After the recent Telegraph UK article featuring Louise Linton’s new memoir on her “nightmarish” gap year in Zambia (or was it Congo?), I am sharing this guest post by Loretta Cotter, who reviews another cringe-ridden memoir by Tara Winkler.
As Franklyn Odhiambo writes in his HuffPo response, White Noise and Africa’s Saviors (a must-read),
“…changing narratives of dispossession and savagery into those of power and agency is not merely about rebuffing the innocent few who have done little other than propagate the only knowledge they have been fed without question. The real struggle is with the machine that manufactures and feeds this kind of rubbish…”
As Odhiambo describes, here’s to tuning out “the white noise [while] we’re creating new channels.”
When Tara Winkler was a finalist in the 2011 Young Australian of the Year awards, some cried, “What an inspiration!”, “A gutsy, determined hero of our times!” The 19-year-old Aussie girl who volunteered in Cambodia inadvertently became a ‘mother’ to fourteen kids from a corrupt orphanage and was featured on Australian news. Others declared cynically, “What does she know about running an orphanage and looking after 14 kids (and 3 dogs)?”
Well, as Tara Winkler explains in How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did – not much.
If you’re wanting to read an Oprah-crowd-giving-a-standing-ovation book about a saintly woman, this is not it. Although a story of a tenacious young woman, Tara has a knack of getting you to leave the hero-worshipping at the door and strips back her story to face the tough questions. In fact, Tara has far from an easy ride. Her mercilessly honest account concurrently highlights the critical errors being made by volunteers in developing countries, which satirical social media accounts Humanitarians of Tinder and Barbie Saviour have recently brought to the fore.
So who is Tara Winkler? At first glance, Tara could be mistaken for a privileged, horse-riding, piano-playing, Sydney teenager embarking on her rite-of-passage gap year experience. Pretty quickly we realise there’s more to her tale. With Holocaust survivors (perhaps where her initial connection with Cambodia’s struggle to recover from the Khmer Rouge genocide evolved) and die-hard political activists in her family, she was raised partaking in family backpacking adventures abroad.
Tara’s story begins with a tour of South East Asia where she visits an orphanage to donate some goods. Distraught at the abject poverty she witnesses, she commits to fundraise back home in Australia. Well aware of the corruption in Cambodia, she decides to bring the $20,000 she’s raised back in person and ensure it gets to the kids.
Unknowingly, she has become a voluntourist – a term coined by the flourishing trend to volunteer for a charitable cause as part of your travel itinerary that can have a very negative impact for children and families. Well-meaning tourists flit in and out of schools and orphanages for short-term visits, while kids grow attached as their new foreign friends head off on their next adventure.
What she discovers at the orphanage is horrifying sexual, physical and emotional abuse – as well as almost all of the international donors’ money being embezzled by the corrupt orphanage director. This is where her story differs from most. She decides to set up her own orphanage and rescue these traumatised children, instantly becoming responsible for fourteen kids (and more as the book progresses).
One of the shocking facts you’ll learn reading this novel is that 80% of the children in orphanages worldwide, are not in fact orphans.
Even more disturbingly, child traffickers are rapidly filling orphanages with the product in demand by voluntourists – children. Parents can think their kids are going to be better educated and looked after by clever Westerners, so they send them to orphanages; what we’d think of as closer to a boarding school.
Written with co-writer, Lynda Delacey, this book is told in a way that is confronting, commanding, funny, and so honest it feels as if your friend is recounting her latest trip in raw detail. There are many glaring face-palm moments as Tara discovers shocking truths on her journey. Throughout it, she is battling personal demons and tragedies, dealing with vast cultural differences, and bewildering bureaucracy. Her courage and resilience is remarkable considering her age and lack of experience.
The story is complex, and it has a clear message. We need to stop orphanage tourism.
Voluntourists encourage a corrupt industry that takes children away from parents, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and poor life outcomes later on. It’s a challenging topic for the reader (especially this reader, who has been a voluntourist herself). Wanting to help is a natural human emotion, and volunteering to help charities is not something we should discourage per se. However, Hollywood stars, philanthropists and 19-year-old gap year students who start NGOs and talk about it on TV, are perpetuating a dangerous myth that development work is relatively easy, if you’ve got the gusto to just go undercover and rescue yourself some cute little orphans.
So as Tara bravely faces her mistakes in this book and continually focuses on the best outcomes for the kids, the book overall provides a troublesome example of an inexperienced Western do-gooder traipsing in and “saving” vulnerable children. It challenges us to think about the genuine outcome of our volunteering adventures. Are we doing it for the right reasons? Are we more interested in feeling good than actually doing good?
How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did gets to the bottom of the voluntourism debate, in a memoir I could not put down. Surprisingly fast-paced and fascinating, it’s refreshingly self-deprecating and a must-read for anyone who has an interest in development. You can take action here:
- Review the resources on the ReThink Orphanages website and the Better Care Network website.
- Sign the Avaaz petition asking travel companies to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites
- Use the #StopOrphanTrips hashtag on social media.
Loretta Cotter works for Save the Children Australia and is a member of the ReThink Orphanages network. A previous version of this article originally appeared on Medium. How (Not) to Start an Orphanage… by a woman who did is published by Allen & Unwin.
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