Other Customs

There may be other customs to observe during your participation in the workcamps. These customs vary from country to country. For example, in may countries it is considered very rude to show the soles of your feet to anybody. You could cause terrible offence if you used your left hand to pass food or to shake hands with somebody. It can be considered very rude to leave your shoes on when entering a house. Speaking directly to a woman you haven’t been introduced to could cause her great distress and would outrage her family. While, in western society a woman would be very insulted if she is ignored and might interpret what is intended as politeness as rudeness or as degrading treatment of women.

Many of the countries that participate in exchange programmes are former colonies. White Westerners must take care to avoid offending anybody by appearing superior – for example, by starting sentences with, “You people…” Frustration with primitive tools or unexplained delays can result in this reaction, which could be very damaging to budding friendships. Likewise, years of handouts by “benevolent” Westerners have given non-Western countries the impression that all Westerners have an unlimited supply of money, which they will give when asked; after all, they have so much equipment and can fly all over the world. The truth is that although young Westerners may certainly be rich by some standards, the person who volunteers is usually on a very tight budget, so they need their equipment and don’t have money to give away!


In Western countries it is unusual for one person to pay for everything on an evening out. Usually people pay for their share or take turns to pay in a ‘round’ system. They would feel that somebody who eats and drinks but does not pay their share would be behaving in an unacceptable fashion. In non-Western societies the person who suggests going for a drink is seen as issuing the invitation and is expected to pay for everything all night.

In general western volunteers may have more ready cash than their fellow volunteers from poorer countries. It may be inconsiderate to keep flashing money about and to keep bringing drinks or sweets back to the camp, when not all volunteers can afford these extras. It is also important to take this into account when organising weekend or evening activities. Please try and only suggest activities which everyone will be able to afford. This may mean that you will have to put off expensive guided trips, helicopter rides or white-water rafting trips until after the workcamp ).

In Western countries there is a “Pub Culture”. A lot of socialising is accompanied by drinking alcohol, which may or may not take place in a pub. Within many indigenous cultures and various non-Western countries this may not be the case. It may be offensive to insist on consuming alcohol when it is not the local custom. Likewise, some of your fellow volunteers may not be used to spending so much time at the pub, so try and be sensitive to this.

Food and Drink

One of the most interesting aspects of visiting a new continent is experiencing new foods, and should be a pleasant element of the programme. However, there are some issues that volunteers should be sensitive to. In general, foods in western countries are blander than Asian or African foods, and visitors may need to add spices to make them more palatable. Many dishes will also contain pork or beef, which will not be acceptable to everyone. Eating customs also vary widely and you may find themselves eating with their hands or eating from a common dish, in this case make sure to check which hand you should use (usually not your left). In general, although it will be necessary to inform your host if you refrain from certain dishes for moral or religious reasons, being prepared to welcome new experiences will enhance your visit and ensure that you don’t offend your host.


Southern and Western cultures differ greatly in regards to hospitality. Guests from Asia and Africa sometimes feel neglected or even rejected by their Western hosts because they expect them to care for everything the whole time. If a European goes to Asia, everything is taken care of for him or her from their arrival at the airport until the moment of departure. However, in Western culture it is important that everyone is given their individual space. This includes travelling, discovering the world and developing experiences by themselves. While Westerners like to travel and see a country without their hosts, visitors from other countries may find it terrifying to have to travel alone.

Westerners expect to be called in advance if somebody is coming to visit them. “Why didn’t you call?” is what guests from Africa, Asia or Latin American may hear from their hosts in Europe when they appear all of a sudden at their place. In many less industrialised countries where not everybody has a telephone, nobody feels disturbed if a visitor arrives without any announcement. On the contrary, it is regarded favourably if you do so and people will offer all their hospitality to you.

In Western cultures small children are supposed to control their curiosity and not to ask a stranger where he is coming from or going to, and not to touch the guest’s belongings. However, in many cultures a foreigner is always new and strange. Children’s curiosity is boundless and they do not feel compelled to restrict it. Europeans sometimes report from their stay in Africa, Asia or Latin America that there were children all over the place all the time and they had to get used to it.

“In the family and even the village where we were staying, it was the first time that foreigners were hosted. This, at first, influenced our tutor’s behaviour. He was always asking us ‘Where are you going?’ It was sometimes embarrassing. Many children were daily invading our hut, which was turned into a centre for children, thirsty of some northern exoticism. 30 people were sometimes piled up in a.4 square meters. It was a bit suffocating.”
Thomas (Maroc 1999)

“We were welcomed like kings by the villagers. We were invited to take part in the local events and were often given presents. After the workcamp I went back to the village, it was unbelievable…Impossible to walk a 100 meters without being asked in to eat something, to have a soft drink or to be given a coconut…The villagers were constantly offering their devotion, their help, their joy and their presence”.
Louise-Marie (Togo 1999)

“From my point of view; the most difficult thing on the workcamp was to overcome some cultural differences such as the position of women, rules you should respect in the morning, during the meals, welcoming and departing rituals which you need some time to get used to and stop blundering”.
Laurence (Senegal 1996)

The lack of privacy which is so normal in most of the world takes some getting used to by Westerners used to individual space.

Rhythm of Life

In traditional societies time is felt completely differently to those who live in industrialised countries. The traditional society is fundamentally an agrarian one, so the concept of time can be more linked to the revolving rhythm of the seasons – for example, planting and harvesting than to the clock. Another example of a more rhythmical idea of time can be seen in the wheel of time found in Buddhist religions where time is considered as the circle as life.

In Western societies it is generally felt that time is linked with progress; if it is not used it will be lost. A popular saying is “Time is Money”. Western culture and capitalist values can train many people to feel bad when they can’t make use of time. Leisure time for them is not normal; it is often deemed lazy time and only respected as a reward for having finished a hard day of work.

Some volunteers from western cultures may feel unable to tolerate forced leisure time when they are in a workcamp in Africa, Asia or Latin America. They are almost unable to sit down and do nothing, so when there is no work organised, or there are not enough tools for everyone to use, they can’t stand it. Some even prefer to break off and leave the camp in order to travel around. It can be good to be aware that these feelings are not natural but cultural and reveal what types of activities are valued within your culture and which are not.

Often this frustration develops because volunteers may imagine that they have come to a distant country to “help the poor” or “develop” a country. What they may not realise is that one of the biggest challenges of participating in an intercultural exchange is to enter another culture and adjust to the different rhythm of life.

“In all these countries, everything is very slow, in accordance with the local motto ‘Take your time!’ And this is true in all the fields of life (bus timetables, appointments).”
Benedicte (Nicaragua 1999)

“We had been warned that we shouldn’t expect too much work and to be ready to face campleaders who took their role very seriously.”
Raphail (Togo 1999)

“The rhythm is very different. Everything is slow. Once I had to wait for more than one hour to exchange money at the bank… just one example among others. Even on the workcamp you should be armed with patience!”
Louise-Marie (Togo 1999)

“There was some tension because all the Western volunteers wanted to go on working while the Ghanaian volunteers wanted to stop because of the heat… mainly because they have a much slower rhythm of life than ours.”
Maud (Ghana 1996)

Local Beliefs and Religious Practices

From the very beginning of civilisation, religion has played a crucial part in human life and society. Unfortunately religion also has been and still is one of the greatest sources of conflict in the world. One of the most fascinating elements of taking part in a workcamp is the opportunity to live and work with people of very different faiths. The fact that the international workcamps are inter-denominational is surely one of the most positive aspects of the whole concept. For many volunteers it may be their first experience of living and working so closely with people of different faiths and getting to know them properly as people. The opportunities to promote understanding are wonderful.

“I had never before heard the wonderful stories of Ganesh and Shiva and the many Hindu gods. Seeing how they are such an integral part of Indian life, how my work mates accepted their existence unquestioningly was a revelation.”
Anne (India 1999)

“Joe was one of seventeen children. His father had three wives and he considered them all his mothers. Somehow in Ghana this seemed quite natural. The Muslim way of life no longer seemed so alien and vaguely threatening to my Catholic conditioning.”
Avril (Ghana 1998)

“The church service was so strange and quiet, not at all like a service in my country, .with drumming and dancing “
Ernest (Ireland 1998)

Some religious practices may be difficult to accept. Some religions may see women as having different roles, while the sacrifice of animals may seem barbaric to Christians who sacrifice symbolically. The important thing is to avoid insulting one’s hosts by criticising their religious practices. In most countries religion plays a very important part in the lives of the people, and so much can be learned by observing and respecting the beliefs of one’s hosts.

Learning about the dominant religions of one’s host country prior to travelling could be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of preparation for the visit. Indeed, showing that you have researched a little about their faith will please your hosts. You can then test your preconceptions as you learn more during your visits

Environment and sustainability

This document summarises a collaborative seminar for volunteer workcamp organisations held in Akranes, Iceland, in 2005. The seminar addressed a lack of knowledge and skills within the volunteer sector to operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner.

We all live on the same planet and we all have a responsibility towards it and the living beings that depend upon it. Humans are an integral part of the global ecological system and our actions impact upon it from the local level (e.g. rubbish thrown on the ground) to the global level (e.g. climate change caused by carbon dioxide released by humans). Workcamps are no exception to this and it is therefore important to think about their potential environmental impacts.

In this section we will look at water and land useenvironmental sustainability and ethical banking and investment.

References and further research:

European Union, see environment sections.
United Nations Environment Program
International Energy Agency
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Centre For Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology
European Federation for Transport and Environment
UK National Society for Clean Air
Fair trade labelling info
World Water Council
Emissions Calculator