The Moral Dilemma of Volunteer Tourism

I spent time in a Kenyan orphanage hoping to make a difference. But was I really helping?
Children play on the grounds of the Calvary Zion Children’s Home near Mombasa in Kenya. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

I smile at a round-cheeked, 2-year-old girl, sitting in the lap of Kim Martin, a mzungu — white person — like me. We are at the Calvary Zion Children’s Home in Kenya; the girl is one of 41 children, from infants to university students, who live here. Her Zion brothers and sisters share many bonds, but one life experience is central: tragedy. Several years ago, one newborn was found in a trash dump, his umbilical cord still attached. Another was abandoned at Nakumatt, the Kenyan equivalent of Walmart. Others lost their parents and had no family members who could accept the hardship of raising another child.

Days after this girl was born, she was abandoned by her mother on a beach. Two local women saw the newborn in the sand, lying amid limp, washed-up seaweed. Luckily, they found her before high tide. The government children’s department brought her here, to Calvary Zion, in Bamburi, outside Mombasa.

The girl’s braided hair is tied in a ponytail; her dress is a bright and buoyant pink. We sit in the shade as friends of the home set up tents and prepare for today’s party to celebrate Calvary Zion’s 20th anniversary. Some of the older girls are laughing and fixing their hair. The older boys seem to be wondering about lunch. Kim’s husband, Howard — they run a bed-and-breakfast in England — entertains a 12-year-old boy by showing videos on his phone of Howard’s beloved Everton soccer team. The boy smiles and nods at Howard’s play-by-play. When he was 5, the boy was abandoned in a telephone booth by his mother.

The three of us, along with two other foreign supporters — Susan Peattie, a Scot who created a nonprofit to support the home, and a fellow Scottish supporter, Liz Brown — have been placed in the shade, partly because of the heat. December in Kenya is like July in Washington, D.C., hot and humid, only without the ubiquitous air conditioning.

Soon, we’re greeted by the home’s founder, Jane Karigo, who smiles and embraces me. “Ahhhhhh,” she says, laughing. “Long ago. Long ago.”

I last saw her in 2009, when I volunteered at Calvary Zion for two weeks with my wife. I’m not a religious person, but the born-again Jane, now in her 60s, exudes a joy that I rarely associate with the devout. With her short, thick build and boisterous laugh — a laugh that makes me laugh — she reminds me of the Buddha, though as a Christian she would be dismayed by the comparison.

Ten years ago, I volunteered at Calvary Zion because I wanted to do good in the world. But volunteering at an orphanage is now seen as an international sin.

“You need to look more Kenyan,” she says, and hands us each a gift: a traditional African dashiki shirt. We soon look like an Earth, Wind & Fire tribute band, and by making us more African, we of course look more white. Yet somehow that seems appropriate. I’m not sure I should be here — and I was reluctant to come back. Ten years ago, I volunteered at Calvary Zion because I wanted to do a tiny bit of good in the world, and we’ve continued to make a modest annual donation to the home. But volunteering at an orphanage is now often seen as an international sin.

For years, volunteer vacations, as they were then known, attracted little scrutiny. People would use their vacation time to serve others, both at home and abroad, and see a foreign place in a different way. Now better known as voluntourism, global volunteering is frequently criticized as privileged, unqualified First Worlders — many with a “white-savior complex” — traipsing around developing countries, posing for selfies and doing more harm than good.

Volunteering at orphanages, or “orphanage tourism,” to use its occasional, unfortunate name, has received particularly intense condemnation. The criticism began roughly 10 years ago, following reports that orphanages in Cambodia were holding “orphans” — many of whom had at least one parent — to attract donors and volunteers. Today, some organizations no longer place volunteers in orphanages. Author J.K. Rowling is an outspoken critic, telling a BBC radio program in 2018 that volunteers “are driving a system that we know from 80 sound years of research irreparably harms children.” Children are frequently abused and neglected, according to Georgette Mulheir, CEO of Lumos, a nongovernmental organization founded by Rowling to end the institutionalization of children. But they are told “to smile and sing and tell the volunteers they love them, otherwise they’ll be beaten or locked up or they won’t get food,” Mulheir said in an interview with the Telegraph newspaper. A story from an Australian news site called orphanage tourism “slavery hidden in plain sight.”

My experience at Calvary Zion has been profoundly different from those descriptions. And yet the more I read the negative stories, the more I wondered: By supporting Calvary Zion, was I propping up a damaging system? By trying to help these kids, was I hurting them? Jane says that God told her to create the home. What if God was wrong?

Calvary Zion is home to 41 children. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)
Calvary Zion’s founder, Jane Karigo, in the main house at the orphanage. Some organizations no longer place volunteers in orphanages after criticism from groups that say they harm children. But, the author says, Jane works to give children a loving, stable environment at Calvary Zion. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Calvary Zion is home to 41 children. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Calvary Zion’s founder, Jane Karigo, in the main house at the orphanage. Some organizations no longer place volunteers in orphanages after criticism from groups that say they harm children. But, the author says, Jane works to give children a loving, stable environment at Calvary Zion. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

From the outside, Calvary Zion looks like a fortress. Razor wire stretches across an imposing 10-by-15-foot metal entry gate. Concrete walls, roughly eight feet high, lined with electric wire, surround nearly five acres, with thick trees looming above. If not for the words on the gate — “CALVARY ZION CHILDREN’S HOME — A HOME OF SIGNS AND WONDERS” — it could be mistaken for a government compound or a drug lord’s estate.

Susan Peattie’s nonprofit raised money for the electric fencing and other security after the home was attacked by thieves in 2014. Six men armed with machetes and guns stole cellphones and roughly 100,000 Kenyan shillings — about $1,000 — from Jane’s house. Jane told the thieves she would pray for them. A thug smacked her in the face. The children hid under their beds, though one girl was chased outside and hid in the dark behind banana trees.

It’s hard for me to imagine the fear of that night because Calvary Zion feels like a sanctuary from the often-dangerous world outside. As we bumped over pocked rural roads in a tuk-tuk (a small three-wheeled taxi) to visit the home, we passed the wood remnants of squatters’ shacks, destroyed by police. Trash dumps frequently form on street corners, fields and roadsides; skinny cows nose through flies and debris. But Calvary Zion is bucolic. Jane and the kids grow their own crops: bananas, tomatoes, mangoes, spinach and corn (the electric fence prevents monkeys from stealing food). A well provides water. Cows munch lazily on hay; newborn piglets suckle their mothers’ teats. Three of the home’s goats gave their lives for the 20th anniversary feast.

Jane and the kids moved here several months before the attack. A German couple, Tanja Fischer and Rainer Frank, raised money for the land and two houses; Tom Greaves, a former volunteer from England, raised money to finish construction of one of the houses by swimming the English Channel in 2017.

Two of the 41 children at the home. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

When I volunteered with Calvary Zion in 2009, it was a far different scene. Back then, 40-plus kids lived in a cramped three-bedroom house, sometimes sleeping two and three to a bed. The small enclosed “yard” was concrete; the house had no running water, and each day someone would drive roughly 20 miles to fill barrels with water for bathing, cooking, washing dishes, filling toilets and scrubbing clothes.

I had arrived in Kenya after volunteering in five countries, wanting to live a life that matters. My dad, the best man I’ve ever known, had died after a sudden heart attack. I had turned 40, and my wife and I didn’t have kids. I was struggling not only with the loss of my father, but with accepting I would never be a father myself. When an opportunity arose through my job to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I jumped on it. That led to volunteer excursions at an elementary school in Costa Rica, a special-needs school in China and a scientific project in Ecuador, as well as a variety of work in the West Bank.

Midlife crisis? I suppose. I’m not crazy about the term. It was a search for meaning, and travel is a way to do that. It pulls you from your comfort zone. And I had begun toying with an idea: If I can’t have children of my own, maybe, in some microscopic way, I can help someone else’s child. “Success,” my father once told me, “comes from helping others succeed.”

My search for purpose may seem like a First World quest, but Jane experienced something similar. When she married her husband, John, in 1977, he didn’t want her to work. “I felt so bad because I was used to working,” says Jane, who had been a dressmaker and then a receptionist for Air India. “My parents were not happy because they had educated me. I had gone to college. Working was very good for me. And now I am somebody’s wife. And from that day, I stay as a housewife.”

In 1983, Jane was born again. She soon became involved with Aglow International, an organization of Christian women. She was named chair of the Mombasa chapter in 1991 and began traveling to other towns. “I see children suffering,” she says. “I see children crying. Sometimes it is in the slums or the streets. I say, ‘Whose children are these?’ They are orphans. God started preaching to me about these children. And I organize for a group to visit the children in the slums. We used to go, 15 women, we give them food, we take clothes, we talk to them about Jesus, and the love of God. But when I come home, I don’t have any peace. I was crying. And my husband is worried. ‘You are going to get yourself sick. What can you do? You cannot care for all of those children.’ ”

When you sleep, Jane tells me, God can talk to you. And one night she heard the voice of God. And God said to her: You have been crying for the children. What are you doing about them?

Jane sat up from her bed.

These are the children, God said.

“Which children?” Jane asked.

She looked around. She didn’t know where she was, but it’s like she was watching a screen. “I see children,” she tells me now. “Crying. Very hungry. Very abused.”

And she said to God, “What do you want me to do?”

I want you to take them in for me.

“And I said, ‘Me, God? Me?’ It is like a film, I’m seeing the film. And I say, ‘God, what’s all this about?’ ”

Take them in for me, God said.

Her husband was angry when she shared God’s vision. They had four children of their own. “He said, ‘How would you feed them? What are they going to eat?’ And I said, I don’t know. But I am going to do it. And he said, ‘I don’t understand.’ He was afraid.”

She told her skeptical friends at Aglow International that she was starting a children’s home, and to understand how the homes work, she decided, yes, to volunteer. Six women joined her. And when her training was done, God told her to find a house. Through small donations raised by Jane and her friends, they somehow covered the 18,000-shilling deposit and the 9,000-shillings-a-month rent. Next they began collecting supplies from beds to kitchen utensils.

In 1999, after the home was approved by the government children’s department, the agency contacted her: A 5-year-old girl had been abandoned. They asked Jane to take her. “Her name is Asia,” says Jane. “I say, no. I need the grace of God. So from today your name is Grace.” She soon received two other children, and two more arrived three months later. “Everybody, my family, my friends, they are praying for me,” says Jane. “It is like they are thinking, ‘This is madness.’ ”

A boy waters the garden at Calvary Zion. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

In November 2018, two charities, Forget Me Not of Australia and U.K.-based Lumos, led a call to eliminate orphanages. Of the approximately 8 million children living in orphanages worldwide, 80 percent are not orphans, the two organizations reported, but rather victims of child trafficking, frequently to support voluntourism. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) says as many as 90 percent of children in orphanages have at least one parent.

“The internet has made it very easy for unscrupulous orphanages to attract volunteers and donors, and for volunteers to continue raising funds through blog posts and Facebook pages — often with the ubiquitous orphan in a selfie,” wrote Tina Rosenberg, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports reporting on social problems, in a two-part October 2018 opinion piece for the New York Times.

CRS has launched a campaign titled Changing the Way We Care, with the goal of “keeping children in families instead of orphanages.” CRS and other organizations maintain that care in orphanages can lead to mood and attachment disorders; stunted social, emotional and cognitive development; and increased risk of abuse and neglect. According to Forget Me Not and Lumos, young adults raised in institutions are 10 times as likely to fall into sex work as their peers, and 500 times as likely to take their own lives.

Organizations such as Projects Abroad have stopped sending short-term volunteers to children’s homes. In March 2018, the Australian government launched a campaign to discourage its citizens from engaging in short-term, unskilled volunteering in orphanages.

And children’s homes such as Calvary Zion may be vanishing in countries like Kenya. In 2018, Disability Rights International released a report based on visits to 21 Kenyan orphanages, which “documented severe neglect, physical and sexual abuse and torture.” The Kenyan government has also reviewed children’s homes, and in 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta banned the registration of new orphanages. Roughly a month and a half before my recent visit to Kenya, the Nairobi-based Daily Nation focused on changing attitudes. Children may receive food, shelter and clothing, said Ukur Yattani, the nation’s labor and social protection secretary, but “there is the other bigger challenge of socio-psychological support that is required, which can only be found within the family or the society.” It is unlikely, he added, that the government will ever register new orphanages.

When my wife and I volunteered in 2009, I was already worried that our short visit would contribute to a cycle of abandonment for the children. Our local contact reassured us, though, that the kids were used to volunteers, and that Jane and the home’s three house mothers were a stable presence in their lives. She thought the presence of volunteers was useful because the children received individual attention. And when we were there, we rarely saw the kids. They were at school. It was usually just us, the three house mothers and the infants.

When my wife and I first volunteered, Jane told me that this is how God provides: The volunteers are guided here by God.

We did whatever work the mothers requested, from washing dishes to slicing vegetables. We also did jobs they didn’t have time for. I washed all of the windows, and we sorted and organized mounds of clothing donations. In the afternoons, we would walk some of the younger kids home from school. Once all of the little ones were there, the quiet house was suddenly like “Lord of the Flies” — kids were running, yelling, laughing, fighting. We would help some with homework and play with others. But we were also a welcome novelty for the mothers. The three women worked hard jobs, and we were a break in their exhausting routines. They would ask us about America, we would ask them about Kenya.

When I ask Jane and John — who, despite his initial reluctance, has supported Jane and the home since he retired in 2000 — if they’ve seen fraudulent children’s homes in Kenya, they tell us about a home that had financial sponsors but diverted much of the money, as well as supplies. “The home was closed five times,” Jane says. “And each time they start again.” (Six of the children were sent to Calvary Zion.) When the home’s leader knew that sponsors were coming, according to Jane and John, he would gather local children to pretend that they lived there. “When you come you see so many children,” says John.

Calvary Zion, of course, is not immune to difficulties. But Jane has worked to build a loving, stable environment. She has created small family units for the kids, a mix of ages and genders, so they have older and younger siblings (each group also has a house mother). When she started the home, she created an advisory board that includes a physician, a teacher, a pastor and a social worker. They offer support and host fundraisers. At the 20th anniversary party, the number of local supporters is large.

For much of that afternoon, the party resembles a revival, as one by one pastors grip a microphone and shout their lessons for life.

“The second half of your life is about your legacy!” one pastor shouts.

“Amen,” attendees reply from the shade of tents.

“True prosperity is not money in a bank account!”


“When your life is over, what will people say about you?”


“Strength is not what you can lift, but how long you can lift it!”


Jane sits, nodding her head, smiling, offering a quiet “Amen” as a baby lies asleep in her arms.

Jane says a prayer in her car after picking up some children from school. “Jane is caring as a mom, and she is strict,” says Grace, who was the first child to live at Calvary Zion. “She doesn’t like ‘cheeky cheeky.’ She doesn’t like someone to lie to her. But she is forgiving.” (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

Grace, Calvary Zion’s first child, is breast-feeding her baby girl in her apartment. The place is small but stylish, with furniture — shelves, sofa, chairs, rugs — all in matching black and white. Her flat-screen TV shows “Silver Linings Playbook,” making Bradley Cooper the first American I’ve seen since I arrived.

Grace, now 26, has been interested in fashion since she was a little girl, and as a teenager, she sold magazines and beauty products to pay for college. On our walk to her building, Susan and Liz and I stopped at her small, open-front clothing store in town, La Grace House of Fashion.

When the baby falls asleep, Grace makes us masala tea. A ceiling fan hovers above, but it’s not turned on, and I’m wiping my forehead with a small towel, trying to pretend that I’m not sweating through my shirt. Grace seems comfortable despite wearing a long floral dress and a colorful head wrap.

I ask about her experiences growing up in an orphanage. When critics slam global volunteers, they rarely ask locals what they think. They accuse volunteers of being paternalistic neocolonialists, but isn’t assuming that you know what’s best for others also, well, colonialistic?

Grace says she learned how to raise a child from her time at Calvary Zion, since the older kids help care for the younger ones.

“What was Jane like as a mom?” I ask. “Was she tough?”

“She’s not tough,” she says, smiling.

“Really? I wouldn’t want to mess with her.”

“Jane is a God-fearing woman, and so she likes you to be a God-fearing person,” says Grace. “She doesn’t like children who are disobedient. She wants you to be respectful. She wants to bring up children with the right morals.”

Susan tells a story of how some of the older boys were watching TV and told one of the house mothers to make them tea. Jane walked in the room, unplugged the TV, carried it out and told them, “Make your own tea.”

“Jane is caring as a mom, and she is strict,” says Grace. “She doesn’t like ‘cheeky cheeky.’ She doesn’t like someone to lie to her. But she is forgiving.”

Grace, 26, with her baby daughter at her clothing store, La Grace House of Fashion. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

I ask what was good about living there. Grace says she’s close with the boys and girls at the home. “We help each other,” she says. And she was thankful when they moved to the more-spacious home. “Because the children have a big field, they can play,” she says. “At the old house the children are really squeezed.”

I ask her what was difficult. She thinks for a moment.

“You know, Mama Jane cannot love everyone. We are so many.”

“So it’s hard to get individual attention.”


Her comment makes me think about one of the boys who lives with Jane. At the party, I didn’t recognize most of the kids from when I volunteered. They were 10 years older. But I instantly recognized this boy. He was 2 the last time I saw him. His mother, Jane says, had discarded him behind a bush and was jailed for abandoning the child. When he arrived, one of the house mothers said, he didn’t know how to eat: He would lie there with his mouth open.

Back in 2009, he would frequently approach me in his wobbly, baby-walk way, wanting to be held. And I would think, How can you say no to this child? So I would walk with him in the concrete yard, and he would point at things and say his one word, Ahh-dahh.

At the anniversary party, I didn’t speak to him. If I were him, I’d find it strange if some white guy from another country suddenly approached like a long-lost friend. But I watched him. He joined a group to sing “The Lord Is on My Side,” and he was the first back to his seat when the song was over. Mainly he squirmed in his chair, sweating in the sun, looking bored and shy in a preteen way. But he laughed during a dance competition and wolfed down goat and potatoes and watermelon with the other boys. Susan said she watched him playing soccer and thought he had emerged from his shell. He does okay in school, she said. Not at the top, not at the bottom. But when you’ve had such a terrible start to life, average might be heartening.

For children like him, Jane offers love, not judgment. One young man is albino, and in many African countries, including Kenya, albinos are hunted and killed. People believe they have supernatural powers and that their body parts bring wealth, power and good health. Jane never questioned the risks of accepting him. He’s a teenager now but cannot leave the home by himself — it’s too dangerous. To Jane, he is a child of God and a child of Calvary Zion. And to the children, he is simply their brother.

Goat skin hangs on the wall to dry between the clotheslines. It will later be stretched to make drums for the children. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)
Charity 10, looks out of the window, while playing a game with the other children. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Goat skin hangs on the wall to dry between the clotheslines. It will later be stretched to make drums for the children. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Charity 10, looks out of the window, while playing a game with the other children. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

Inside Jane’s house, the children are singing for Belgians. The foreigners have brought soccer jerseys from their hometown and food supplies, including boxes and bags of rice, sugar, flour and powdered milk. The children sing a church hymn for their guests.

The donations are a lovely gesture — people throughout their village raised money for the supplies. And yet the scene makes me uncomfortable. It is an orphanage cliche: the African children performing for their white benefactors. A mustachioed gentleman requests a photo of the kids in their light blue jerseys. They stand in rows on the front steps as if posing for a class picture.

The man studies the image on the back of his camera and then introduces himself. A blond woman, who appears to be his wife, holds a baby. We chat, and I ask about their time in Kenya. He tells me they were on safari, and I think: He’s taking pictures of orphans the same way he snapped pictures of giraffes. But I’m sure I did the same when I first volunteered. They want to help, he says, but he is realistic. “You can give a little bit, but you can’t change Kenya,” he says. “Kenya is Kenya.”

Susan and I discuss the Belgians one night as we drink Tusker, the local beer, at our hotel. Susan, too, is a white benefactor, and she arguably saved the home. Susan works internationally as a teacher, from Guatemala to Japan, and while in Kenya, some friends had given her money to donate to a good cause. She happened upon Calvary Zion. Susan calls it serendipity, Jane calls it God’s will. But when Susan arrived, the home was struggling. She created the Calvary Zion Children’s Home Support Trust, which raises money and finds sponsors for the kids.

“The bottom line is we need money and food,” Susan says. She has mentioned to Jane that the performances are probably uncomfortable for the older kids. “But Jane,” she says, “may see it as a necessary evil, because we’ve kind of got to give people what they want.” And the gifts are meaningful. The donations of rice and flour will last for weeks.

When Susan and Liz and I visited Grace — a strong-minded, independent woman and not someone, I suspect, who feels the need to flatter the Scottish aunts she’s known since childhood — I asked what she liked best about living at Calvary Zion. Her answer surprised us. “I was happy when visitors come,” she said. “Because when visitors come you feel loved. You know you’re not alone. There are people caring outside.”

There is both love and pain at Calvary Zion, and the two are intertwined, like the razor wire twisting upon the home’s front gate.

A day or so before I leave Kenya, a dead body washes on shore near my hotel. The bleached, bloated corpse floats on the ocean waves like a raft, arms outstretched, until slowly reaching sand. The popular theory is that the man was a sailor who fell overboard, but the body is a reminder: For many people, life is hard here. Skinny men walk the beach selling trinkets. The area is well-known for its “beach boys” and women looking for hookups. We see several old European men with young Kenyan women, and vice versa. Some, presumably, are prostitutes. Others get what they can. Free meals, free drinks, a night out.

Jane is determined to save the children from this type of life. When I was here before, I saw children living on the streets in Mombasa and thought that whatever the disadvantages of life at Calvary Zion, the children are sheltered; they are fed, protected and loved. They go to school and church. They have strong adult role models. They are expected not only to be good citizens, but to be successful. One recent high school graduate is studying to be an auto mechanic. Another is studying electrical engineering. Their older brother started medical school in April. Others, like Grace, have gone to college and started businesses.

The children are sponsored by Kenyans and by Westerners, some of whom are here for the 20th anniversary. When my wife and I first volunteered, Jane told me that this is how God provides: The volunteers are guided here by God. “You are a vessel,” she said.

Over the past several years, I have wrestled with that idea. By serving as a tiny but steady vessel for Calvary Zion, by attempting to forge some good from my childless life, am I supporting the children? Or am I supporting an outdated Dickensian system? No child should live in an orphanage. I know that. And yet after returning here, I know that I will be back, and that I will continue to support Jane and Calvary Zion. The way I see it, I’m helping a friend and her kids who deserve whatever support they receive. I believe in Jane’s work. And I believe in her exceedingly large family. Jane, I’ve come to realize, doesn’t think she’s running an orphanage. “This is a home,” she tells me. “When they are married, they come home to see Mama Jane and Papa John. Because God has given us these children.”

Unlike Jane, I doubt that God exists, but she makes me think that maybe there’s ... something. Something unexplainable. Something unseen that’s loving and bright. Too often, the supposedly religious shout their showy faith yet ignore the suffering of others. Jane will talk endlessly of God’s love and grace, but it is more than words.

There is both love and pain at Calvary Zion, and the two are intertwined, like the razor wire twisting upon the home’s front gate. And there are other things here too: hope and pride and strength. Jane has instilled these qualities in her children. I understand the evidence against orphanages, but seeing her work up close — and seeing the lives she’s changed — makes it impossible to turn away.

The afternoon of the event, we listen as some of the teenage girls recite a poem:

Mother, father.

Where are you today?

If only you could see me.

I am beautiful.

A child on a swing at Calvary Zion. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly used “wazungo” to mean a white person in Swahili. The correct term is “mzungu,” and the plural is “wazungu.”

Ken Budd is the author of “The Voluntourist” and the host of an upcoming digital series called “650,000 Hours.”

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us