A “new” fad diet that by now, I’m sure everyone has heard of. But just in case you haven’t, here’s a quick lowdown. The Paleo diet, or Palaeolithic Diet is a diet based on what our ancestors of the Palaeolithic era would have eaten. It avoids foods such as grains, legumes and many dairy foods and instead opts for lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, non-starchy vegetables and nuts. This highly celebrity-endorsed diet claims to cure many diseases and guarantees rapid weight-loss results.

Balzer, 2007

Balzer, 2014

Well known Australian chef and Paleo-Diet-Endorser Chris Evans (AKA ‘Paleo Pete’) was put under public scrutiny when ABC’s ‘The Weekly’ host Charlie Pickering gave a lengthy rant about the fad diet after both Channels 7 and 10 aired segments on the movement.

While the clip that Pickering is making a point about about does showcase the fad diet in all its glory, it also fails to mention how harmful the diet can be.
In Channel 7’s segment, we see that reporter Mike Willesee loses a noticeable amount of weight in the 5-week period, but when comparing the paleo food regime to his former “ice cream and coca cola” diet, it comes with no surprise that his weight improved!

“Advice such as ‘avoid all grains or all dairy’ only ensures people will miss out on vital nutrients, and adds confusion to an already noisy world filled with fad diets and empty promises of rapid weight loss.” Emma Bourke, Australian Heart Foundation, 2014

While the paleo diet does encourage eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, the exclusion of grains and dairy from a healthy diet means that people are missing out on vital nutrients. For example, grains (and other carbohydrate foods) are a good source of energy that provides essential nutrients and fibres, so the cutting out of this particular food group from a diet is not helpful in maintaining a healthy weight.


Whilst the paleo diet has gained a large amount of interest (largely through celebrity endorsement), the Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA) is warning against the diet, saying there is no evidence supporting the advantages of the diet.
In fact, the DAA have conducted some of their own research, where participant’s paleo experiences were followed for three months. They found that in the short term, the diet was hard to adhere to and very costly, with some participants even dropping out! They also reinforce that with fad diets such as the paleo diet, which are promoted by celebrities, there is no responsibility held with regards to individual diet and health advice. Proving that, seeking the advice of an Accredited Practicing Dietician (APD) is the most beneficial avenue.

Reference List:

Balzer, B 2014, Paleo in 25 Words, Ben Balzer’s Palaeolithic Diet Site, weblog post, 2 July, viewed 23 August 2015, <http://benbalzer.com/?s=paleo+in+25+words&gt;

Bourke, E 2014, Heart Foundation Comment on Paleo Diet, Heart Foundation, viewed 23 August, <http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/news-media/Media-Releases-2014/Pages/heart-foundation-comment-paleo-diet.aspx&gt;

Dieticians Association of Australia 2015, Paleo Diet, Dieticians Association of Australia, viewed 23 August, <http://daa.asn.au/for-the-public/smart-eating-for-you/nutrition-a-z/paleo-diet/&gt;

Pickering, C 2015, The Weekly: Paleo Diet, online video, 19 August, Youtube, viewed 23 August, <https://youtu.be/gHOZhkjOclI&gt;