I traveled to Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5 years ago to be a volunteer in a hospital that has a special program caring for victims/survivors of sexual assault. I was to be there 4 months but because of administrative complications, I stayed in Nairobi (Kenya) for 2 months before going to Bukavu and staying there for the remaining 2 months. I did volunteer at the hospital. I saw the women and their children, interacted with the staff, visited the region a bit, went to UN parties... and I would never do that again!
There is a huge need there of course. Children are malnourished, civil war (and war with neighboring countries) is ongoing, sexual assault is used more than ever by civilians and armed forces alike. But... the Congolese don't need short-term volunteers. They need long-term, committed and compassionate people -that excludes most UN peace keepers, believe me. I feel guilty every time I think of my trip there. I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know the language, I didn't know how to interact with the population. I was clueless and fortunately didn't end up doing harm (but maybe I did?) but as sure as heck didn't do any good either.
Unless one has a history in the region -maybe was born there, knows people there, knows the language, culture, and context- one shouldn't plan on volunteering in this type of environments (or in any type of humanitarian / development setting) unless that commitment is for the long term. Mine was not. Mine was born of a desire to "go to the field," to strengthen my resume, to be in a place where I was in the middle of the action. Boy was I wrong -both in my assumptions and in my going there in the first place. I seriously feel a tremendous amount of guilt every time I think of this trip. I cringe when I talk about my time there. Sure, I learnt a great deal about the culture and the context -but at whose expense? I think Congolese people are fed up with white people trying to help, coming and going as their careers bring them to the DRC and take them away before any change happens. They're even fed up with peace keepers prying on their daughters (peace for sex? Please!), with NGO workers whose simple presence increases the price of every day goods, including rent and groceries, and with the situation not ever changing for the best. I would be fed up and even angry if I were from there. And I contributed to the problem with my short stint there.
I know better now. I will discourage anyone from going to this type of environment for a very short time -maybe go with Habitat in a peaceful context, but make sure your actions will not cause harm. I will not go anywhere on my own again -I could be seconded with my work but I know I'll be surrounded by professionals and I'll have a clear mandate. And I will donate to the hospital instead of thinking that my presence and skills (especially 5 years ago!) will make a difference.