This is sort of companion post to Monday’s post about how my BF and I have been delaying our travel plans for a few years now. I’ve been meaning to write about my trip to The Gambia and my experience volunteering overseas since I started this blog in December, and now I feel like it’s the right time to do it. 

When I was 18 and had just finished my first year of university, I was part of this Christian college & career group (sort of like a bible study).

As I’ve mentioned a few times already, I was raised Catholic, but my older sister had a bunch of friends in this Protestant group and one day she asked me if I wanted to come with her. I was curious and thought it might be a good way to meet some new friends so I joined her.

About six months after entering the group, an opportunity arose in which a few people were going to join some other people from Saskatoon and go volunteer in The Gambia (the smallest country in Africa by the way).

I’m not quite sure what made me do it, maybe I wanted a bit of adventure in my life, maybe I thought this would be a great way to help those people I always saw in those World Vision commercials, but I signed up with another person from the group and off we went.

Now, this trip was an experience I’ll never forget for a number of reasons. Most notably, I was the only Catholic on the trip (everyone else was Mennonite or another Protestant denomination).

To say that I put myself in a very unique situation would be a huge understatement. For those of you not familiar with the complexities of Christianity, Catholics and Protestants do not see eye to eye on a number of fundamentals.

That being said, although I was a bit worried about being the black sheep in the group, everyone was incredibly kind and respectful, and it was a truly great experience to be able to discuss spirituality in-depth for two straight months. But that’s not what this post is about. This is a personal finance blog after all.

In order to pay for our flights, housing, food, and all other trip costs, the guy from my career group and I had to fundraise a substantial amount of money. Remember, at the time I was still a student and had barely enough money to pay tuition, so getting donations was absolutely vital for me.

I think in total I paid $2,000 out of my own pocket and was able to fundraise the remaining $3,000 to cover my expenses. After arriving in The Gambia, it struck me as really odd that there were so many people who lived there with hardly anything, yet I had just spent $5,000 to get there. I wonder if that $5,000 could have been put to better use. That was the first thing about my experience that made me feel a bit unsettled about the whole thing.

The second thing that kind of rubbed me the wrong way was the whole idea that we were going to a foreign country with no real skills and imposing ourselves on these hospitable villages just so we could “spread the word of God”.

I don’t know what I thought I’d be doing on the trip, but all I really wanted to do was help. I brought my video camera with me and thought maybe I could make a film about what’s going on there so when I got back I could get more people involved. But when we got there, all we really did was travel around, put on concerts (most of the people on the trip were musicians), and tell everyone about Christianity and how they all need to be Christian.

Also, did I forget to mention that 90% of the country was Muslim? And it wasn’t that they were forced to be Muslim either. This country was open to all religions. So instead of feeding the hungry or putting in water pumps, we sang songs and essentially told people why what they believed in was wrong.

What I did feel really good about doing was volunteering several days a week at this orphanage. It wasn’t much, but I knew me helping round-up all the kids for meal time definitely helped out the workers there and maybe gave them a bit of a break.

Even still, I felt guilty about doing it because I felt like I was getting more out of it then they were. It was so frustrating spending all this donated money, flying to a foreign country, and realizing that I’m less helpful than I’d like and more of a nuisance than I thought. I mean, I’m the one who is going to leave with some photos, a few stories, and a great experience, but they are going to be in the same situation as before I got there. What good was my presence there after all?

I’m not trying to discourage or bash any type of mission or volunteer trip, because I really did have a great experience and don’t regret going on it at all.

One of the things that I’m so passionate about when it comes to personal finance is being able to give back. But I definitely think before giving any amount of money or time away, or paying money towards going on a trip like this, you need to really look into how this will benefit others. It’s like that episode of Friends where Phoebe tries to prove there’s no unselfish way to give back because you’ll always get something out of it (even if it’s just feeling good afterwards).

I had mixed emotions when I came back home, not to mention major culture shock. Nonetheless, the one thing I did come back with that I am still so grateful for was a whole new perspective on life. Money makes the world go round, but it should never be the most important thing. Life should be spent spreading love, respecting others, and helping out as best you can.

I may not have helped build a village or install a water pump, but I hope my presence in The Gambia at least helped spread a bit more love into the world.

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