Part II: Destroying Land Mines and The Patriarchy in Angola

Jeanette Dijkstra leads the Mines Advisory Group in Angola, a country with a traumatic history of Civil War. In the first part of this series, Jeanette throws light on the magnitude of the problem, the role of women and the effect of continued humanitarian efforts in local communities. 

In this article, Jeanette shares her personal journey in Africa. Her story takes us around the world, with an amazing woman who became the CEO of a pizza business and then the Country Director of a NGO, breaking stereotypes along the way. 

From senegal to the netherlands

Buildings and trees near a water body with boats in Amsterdam

I am an anthropologist by training. I finished my education in the late 1980’s and I came back to the Netherlands from Senegal, where I did my thesis research in a development project there. I needed a job, so I started working in a restaurant serving pizzas and pouring beers for clients.

I’m going to do the very quick version: in 3 months I was managing the restaurant and in 6 months I was managing the hotel above! 15 years later we had businesses in 4 European countries and I was the CEO, so I was basically running the whole show!

But I always kept travelling to the African continent, going on safaris, and I always remained an anthropologist,    I always wanted to see how other people were living. 

taking chances

I’m not afraid of starting new things, or figuring out everything from scratch. I basically learned everything          as I went. But it always kept itching my mind that I never chose to be in the international hospitality industry. Yes, I was good at it, even if when I started, I made all the mistakes in the book and I invented a few new mistakes!

But when I became 30 I thought, “Is it what I want with the rest of my life?” 

I was making really good money, my boss was really happy with me, I worked my ass off, the business was doing really well. But I kept thinking, “I want to go back to NGOs”, that is what I trained for. Somehow, I wasn’t paying attention and 10 years later all of a sudden I’m a big boss in a company I basically started serving pizzas in,  once upon a time!

But then, silly enough, I thought for a very long time, “What do I have to offer to NGOs?” What I have to offer is the fact that I think like a businesswoman, I know how to run teams and solve problems. And I’m not afraid of stepping into something that I know nothing about.

first steps in angola

I started in Angola as a consultant. I got hired by a donor from the Netherlands to go check on the program, more as a crisis manager. It wasn’t going very well and there was money missing in action and they weren’t getting the results that they said they would get. So that’s how I ended up here in 2009. That’s where my previous experience in running teams and getting team dynamics to function kicked in.

So I got here and the problems were big, definitely, I worked with the donors and all the other stakeholders to get them to give us a little bit more time so we could deliver what we said we would.

And that worked really well. It’s about getting the whole team to function as one. Then that same organization kept asking me back to Angola to come and solve other issues. So I began as a program manager for that organization.

I knew the previous country director for MAG in Angola and when she – also female – wanted to leave to go back to the UK, she said “Would you be interested in my job?” and I thought about it for 5 minutes and I went “I know nothing about landmines, other than what I’ve seen on television and read in the newspapers, so I think I can!

So I sent my CV and it clearly shows that I’m not afraid to do new stuff and they thought, “let’s take a risk!” And here we are!

running a ngo like a business

an individual in checked shirt gesturing with their hands with a laptop in the background

And I now obviously know everything there is to know about mines and I can hold my ground. But I got hired because I know how to run an organization. My management skills were more important than any technical knowledge about landmines, because I have other people in charge of that. I’m good at dealing with the Embassy people and the government people, getting our accreditations and this and that and the other.

And that’s what I brought to the NGOs, to look at things as a business. You can spend your dollars only once, I don’t like waste. I’m a process manager more than anything, I think in timelines. I don’t just have the idea, I operationalize it as fast as possible and if I see something that I can’t fix because the timeline isn’t long enough, then either that changes or we stop developing the plan. You can only focus on so many things in a day, so focus on the things that you can actually achieve. 

I can dream the big dreams but what’s the point if I can’t make them happen?

"no" is never the final answer

A group of people with raised hands

Now I am taken seriously. It helps that I’m 51 years old. I think until my forties I definitely had to fight harder to be taken seriously. Because I was too young, and a female. Now, I have established myself and people know me, so now I will come into the room with recommendations from others. If I had to start over in a new country, that would be complicated again. But I have done it before and I would do it again if needed.

This is a position that you have to build, very slowly and very carefully. I lead a very boring life in the sense that I work, and that’s it! If I was going to nightclubs and living the high life, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

At some point I was writing business plans to go to banks and get massive loans to furnish a complete hotel, and the first five times I got thrown out of the bank. I was 25 years old and I asked for 10 million euros, and the bank manager just laughed at me and told me to get out of his office. But you know, 3 weeks later I was back with a better plan and he threw me out 5 or 6 times, but the 7th time he said: “Okay, sit down and show me”. I am very persistent, I just think “Okay, it’s going to take a bit longer”, but “no” is definitely never the final answer.

I never step back, I got thrown out of banks and whatnot many many times. But I would just dust myself off and make a better plan and go again! You need to be stubborn as hell, that’s for sure!

Working for MAG in Angola is a lot of work, but I love trouble! And I’ve always worked in male dominated organizations. I come from a business background, in the kitchen it’s always a male chef, half the other managers we work with were guys. I’m 51, I’ve been playing the male dominated game for more than 30 years now!

An American Expat’s Experience of Albania

Despite warnings from well-meaning friends about the country’s notorious crime rate, she decided to travel to Albania. Jordan shares her personal experiences and lists all the reasons why you need to visit this beautiful underrated country.

“I don’t want to scare you, but – kidnapping, corruption and drugs rule that country. Whatever you do, just be careful.”

This was a text message I received from a friend the night before I boarded my one-way flight to Tirana, Albania. As a solo female expat, receiving warnings from friends and family becomes an innate part of the lifestyle. However, this particular message left me feeling doubtful. Was leaving America and traveling to Albania a terrible idea?

Fast forward 3 weeks since arriving  in Albania’s cosmopolitan capital city, Tirana, and I can happily report I will be extending my stay in this underrated country.

exploring tirana

Despite the country’s dark Communist past and poor reputation from their European neighbors, Albanians wear their history with perseverance.  This desire to progress trickles into everyday life here in Tirana, where the atmosphere is vibrant and youthful. This walkable city showcases primary-colored buildings, produce stands scattered throughout the streets filled to the brim with fresh figs, and coffee bars everywhere.

Literally, did you know Tirana is the second city in the world with the highest number of coffee bars per capita? AKA expat heaven.

Adventuring beyond the city walls is where you really experience the day-to-day life of Albanians. The difference between rich and poor protrudes from the streets as you witness the Mercedes being quickly replaced with donkeys pulling carts of local people. Here, the Skanderbeg mountain range provides a backdrop to the partially constructed homes and  farmers walk with sticks, guiding their cows down the sidewalks; but nothing quite catches your eyes and ears like the people who inhabit these streets. Shiqp, or Albanian, is spoken loudly and passionately. While you have no idea what is being said, the body language of two locals exchanging laughs over a coffee speaks volumes.  As they share that smile with me, sitting in a passing car with my windows down,  I can’t help but think for one to truly know Albania, they must experience it themselves.

Berat: The city of a thousand windows

an aerial view of the city of Berat showing a river, a bridge and houses along the hillside

My desire to develop a well-rounded perspective of this country meant experiencing  as much of it as I possibly could. With this in mind, my first weekend in Tirana I rented a car and drove down south to Berat, an UNESCO protected destination, also known as the city of a thousand windows. Just before arriving in Berat, I took a mini detour to a local vineyard called Cobo Winery. I was immediately welcomed into the care of a young woman who walked me through the vineyard and gave me a tour of her great grandfather’s legacy. Once learning about the wine, it was time to give it a taste!

Over the course of 3 hours I relaxed in their yard, playing with the kittens who roamed freely, talking with the family, and sipping the incredible array of wine. While the €20 tasting could have been completed in an hour,     it added to the experience to genuinely connect with this beautiful family while enjoying the fruits of their historical, hard labor. Eventually, I arrived in Berat and checked into Berat Backpackers Hostel. The hostel sits on the right side of the Gorat Bridge with a view of the Osum river and a complete panorama of the Ottoman architectural city. From the garden you also have a straight shot of the famous Berat Castle. 

After a night’s rest,  I made my way towards the fortress. Just before arriving though, I noticed an older woman sitting under an umbrella with a bucket of green bulbs. We made eye contact and she lured me in by offering her hand out, in which sat a sun-kissed fig. I cautiously bit into the delicate fruit and immediately shared a giggle with her.  No words were exchanged, but I’m sure she could tell I had never tasted anything so delicious before. Figs in hand, I made it up the 30 minute hike to the castle. Within the walls resides a small village at which you can sip coffee, peer at the embroidered table cloths for sale and eventually make your way to the very top where the Church of Holy Trinity sits. From this 15th century Albanian orthodox church, you have made it to the highest point in Berat.

a memorable road trip

A quick 24-hours in Berat and then I was on the road again to Vlorë. It’s important to note that driving through Albania is an experience in it’s own. A lesson I quickly learned is that driving and parking rules are merely suggestions. While the car rental is affordable (€35/day), there are parts of the country where you can’t rely on Google maps. All part of the adventure, right?

Only a few false right turns later, I reached the picturesque beach and city holiday location of Vlorë. At first, driving the boardwalk felt like I was in California, passing the strip of Santa Monica, but you know –            Albanian style. Tall, pastel painted apartment buildings and local restaurants advertising the “catch of the day” dress the left side of the street and to the right, pedestrians stride along the ocean as it expands beyond the eye. One day spent at Kalaja Restaurant, swimming and sipping on Peroni with locals, was enough for me to confirm what I had heard since arriving in Albania: The rocky terrains and crystal blue waters of the south hold some of the best beaches in Europe. 

In one weekend I hit just shy of 400 km and a more conscious view of this country. While the sites were incredible on their own, the most memorable experiences were in the small, unexpected moments. Driving along the jaw-dropping Tomorri Mountains passing the petit village towns, the on-the-house Brauhaus and reki from my friendly waiter at Tradicional Zgara in Vlorë – each exchange with local Albanians, either young or old, showed me how proud they are to show me something of their culture. 

Since I arrived in Albania, a reoccuring moment stayed with me – the shared smiles and overall welcoming spirit from the people. I always gauge my likability on the road with the people, and while many would argue that Albanians are cold and corrupt, they are the exact reason why I extended my stay in Albania.

About the author

Image of the author Jordan Jeppe wearing a hat and smiling into the camera

Jordan Jeppe

Jordan believes her purpose in life is to be of service to others. Jordan runs a social media marketing business and has successfully built a lifestyle around traveling and remote working. She mentors individuals towards adopting a similar “ultimate freedom lifestyle,” and has a deep love for yoga, mindfulness and meditation. 

The Most Colorful Destinations on Earth

1. Chefchaouen, Morocco

Painted almost entirely in blue, you won’t want to leave the “blue pearl” of Morocco. With spaces of bright colored handwoven rugs and plenty of terra cotta pots, this is a blue wonderland you won’t mind getting a little lost in.

Solo Female Travel Network Morocco

Visit The Blue City and all of Morocco’s best on

 The Morocco Meetup Tour!

2. Kawachi Fuji Garden, Japan

Tunnels of deep purple wisteria bloom in springtime making this a fairytale destination ideal for April and May. You may even get to catch the cherry blossoms as well in one trip!

wisteria in bloom in Japan

3. Cinque Terre, Italy

Vibrant colored buildings on dramatic hillsides with a backdrop of the ocean make this little town in Italy picture perfect. 

colorful buildings of Cinque Terre, Italy

4. Lake Hillier, Australia

This pepto bismol colored lake is made pink by the high salt content and algae that grows in spades. While it is not the only pink lake in the world, it is one of the most beautiful and is best seen when the sun is bright, which is most days in Australia. 

pink lake at Lake Hillier, Australia

5. Tulip Fields, The Netherlands

April in The Netherlands brings bright blooms of tulips in satisfyingly neat rows of vibrant color! There are plenty of regions to visit, but we recommend to hear to the largest and most impressive display in Keukenhof.

6. Caño Cristales, Colombia

Often called “The Liquid Rainbow,” this river features bright reds, yellows, greens, blues, and even black. You can swim, raft, or hike nearby in July through December to catch the best of this natural wonder.

colorful river Caño Cristales, Colombia

7. Havana, Cuba

Full of brightly colored buildings, vintage cars, and a vibrant flair unique to Cuba, Havana is alive with art, music, dancing, and old world glam. 

streets of Havana, Cuba

Experience the magic of Havana and the rest of Cuba on

 The Cuba Meetup Tour!

8. Larung Gar, Tibet

This mountain of brightly colored log cabins houses mostly monks and nuns and is one the largest religious institutions in the world. 

cabins in Larung Gar, Tibet

9. Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa

This short strip of colorful houses comes with a rich history and comes as a pleasant surprise in an otherwise normal area of the city. 

Cape Town Tour for solo female travel

Choose our Garden Route Itinerary and even get invited inside one of these homes for a home-cooked meal with a local woman!

 The South Africa Meetup Tour!

10. Lavender Fields, Provence, France

These purple fields go as far as the eye can see and smell like heaven. In July, the best time to go, are full of festivals and celebrations centered around fresh lavender. 

Lavender Fields, Provence, France

11. Panjin Red Beach, China

Fall is the only time of year this marsh and reed marsh turns from green to crimson making it a breathtaking vision of red. 

12. Rotorua Hot Springs, New Zealand

Almost a rainbow of vibrant natural colors, these hot springs are not only completely photogenic but also a relaxing way to spend the day. Enjoy one of the other nearby hot springs and hike in the area for some more jaw dropping scenery.

Rotorua Hot Springs, New Zealand

13. Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Depending on the season you visit, you may also see shades of blue and green among the red and gold. These sandstone walls were created by erosion and flash flooding and are only accessible with a tour guide. One of the most other-worldly places on this list, it’s a must see when in Arizona.

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

14. Santorini, Greece

The whitewashed buildings with bright blue roofs have an even more stunning backdrop of the sea and a magnificent sunset of pink and orange.

Santorini, Greece sunset

15. Fly Geyser, Nevada

This wonder isn’t completely natural. Created by a drilling mistake in the 1960’s, the red and green algae is certainly a sight to be seen.

Fly Geyser, Nevada

16. Hitachi Seaside Park, Japan

Nemophila flowers in shades of indigo, blue, and even a little lavender cover Miharashi Hill in spring and the rest of the year they’re dotted in deep red from the kokia bushes. 

Nemophila flowers in Japan

Begpacking. Passion or Entitlement?

You’re young, you’re feeling adventurous, you want to travel the world, but as most young people, you might not have a lot of money to fulfill your dream. Some people have found a way: in the last few years, a peculiar trend has been spotted, mostly in South East Asia and to some extent in South America: begpackers.

The term begpacker comes from the terms “to beg” and “backpacker”. A begpacker is usually a young, white, Western tourist, begging for money in the streets in order to fund their travel.

Some of them are performing in the streets or in the subway, others are selling photographs or jewelry. But most of them are simply begging for money in order to continue their travel or to pay for a ticket home.

If most locals just find it strange, some are increasingly irritated by this trend. The problem with begpackers is both economic and legal, but it is also a moral issue.

The economy:

tourism is a livelihood

a local guide in an asian country

The point of tourism, especially in developing countries, is to improve the life of the local population by bringing money into their economy. This industry is vital to many families in order to put food on the table. 

In the areas where begpackers are most often spotted, tourism is at the heart of the local economy. For example, according to a New York Times article, “More than half of Bali’s economy depends directly on tourism, and a quarter is engaged in tourism-related activities, such as transporting visitors and supplying food to hotels and restaurants.” Travelling is supposed to be a win-win for both the tourists and the locals: tourists can enjoy the country (in which they can usually easily enter thanks to their Western passport), as long as they are willing to support the local economy by spending at least some cash.

Which is one of the reasons begpackers are so vehemently criticized : instead of fueling the local economy, those tourists are taking from it. When people from rich countries are begging people from developing countries for money in order to pay for something that is commonly considered a luxury, they have clearly crossed a line in terms of decency. 

The law:

is it even legal to begpack?

Begging in the streets is illegal in most countries, and busking or selling usually requires a specific permit. In any case, working and making money on a tourist visa is always illegal. So, in addition to not playing the game by not participating in the local economy, begpackers are breaking the laws of their host country.

In Thailand for example, it is not allowed to beg for money in the streets. According to a Bangkok Post article : “Under the law, those proven to be foreign beggars will be deported and beggars who are Thai nationals will be forced to undergo a rehabilitation programme that includes occupational training”, Social Development and Human Security Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said. 

In order to avoid seeing more begpackers, several countries have taken measures to put a stop to this trend. Now, whenever you enter Thailand, you might have to prove that you have enough money to support yourself during your trip. In Bali, the government has taken other measures. According to immigration officer Setyo Budiwardoyo in an article in the newspaper Detik, “Foreign tourists who run out of money or are pretending to be beggars, we will send them to their respective embassies”.

But it is not just about whether or not it is legal. If begpackers are so heavily criticized, it is mostly about ethics.

The values:

travelling means being culturally sensitive

busy city in Asia

The main issue people are taking with this phenomenon is not the question of the economy or the law, it’s the question of decency.

Begpackers are often from countries which are richer than the ones they are begpacking in. They purposely ignore the fact that locals who are begging are doing so in order to survive, while they are doing so to fund a holiday. So let’s state the obvious: travelling is great, but it is not a basic necessity and you do not need to do it in order to survive.

Perhaps it is best said by Maisarah Abu Samah, a young Singaporean woman in an Observers article: “We find it extremely strange to ask other people for money to help you travel. Selling things in the street or begging isn’t considered respectable. People who do so are really in need: they beg in order to buy food, pay their children’s school fees or pay off debts. But not in order to do something seen as a luxury!

Begpackers should know that the money they receive should instead be going to people who need it far more.

Indeed, as Majda Saidi says in an Medium article : “Choosing to beg to travel (reminder: here, travel is a luxury, not a necessity) in countries where the cost of living can be lower than the one of your home country, next to locals who beg to survive, regardless of the laws of those countries, racial problems or even the often difficult history of these countries with colonialism, is to choose to live a utopia in a total lack of respect for the host country and its inhabitants. It’s just insulting!

White privilege:

the underlying issue

genuine beggar on the street

Yes, it all comes down to that: white privilege. According to Luisa, a Malaysian woman cited in an Observers article, “Unfortunately, there is still discrimination and racism directed at people who aren’t white, while white people are worshipped. It’s a colonial legacy. These begging tourists would have been treated completely differently if they weren’t white — proof lies in the way we treat non-white migrants here.”

When you have a passport which allows you to travel easily to many countries, you might not realize how much of a luxury travelling actually is.

Which is why some travellers might not understand that in order to be fair, they need to spend their money in their host country. They might not realize that because of their origin and most likely the color of their skin, they might be above a few laws ( tourists are not being deported from Thailand for begging for example). And they might not even see that they are in an extremely privileged situation, which is why they think it’s ok to beg for money in a country where beggars are actually in need..

So, if you are thinking about travelling without any money, take Majda Saidi’s words into account : “To live as the poorest in a given country, to experience their suffering by choice and to know that you can stop the “experience” when you want, is the very definition of a privilege. There is nothing honorable about pretending to be poor to make yourself interesting. Honourability is to recognise and understand one’s privileges.”

Beauty Secrets from Around the World

The fancy beauty products we all know and obsess over that line the shelves of every Sephora, CVS or Ulta may have been created in a lab by people wearing white coats. However, the history behind many of the ingredients used in these “miracle treatments” today stem from various parts of the globe that they are indigenous to, often times thousands of years ago.

Come take a journey with me as I travel through seven countries or regions to reveal how women from Japan to Bulgaria have taken care of their hair and skin since the beginning of time.

Middle East

middle eastern makeup

Many women in the middle east and across the Mediterranean don’t just wear kohl-black eyeliner for the fun of it. This sultry look stems from the ancient Egyptians who believed kohl had antibacterial properties that prevented eye infections including conjunctivitis and boosted the body’s production of nitric oxide, which strengthens one’s immune system. Kohl-painted eyes also help reflect the sun, which is why football players apply it under the eyes during games. For your own kohl-infused look, Lyda Beauty has a Cleopatra Cat Eye Stamp eyeliner, and it’s one of the only Halal certified American beauty brands (meaning its formulation is permissible according to the Qur’an).


Iranian woman

For generations, Persians have used sedr, a green lotus powder that hails from the Ziziphus plant. Sedr cleans hair while it also strengthens and volumizes. To try this on your own, simply add water to your sedr until it turns into a green paste and leave on your hair for 10-20 minutes before rinsing out. According to JOON Haircare Founder, Shiva Tavakoli, you can also add a few drops of JOON Saffron Hair Elixir to the paste for added hydration, which contains the Persian hair strengthening sand smoothing staples of Saffron, Pistachio and Rose. 


adzuki beans

Japanese women, known for their youthful, toned and porcelain complexions, have a few interesting tricks of their own. It’s noted that as early as the Nara period (710-794), Japanese women were exfoliating with adzuki beans crushed into a fine powder to achieve a fresh, healthy glow and combat clogged pores. Adzuki beans contain saponin, a natural foaming agent that makes these little red beans more than just food. Moisturizing and antioxidant rich Camellia oil, exfoliating rice bran and skin-brightening Yuzu oil are other natural indigenous ingredients Japanese women consider the fountain of youth. Silktage Pure Japanese Fusion Oil combines all three of these oils into one rejuvenating serum. 


Herbs crushed in India

What do the women of India reach for when they have dry skin? Pure almond oil. Rich in vitamin E, monounsaturated fats, potassium, zinc and copper, this miracle liquid has been revered for ages in the Indian culture. Shalini Vadhera, Global Beauty Expert and author of Passport to Beauty says explains it’s easy to make your own at home since many commercial almond oils have preservatives. Take a handful of fresh almonds, blanch them, and let them dry. 

Grind them in the food processor, then put them in a fine sieve and press with a spoon until the oil is released. Place in a small bottle and refrigerate. (This oil can turn rancid very quickly if left at room temperature). Massage oil onto skin after your shower or bath; and use a few drops on your face after cleansing at the end of the day.


beauty in Korea

When it comes to Korean beauty secrets, your mind might automatically go to the 10-step skincare regime that took over the internet a few years ago. But ask any Korean about the one true beauty ritual steeped in Korean culture and it’s a good hard body scrub. Exfoliating dead skin cells called ddeh from head to toe is serious business for Koreans. Weekly communal bathhouse visits are a common practice in South Korea where guests strip naked, soak in hot water and receive a scrub or ‘seshin” with a thin, sandpaper-like towel. More rough than relaxing, the result of removing dead skin to bring one’s soft, fresh pink flesh to light of day is considered rejuvenating by many. Mimic this no-nonsense technique  on your own with these exfoliating bath washcloths.


beauty in China

Gua sha (pronounced “gwahshah”) is the Chinese word for scrapping, which is exactly what this ancient East Asian practice does. Using a tool to apply pressure and scrape the skin, gua sha helps relieve pain and tension in the body, leaving behind light bruising. In traditional Chinese medicine, everyone has chi, the energy that flows through one’s body. When that chi gets blocked, it causes pain and needs to be gua sha’d away. According to Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, A.P., as we’re constantly looking for ancient remedies for modern healthy and beauty benefits, gua sha has become more popular than ever, especially for lifting and sculpting the face. “I have had patients literally have their face transformed by gua sha in one session,’ says Trattner.  “It can lift and sculp the face, improve blood circulation, help TMJ, reduce puffiness and drain the lymph, reduce fine lines, and create a healthy glow.” Click here for your own gua sha tool and tips on how to expertly bring this ancient practice into your own beauty regime,


Roses in Bulgaria

The pink roses that decorate the 87-mile Balkan mountain range called Rose Valley in May and June each year are an immense source of pride for the Bulgarian people. Distilling rose oil has created a huge industry for this country since the 17th century when a Turkish merchant is said to have brought them to their country, and Bulgarian roses are considered some of finest in the world. Many cosmetic products including soaps, shampoos, creams, lotions and toners are created with the intention of touting this liquid gold. What does this stuff really do, though? The essence of Bulgarian roses contains highly healing properties that reduce redness and irritation, treat dermatitis, acne and eczema. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory, reduces the appearance of scars. and calms and refreshes the skin after cleansing. The rose toner in Thracian Bulgarian Rose Water is steam-distilled in one of oldest still -functioning distilleries in Bulgaria.

About the author

Robin beauty writer

Robin Tolkan-Doyle

Robin Tolkan-Doyle runs the boutique agency Charmed PR in Los Angeles, CA and recently created the site Beautyologie, a platform to highlight how we all find and create beauty in life.

Destroying Land Mines and the Patriarchy in Angola

Jeanette Dijkstra is the country director of the Mines Advisory Group in Angola, an NGO working on clearing landmines that were laid out during a conflict that lasted for 41 years. Here is her story:

Land Mines of War

“It wasn’t only a civil war, it was very much the cold war being fought in Angola”

kids playing on tank

Mines Advisory Group has been working in Angola since 1994. Angola is an oil rich and a diamond rich country. That has led to a war that lasted for 41 years. It started in 1961 with the liberation war from the Portuguese ruling. They became independent in 1975 and basically in 1976-1977 the civil war broke out and lasted until 2002. 

It wasn’t only a civil war, it was very much the cold war being fought in Angola. The Russians, the Cubans and the Chinese were supporting the socialist communist side, and the Americans, the South Africans and some European countries, but less visibly so, were supporting the other side. We find mines from 22 different producing countries and that ties to who was fighting here. Both sides used mines.

An estimated one million landmines were laid in Angola. And many more explosive devices such as mortars, rockets, projectiles, handgrenades, airplane bombs, bullets, etc. were used during the fighting. The estimates are that from all the weapons used, any bullets, rockets, grenades, all the things that have explosives in them, between 10 and 30 % have never exploded. That’s still live ammunition and explosives lying in the fields, even if the war ended 20 years ago.

The landmines became prohibited in 1997, supported by Princess Diana who was one of the first internationally known people to give attention to this issue. We came a long way since the landmine ban treaty came into force now 22 years ago.

The goal at this moment, globally, is to be done with all landmines by 2025. But for countries such as Angola that is too ambitious with the current level of funding. We do think that it could be done in about 10 years.

The role of women

“It’s the women who go fetch the water”

girls pumping water

In Angola, the warring parties were fighting for power over bridges and access to water, to fertile land, to the diamond mines and to the oil fields. So the area where you find the prime land and the best access to water, those are the ones that tend to be the most contaminated with landmines. They were the most strategic in the conflict.

We still have a lot of minefields to pick from. So, which one do you clear first? We go for those groups that are the most marginalized by the fact that they are surrounded by weapons. Then, within these populations, it’s the women who go fetch the water. So that’s our first priority.

Often, villages are far away from the nearest water point, up to 7 km away, because landmines keep them from building their houses and their farm close to the water. If we clear those minefields, that means that women -and therefore their daughters- can stop wasting their life walking to and from the river.

If you look at the UNHCR indicators, 20 liters per person per day is the absolute minimum to keep yourself and your home clean, to drink, to cook, etc. Families are big in our part of the world. On average, every fertile woman gives birth to 8 children. So in those communities, if you have a family of, let’s say 10 people, they need 200 liters per day. If that is 7 km away that means women need to bring at least 2 or 3 daughters with them to be able to do that during daylight. So all these things tie into girls not going to school. 

If you are pregnant and walking for water all the time, there is no chance to do anything else. You can’t grow produce for the market, you can’t send your children to school and chances to make an income are slim to none. So we try to liberate the access to water as soon as possible, and then after that, land for housing and agriculture and cattle farming, etc.

We have 2 rapid response teams that are EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) specialists and they are busy day in and day out. Even if we have been working here for 25 years, they still have more than enough to do. They leave the base every day.

Building Confidence in Women

“A large part of what we do is also confidence building”

woman tending to a field in Angola

Another big part of what we do is mine risk education in which we teach local populations what to pay attention to, how to mark an item if they find it and not to touch it for obvious reasons and how to contact us so we can come and remove it.

Clearance is the most expensive part of our job because it is literally meter by meter with detectors or machines and that is very slow. But the main purpose of landmine clearance is to do it in such a way that, obviously you remove all the mines, but you also take away the fear from the local population. So, a large part of what we do is confidence building. So when we are done clearing a minefield, we invite all the community, all the people in power, local police and army, our team, if possible I join myself and everybody sees (I am one of the very few white women in a thousand kilometers around!) that we all walk in and around the cleared former minefield with confidence.

It’s like a whole strategy, there is a whole system of confidence building behind it, because you can clear everything, if the population doesn’t trust that you did, they are not going to use it and then, why did you clear it?

Turning war into opportunity

“28% of our staff is female”

women on a field in Africa

We have 215 people on the payroll at this moment, and 28% of our staff is female, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is! Because we come from less than 10% 5 years ago. This was a very male dominated industry until rather recently, but MAG is making massive efforts to get more women involved in landmine clearance, so we are moving in the right direction.

You can imagine in a society that is very male dominated to begin with, us coming and going “yes, we want female deminers”, that was not a natural development! It took a lot of talking to pass that bridge of sexism.I knew that we had an uphill battle to get the guys to accept that the women were easily as good -if not better- than several of them, and that worked really well.

We spent a lot of time training people on how to behave properly in a team and where to go if they feel like they are being harassed by a coworker. That is not just the message that the women receive, the men also.

We had a few examples of guys not listening and they lost their jobs because of it. And that made the rest of them more careful. And the women felt like they were heard. If they came to complain, we would not try to make the problem go away, we would actually address it and it would have consequences for the ones who crossed the line.

The women feel properly protected and the guys are growing into the system, they recognize that their female colleagues are actually really good at what they do. 

Put up with nothing

“I’ve seen all the nonsense!”

woman standing at her home in Africa

For me, at the beginning when I was establishing my own network and building the contacts it did take a while for some of the guys to understand that I did know what I was talking about. What did help with that is that I am Dutch and I am very straightforward. I’m 1,80 meters so I’m taller than most people here, and I don’t try to be charming. I am very business-wise.

That takes time because of the business culture and the way things are done here, but I’m 5 years in this job, and 10 years in Angola. People now know that I do know what I’m talking about.

But it’s definitely an uphill battle, that’s for sure. We are nowhere near where we should be with that. Personal connections are key in doing business here. Every time somebody gets promoted we have to go through the whole song and dance again, with the new big General basically person in a position of power sometimes misbehaving and being a bit impolite and me just standing my ground, or sometimes they just want to talk to my male assistant and not to me. I’ve seen all the nonsense! But very patiently, we just keep rolling with the punches and I am having my seat at the table!

A problem off the radar

“It is difficult to keep donors interested”

kids in Angola community

What is lacking at the moment is funding. That is something that we are trying to increase. There are so many countries at the moment who have landmine trouble, including new open conflicts such as Yemen, Syria, Irak and South Sudan. Those countries are what we call in full crisis, and that’s where the donor money tends to go. Countries like Angola are called “legacy countries”. We are trying to solve something that was done to the population 20 years ago and that feels less urgent if that makes sense. So, it is difficult to keep donors interested.

Private companies also provide funding, but most of it is still coming from governments. I have a couple of leads but we have to be careful and do our due diligence to see if they are not into blood diamonds and humanitarian disasters. We are very careful because you can’t take money from bad organizations or bad people.

Obviously, a lot of countries which are still struggling with landmines are in the developing world. So the landmines are not their only problems, they also have problems with schooling, health, national resources crisis, etc. there are a lot of things that need funding and attention. So we are very happy that Angola is spending a lot of money now on clearing their landmines but we are still heavily dependent on outside resources to get the job done. 

The international community has agreed 22 years ago that the world needed to be cleared of all landmines, so it’s very much an international effort to get it done.

Queer Travel: Tips for your First Solo Trip

Traveling solo always comes with its own joys and its own obstacles. That fact is no less true for a queer person. Within the LGBTQ+ community, there are dozens of different intersections and experiences that can factor into how your experience traveling solo might pan out. If you’re about to embark on your first solo trip as a queer person, there are a few key things you should bear in mind to make sure your first foray into traveling alone is as safe and as much fun as possible. Here are some tips and tricks I picked up traveling solo as a queer woman.

Safety First

queer travel billboard graffiti

I would love to tell you that, no matter where you go, your identity will be accepted and you will be safe to travel authentically as you please, and hopefully one day, I will be able to. For now though, there are unfortunately some areas in the world that are not always safe for LGBTQ+ people. Whether there is a lack of laws in place to protect queer people or whether it’s based more on cultural attitudes, there are some ways to work out where is safe and what sort of measures you might need to consider in advance. and are two free online resources that can give you some expectations in advance of which countries are safe and ones where you need to be more careful. Remember that different regions can have different attitudes too. For example, major cities can often be more accepting than rural regions. Another great way to scope this out is to ask on LGBTQ+ networks that you might be a part of, like a Facebook group for travelers. Getting someone else’s recent, relevant experience there is often really helpful, especially if it’s for a more remote locale.

Once you have the information, it’s up to you what you do with it. Many queer travelers choose not to travel to areas where LGBTQ+ lifestyles are not supported, reasoning that they don’t want to spend their travel budget somewhere that doesn’t respect their human rights. Others believe that laws don’t always represent the people. I have had many wonderful trips in places where my sexuality is technically forbidden. The important thing to remember is to only do what you feel comfortable, and be aware that you may need to hide certain aspects of your identity if you want to go to places where being LGBTQ+ is still illegal.

Find Community

pride event with flag

One way to make solo queer travel easier, even if you are in a country where attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people are less than friendly, is to find a safe space and a community before you even arrive. Look for LGBTQ+ friendly hostels or see if there’s a cluster of queer-friendly bars and restaurants which might make a good spot to book an Airbnb. Although I am a big fan or supporting local businesses, sometimes chains can be safer. A US- or European-owned chain, even in a country that might otherwise be unaccommodating for LGBTQ+ people, will likely be a more friendly place to call home while you’re there,

No matter where you are, remember that not all LGBT+ experiences are treated equally. LGBTQ+ friendly might apply to gay men and lesbians, but you might need to take different considerations into account if you are trans, as one example. Try searching specifically for what you need: type ‘trans woman friendly accommodation [INSERT CITY HERE]’ and see what comes up. This is another time where community-driven advice is great; see what others in your community have to recommend if you’re heading to a new place.

Learn Key Phrases

traveler in park with queer rights sign

If you have any accommodation that might need to be met on your travels, such as explaining gendered documentation at airports, knowing a few key phrases in the target language in advance might save you time and potential stress in airport queues. In countries where less progress has been made at having gender-neutral options on forms or where officials have less experience in processing passport photos where you might look different in real life, try and have some words or phrases ready to go. These could be:

  • I am transgender.
  • I am gender non-conforming.
  • I need to speak to an official.

I’ve also had non-binary and trans friends of mine create little cards in the target language explaining their identity. It might seem like overkill, but it can save you an exhausting and potentially triggering debate at airport security – vital if you’re as bad at timekeeping as I am!

Know when (and when not) to educate others

If you’re traveling somewhere that doesn’t have a particularly open LGBTQ+ community, it’s likely you’re going to get a few probing questions, often entirely well-meaning. No matter how kind the intention, remember that it’s never your job to educate other people. Your identity is your own and being queer is not synonymous with being the world’s friendly LGBTQ+ teacher. Always feel within your rights to politely say you don’t want to answer a question if it’s too personal, you’re too tired, or you just plain don’t want to. You’re on vacation, after all!

If you do decide to chat or explain certain things while traveling, be sure to take care of yourself at the same time. It can be exhausting to have to explain your sexuality or identity over and over again. Sometimes people don’t realize how probing or intrusive their questions can get. Set some boundaries for yourself and don’t be afraid to make other people respect them.

Be an Ally

pride flag with heart hands

Whether you’re a cis, straight person reading this or a member of the LGBTQ+ community yourself, allyship is one of our biggest assets as queer travelers. Even a solo traveler doesn’t need to walk alone all the time. If you travel with any level of privilege, try and be in tune with ways you can use this to help other people to feel more comfortable and safe while traveling.

Give as much as you get to queer communities you find while traveling. Be ready to lend a helping hand, step in to help another queer traveler if they’re struggling, and treat those you meet along the way as you would like someone to help you out if you needed it. Solo travel is one of the most rewarding things we can do in life – but it doesn’t mean we can’t find friends and community along the way.

Step Off the Beaten Path in Africa

Sub Saharan Africa is often overlooked when it comes to its global cultural influence. For example, did you know that Timbuktu was the world’s educational hub at one point? In the 14th century, scholars from all over the world would travel to modern day Mali to be educated in the kingdoms’ university. Though those days may be forgotten about, there are hundreds of historical monuments scattered across Africa that still highlight the past. Each West African country has its own beautiful tale of cultures. But here are my top 5, from the countries I’ve been to, which are a must visit for cultural and historical lovers.

5. Cape Verde

cape verde africa.jpg

Cape Verde, is a very diverse country from the people to the county’s landscape, it’s perfect blend of Portuguese and other West cultures makes it an interesting country to see.


Cidade Velha, or ‘old city’ is located on Santiago Island. This UNESECO World heritage site was the first city founded in modern day Cape Verde. With ruins, monuments and museums, this town feels like walking back in time. It is eerily peaceful compared to its horrendous past but really helps visitors understand Cape Verdean history.

Carnival/ parties: Now many people think that carnival is just a good fun time, which it is, but it’s also so much more. Cape Verdean carnival is unlike any other, celebrating the country’s people and cultures.

Traditional ethnic groups such as the Mandinga (west African ethnic group) parade the streets in traditional attrie, dancing traditional dances. Carnival is celebrated between February and March (the exact dates change each year) on all the islands but Mindelo carnival is said to be the best (Sao Vincente Island). Even if you don’t make it to carnival, do make sure you experience the nightlife in the country as traditional dances such as kizomba (Originating from Angola) are commonly seen being danced.

So how will you get to these spots? Taxis are often your best bet around the islands as they are cheap and have meters in them so no need to haggle! However, if you are in the capital – Praia on Santiago island you can save even more money by hopping on busses costing 150 escudos (1.5$) per ride. Accommodation also is cheap depending on the season you are going, if you go during carnival season (February – March) you will be looking at paying around $100 per night for a budget single room. Rooms sell out fast so book them well in advance! During the off-peak seasons, you can find accommodation ranging from $15 – $100 upwards per night.

4. Sierra Leone

sierra leone africa.jpg

Sierra Leone has a very interesting history, as it was originally seen as a country for ‘free slaves’ to return to. It was very interesting meeting Sierra Leoneans with Nigerian names and seeing the influence of other black cultures like reggae (Jamaican) within the country. Some must see areas are:

National museum. This museum located in the capital, Freetown, is an amazing start to understanding Sierra Leonean history. It is always better to get a guide as there aren’t many descriptions about the artifacts.

National market (located by the national railway museum): This market was the most organised market I’ve ever been to. With so many pan African designs. From wood carvings to jewellery and accessories. This market perfectly represents West African cultures and designs with traditional Nigerian (Ankara) and Ghanaian (Kente) print used on the clothing.

Bunce Island and Banana Island; though, these islands are filled with beautiful beaches, they have an extremely dark past as they were used as slave trading and shipping stations. These islands have their own history told through the ruins and monuments. I highly recommend going with a guide.

The best ways of getting around the Freetown are Tuk tuks and taxis. Tuk tuks are very convenient and cheap. Though there are not any meters there are set prices per destination which all the locals know about. You’ll soon pick these up after a few rides, night-time rates are higher. Tuk Tuks are often shared, but you can pay extra to not share or take a taxi, taxis are more expensive. Accommodation is quite pricey in Freetown (the capital) with an average hotel night costing around $70 per night. Privately owned accommodation such as Airbnb is available and cheaper but can be very basic.


3. Gambia

Though a tiny African country, Gambia is vast in its attractions offering something for everyone. Here are some must see areas for all those cultural lovers out there:
Stones of Senegambia, located in both Senegal and Gambia, this is a historical landmark. Whilst some speculate these stones to be a burial ground, others believe the stones were placed there by Gods and have spiritual meaning. Either way, this archaeological wonder dates back 1,500 years.
The National Museum Gambia, this museum displays so many cultural and historic African pieces. With rooms for art and music and weapons, this is the place to explore more about Gambian history.
Kunta Kinteh Island, popularized by the film roots, a lot of people do not know that this island is a very real place. This UNESECO World heritage site marks the story of slavery in Gambia.
Taxis are the best mode of transport around the country as they are shared and cheaper. Although they are not metered, there are fixed prices per destination points which locals know about so make sure to ask them. Buses are also available and a good option for travelling around as they are not often crammed full and the conductors inside will let you know the price of your journey. But they are a little harder to navigate as bus stop are hard to spot and do not stop right in front of tourist attractions so there is still a lot of walking to do afterwards. Accommodation in Gambia varies from $20 – $100 per night per person. A lot of cheaper accommodations are usually owned by private hosts as hotels are often more expensive.


2. Senegal

senegal africa.jpg
Senegal is home of the staple west African dish; Wolof rice, commonly known as jollof rice. This country has a mixture of Arabic, French and African influences making its capital, Dakar a cultural hub that offers tourists so much. Some must see areas are:
Goree Island. This island is a chilling reminder of the scar of slavery many African countries still carry. With so many museums, buildings, and historical monuments to explore. This island is a must see in Senegal. I advise going with a tour guide, you can hire them before you get at the port where you buy tickets to the island or on the island. (Senegalese and Africans get a discounted rate onto the island)
IFAN Museum and Museum of Black Civilizations. These museums are great places to go to explore more of West African culture. With a hundred of artefacts, from African clothing styles to traditional armour dating back hundreds of years. A must visit if you’re in Dakar.
African Renaissance Monument. This monument celebrates not only Senegalese but African liberation from colonialism. This magnificent statue was created in hopes of becoming an international tourist attraction like the statue of liberty. I hope you like stairs because just like the road to freedom, it is a long climb up.
Transport may be your biggest expense here as taxi drivers are often opportunists inflating the prices for tourists. Especially at the airports so I recommend getting the coach to downtown Dakar. In Dakar haggling with taxi drivers is a must, even for locals. Busses are cheaper but often confusing to navigate for a non-local as bus stops are not clearly marked. With the rise of tourism to the country’s capital, Dakar has a lot of cheaper accommodations are now available. An average night in a hostel will cost around $5 per person per night with 5-star hotels costing around $150 a night.


1. Ghana

ghana africa

Ghana, also known as the gold coast, offers a lot more riches than just gold. Ghana has heavily influenced the continent as it was the first sub-Saharan African country to declare its independence from European colonisation which led to the other African countries following suit. Ghana today, has become a great tourism destination and here are a few attractions that’ll make you understand why:

The Mosque of Larabanga also known as the ‘Mecca of west Africa’ is the oldest mosque in West Africa dating back to the 14th century. Built by Sudanese architects, this magnificent functioning mosque is an example of precolonial African architecture.

Asante traditional buildings. This UNESECO World heritage site shows the traditional homes the Asante civilisation. Why not take a walk through these homes to better understand traditional Ghanaian homes, cultures and customs.

Centre of National Culture. Here you’ll be able to experience Ghanaian heritage and culture through different art forms.

Cape Coast Castle also known as the slave castles is a fortress built in the early 17th century for the purpose of trading slaves. Why not tour the town and experience the dungeons also known as the ‘slave holes’, chapel and museum.

Motorbikes or ‘okadas’ are a common form of transport used here. Usually you would get on the back with the driver. Buses and taxis are also common forms of transport used. Accommodation isn’t too expensive with hostels costing around $15 per person per night and double rooms costing around $40 a night.


With a continent so rich, it is no surprise that there are so many more unmentioned attractions in both these countries and other West African countries. But I hope these 5 countries help you understand just how rich and diverse African cultures are. Which country will you be heading to?

About the author

Adeola Adeshina

Adeola is a world traveller and influencer focusing her area of travel in the continent of Africa, being her passion at her core. The aspiring writer wants to use her story to educate those about what different African countries are really like through the gaze of a first generation British Nigerian. Her solo travels through the continent aim to inspire others giving not only her stories but useful facts about each country. Adeola aims to establish business partnerships across the continent with local craftsmen through her scheme called AdeAfricaSupport.


Books to Satisfy your Wanderlust

Literature and travel have long been ideal bedfellows. The list of writers of all genres who loved to travel and work as they went is extensive, to say the least. The overlap between the processes has much in common. Both are about trying to forge a connection with others- be that people or places- as well as discovering new worlds; new ideas or new sides of ourselves. Both can also move us, emotionally and physically.

Literature to inspire travel can take many forms. Whether it be memoir, non-fiction, fiction (or indeed a merging of them all) but all the different varieties can be inspiring. And at a time when travel isn’t as accessible for many of us, there’s rarely been a better time to feed your wanderlust and transport yourself with a book. Oh and add to the bucket list.

Here’s a variety of reads to inspire your next trip:

“The Temporary Bride” by Jennifer Klinec

Klinec’s book brings together some of the most thrilling parts of travel- change, food and love. It tells the story of how she decides to quit her corporate job and launch a cookery school from her flat in London. She travels to Iran to discover ancient recipes and cooking skills where she unexpectedly falls in love. It examines their relationship and the society of contemporary Iran.

“Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” by Jan Morris

Morris has travelled and written extensively for over 50 years. She first visited Trieste as a soldier at the end of the Second World War and has been haunted by the city ever since. Using the city and its history, she considers her own life and interests: identity, love and loss, disillusionment and the passing of time.

“Stranger On A Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America” by Jenny Diski

Combining personal memoir and travel journal Diski’s travels take her around America by rail. Whilst the days of smoking on trains have pretty much passed the world over, the book still brings all the joy of meandering and long train journeys as she relates the characters she meets and her own- sometimes troubled- past.

“A Theatre for Dreamers” by Polly Samson

Samson’s book is a novel that evokes the Greek Island of Hydra back in the 1970s. And whilst it’s certainly changed in the years since it still recalls so much of the beauty and romance of the Greek Islands today. It merges fact with fiction detailing the time that Leonard Cohen lived there.

“Small Place” by Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid’s book poses many questions about the nature of tourism and travel. It’s a lyrical essay looking at the island of Antigua where she grew up. Contemplating the legacy of colonialism, the tourist industry and the Antiguan Government. It makes for a thought provoking and poetic read.

“Love With a Chance of Drowning” by Torre DeRoche

As doing extreme things for love go, sailing across the Pacific is up there. Even more so if you’ve an intense fear of water. But that’s exactly what DeRoche does in this memoir when her boyfriend decides to fulfil his ambition to do so. Rather than watch him go, she overcomes her fear and joins him. Visiting some of the world’s more remote location it’s a witty tale of a year long voyage.

“Bonjour Tristesse” by Francois Sagan

Few novels better invoke the lazy possibility of summer than Sagan’s masterpiece. She beautifully depicts the hazy, sweaty days of the French riviera, following her heroine’s dark and passionate coming of age journey. You can practically smell the pine trees and the sea salt.

“Full Tilt: Ireland to India” by Dervla Murphy

Murphy is both a prolific writer and traveller. It’s fair to say that she’s lived a remarkable and unconventional life. Her works are numerous to choose from but this one makes for a particularly fascinating tale, for anyone with an adventurous spirit. It chronicles her journey on bike from Ireland to India during the 1960s, whilst the places she visits may have changed since then, the spirit she embraces hasn’t.

“Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road,” by Kate Harris

Harris is a writer with a desire to get lost and explore. She currently lives off grid in British Columbia. In this book she cycles the Silk Road with her friend Mel exploring ideas such as wildness, the self, what it means to get lost and whether we can truly know and map the world.

Voluntourism: A Good Deed or a Harmful Fantasy?

Going on a holiday and spending some time helping out an NGO seems like a good way to use your vacation time to both enjoy yourself and give back to the less fortunate. You could experience another culture, help local communities, add a line on your resume and enjoy an authentic experience during your stay. What could be wrong? As it turns out, a lot!


Voluntourism has come under fire over the last few years. This kind of travel which combines volunteering and tourism, can actually have a very negative impact on local communities. Let’s explore the main reasons why this kind of travel is heavily criticized, and the ways you can actually help while still getting the adventure you crave.

Can you offer more than good intentions?

woman volunteering serving food

Volunteers are very often young people, who are taking either a gap year or using their vacation time to do meaningful work. However, humanitarian and development work are actually highly professionalized. To work in this field, you need very specific degrees and/or experience, and an expertise that requires training.

According to Daniela Papi, founder of Learning Service, who wrote in a National Geographic article: “[voluntourism is] about selling an image of poverty to Westerners and saying that—just by being them, without any responsibility to learn, shift, or qualify—they can ‘help.’”

But without any specific skills, can you really help? Are good intentions really enough to make a long lasting impact on local communities?

In a Huffington Post article, Pippa Biddle recalls one of her first voluntourist experience: “Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

If your work is not very useful, that’s one thing. But you might unknowingly disrupt the local economy by depriving a local laborer the opportunity to get this job and get paid for it.

If you have a specific skill that you think might be helpful, then coordinate with an organization which works with local communities: you think you can improve their website? Maybe you can fundraise using your own network? Would you be able to teach a specific skill to the local workers? If so, then you might manage to make an impact.

In any case, the most important thing that you need to remember is: Do no harm.

Do no harm

You especially need to keep this in mind if you are thinking of taking a voluntourist trip working with children.

Orphanages barely exist anymore in wealthy countries, and there is a good reason for that: decades of research have proven that children can’t develop well when they grow up in institutions, even if they are well run. Instead, governments all around the world prefer to give support to families so they can keep their children with them. And if it is impossible, then, they look for foster or adoptive families. It is even a cheaper option compared to keeping children in institutions!

So why are there still orphanages? Because tourists are willing to pay to visit them, or to work in them, and it has become a very profitable business. Voluntourism actually creates the institutionalization of children. According to the NGO Lumos, 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. But families tend to send their children to these institutions because the only support system funded (by tourists), are orphanages, when this money could go to better child care solutions. 

Not only are institutions bad for children, but the constant coming and going of volunteers is detrimental to children. According to the NGO World Vision, short term visits to orphanages by international volunteers will create separation anxiety and unhealthy short-lived attachment. Volunteers will give love and support to the children, and then quickly break the bond until another comes, and the cycle repeats.

If you are thinking about a volunteer trip involving children, you need to thoroughly research the organization and refrain from working directly with the children.

The bigger issue at play: the white savior complex

The question of voluntourism seems to be a symptom of a much larger issue: the white savior complex.

You might have heard of white saviorism in many different conversations: this term has been most recently used to criticize the portrayal of minorities in the media (for example, in the movie The Help). But it is also used internationally to criticize international relations. When it comes to voluntourism, white saviorism is especially blatant.

Historically, white saviorism comes from colonization and the idea that Europeans were invading foreign countries in order to “conduct civilizing missions”. Today, white saviorism has more to do with power dynamics: someone privileged, without any real understanding of the cultural, political or economic background, “saves” (or thinks they save) the underprivileged and thus, becomes a hero.

This narrative is an oversimplification of the very complex issue of poverty. Indeed, the story really should be about the root causes of poverty: global economics, geopolitics, history, etc. as well as about the local communities. You can provide support to them, but if you are at the center of the narrative, then you are probably missing the point. White saviors are often accused of using the less fortunate as props for their own self gratification.

Actually, voluntourist companies appeal to the white savior in you by having you believe that you can become a hero, without any specific skills! While, as Andrea Freidus says in an article in The Conversation, “If volunteers can understand the people they work with as citizens with rights rather than objects of charity, they can begin to think about long-term partnership, justice and structural change.”

If you have trouble grasping the concept of white saviorism, try to think about it the other way around: would you feel comfortable with inexperienced tourists coming to work in group homes or foster families for a few weeks in your own country? Would it be ok for you to see tourists taking photos of the underprivileged communities in your hometown?

Should I pay to volunteer?

woman bathing elephant

On the surface, you may think that if you are getting on a plane and giving your time that at the maximum you should pay would be for room and board, but paying a profit? No way. 

Hopefully after reading more about white savior complex, it won’t come as a surprise when we say that paying for an experience shouldn’t be an outrageous idea. If you can’t bring a valuable, unique and needed skill and especially if you can’t commit to a long stay, then you will be taking up employee’s time and resources that could otherwise go into their organization.

Money you pay to volunteer is not always going to scams. There are legitimate for-profit and non-profit businesses that can help you get the experience you want, help boost your resume and gain some skills, and do all the leg-work to be sure that your presence boosts the local community rather than endanger it. They make your experience easy, ethical and that money you pay goes back to the community to actually  help. In fact, some organizations rely on this type of voluntourism.

How can I help?

If good intentions are all you have, then you probably need to rethink your project. If you really want to get involved, there are many ways to do so in an ethical way. But to make sure your project will really help, you need to ask yourself:

          Why am I going? I am going to help or to feel good about myself or to travel cheaply?

          Who is in charge of the project: is it led by local communities? Are they the ones asking for support?

          What does the community or organization actually need? Do I have the skills and experience to provide it? Would I be able to do this work at home? Can a local laborer do this job? If not, can I teach a member of this community the necessary skills?

          Are you sure the organization is doing no harm? Are there any protection measures for vulnerable people (children for example)?

Keep asking yourself these questions and you will end up finding a project of which you can be proud!