Throughout your volunteer experience, you have the chance to determine to what degree you will integrate yourself into the local culture and to what degree the local culture will become a part of you. Though many volunteers live in luxury relative to local people, some live in luxury even compared to their lives at home. You may have choices regarding not only where you live, but also whether you live with local people or with other foreigners, with domestic help or not, with or without air conditioning. You may have choices about what kind of food you eat – imported food from supermarkets or local staples purchased from street sellers? Your transport choices might range from private cars to public buses. You can spend your leisure time by the pool in a fancy hotel or learning to cook local dishes with a local friend. Always taking the easier or more familiar choice in all these options is what we call “hiding in your comfort zone.”
Rather than taking the stance that living a comfortable lifestyle and hanging out in tourist havens is “bad” and living in a rural community without running water is “good”, we recommend you become aware of your own goals and make sure you consciously seek out places and experiences that help you grow. By definition, sticking to things in your comfort zone means you are not stretching yourself very far. Just outside of your comfort zone, and before you reach your “panic zone” (which is too far and where nobody wants to hang out) is what we can call the “learning zone,” “growth zone” or “stretch zone”. The idea is that if you don’t challenge yourself and put yourself in areas where you feel uncomfortable, you won’t learn and grow.
Cultural integration often depends on you minimizing the amount of time spent in those “comfort zone” areas and instead getting out and meeting local people, learning a new language, trying new foods, and experiencing new things. You’ll be surprised that things which felt way out of your comfort zone at first, like bargaining for vegetables, using a squat toilet, or figuring out how to ride a matatu, will soon become second nature as you challenge yourself to try these things again and again.
Frequenting tourist enclaves and familiar chain stores can also reinforce stereotypes of foreigners. Do you really want to send a message of glorified consumerism to your hosts? What can you learn by cutting your western safety net for a bit and instead becoming more involved in other social realities? Ask yourself what things you can do to become more integrated into local culture. Is there a local craft or tradition you can learn more about? Have you tried cooking for your colleagues or offering to help with the daily chores of your host family?
Your warmest memories of your experience may be the wedding you were invited to, a grandmother you met at the market, or celebrating a local festival. Making efforts to participate in local cultural activities can go a long way towards helping you become integrated into the community but it can also help you become more effective in your volunteer role. If you understand the local culture and context, you can make more informed decisions about how you approach your tasks, and additionally help you grow respect and understanding for a new place and culture.