Module 3: Coping With Culture Shock and Emotions

Traveling to a developing country is unlike traveling to other countries in the developed world – volunteers must be prepared for an emotional roller coaster. In an effort to examine the impact of international volunteer work on the volunteers themselves, globalization and international development consultant Arif Jinha conducted an in-depth analysis of personal accounts of volunteer experiences. Although each experience abroad is personal and unique, many past volunteers gave similar accounts of the impact of witnessing poverty first-hand, and the emotions that stemmed from recognizing the extent of health disparities and disease burden in the developing world.(1) The following is a preview of some distressing emotions you may feel, as well as ways to cope.

Overwhelming Sadness

It is often shocking when someone experiences poverty for the first time. In his thesis, Arif Jinha cites personal accounts of poverty discussed by Canadian volunteers in their online blogs:

“It’s beautiful here, there are many mountains/hills and it is green everywhere but it doesn’t take long to see the poverty.”–Karen's blog on Kenya (2)

“I was also bombarded with images of poverty…which, being my first time in a developing country… hit me pretty hard. It’s not really something you can prepare yourself for… seeing it first hand is completely different from reading about it.”Angela's blog on Kenya(3)

Seeing the conditions people live in will likely elicit feelings of sadness or helplessness. Furthermore, observing extreme poverty “inevitably leads to comparisons and new insight into one’s own state of comparative privilege in the world,”(4) which can give way to feelings of intense guilt.  These emotions are normal.  One of the best ways to cope with the sadness of poverty is to look for happiness in these communities.

“Obviously compared to us they don’t have the same richness in regards to material possessions, but I found so much of the opposite. There was so much more richness in terms of family, mothers taking care of all their children and fathers coming home and playing with their children. There was a lot of time after school for children to play, and another thing that I noticed was that children hold hands and touch each other and play… I work in elementary schools and you don’t see that as much as that was great to see, and they were full of life and full of laughter – and in that sense I thought that this community is so rich.”–Candice's blog on Tanzania(5)

It also helps to remember that poverty exists regardless of whether you pay attention to it. By volunteering, you have made the decision to do something about it. While abroad, you can have a real impact on the lives of those living in poverty, but only if you are not paralyzed by your emotions.

The “Mzungu” Factor

Being an outsider is never easy, but there are additional challenges associated with being a Western traveler in the developing world. Regardless of your status in your home country, you will be seen as wealthy; indeed, in this society you are. People may ask you for favors, money, and more, all because they see you not only as the solution to their health ailments, but as the solution to their poverty. This added pressure of being a Western visitor has been termed the “mzungu factor.”(6). Mzungu is the Swahili word for a white person, but is applicable to all Western foreigners.

In the clinic, patients will likely assume you have clout with the medical providers. You may be approached by patients with very moving stories who will ask you for favors, whether it be extra medication, an impromptu visit with the doctor, or even monetary assistance. You will also experience the mzungu factor away from the clinic. People may allow you to take their picture, offer to carry your bags, or otherwise extend a helping hand without first telling you that they expect some money in return.(7) In addition to being asked for money directly, you will likely be quoted higher prices for goods at markets and shops.  Lastly, the mzungu factor extends beyond monetary wealth. It is very difficult for citizens of the developing world to secure travel visas, and some may therefore see you as a ticket to the Western world. For this reason, be careful about giving out personal contact information. (8)

Experiencing the mzungu factor can be upsetting. You may feel taken advantage of, or that you are being treated unfairly. The pressure of patients’ requests can become an unwelcome burden, making it tempting to minimize contact with them. Feelings of being an outsider will only be compounded by the mzungu factor. Keep in mind that you are not the first to experience these emotions, and that those who have gone before you often have valuable advice. For instance, in a web log entry entitled “Dealing With Being White,” international volunteer Karen explains how she coped with the mzungu factor in Kenya by focusing on forming relationships rather than handing out money. “I’m here to build friendships with Kenyans that will last a life time,” she wrote. “Every person I meet will hopefully learn something from this Mzungu, just like I will learn from them. It’s not money, but perhaps it’s something more.”(9) You will not be able to meet everyone’s demands, so you will have to learn to politely decline requests. Local staff and organizers will also be able to help you navigate any uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation, so do not hesitate to ask for help.


Because the challenges of poverty are so overwhelming, at some point you may feel helpless, or that your hard work isn’t making a difference.  While feelings of powerlessness are disheartening, remember that big change is nearly always the aggregate of relatively small steps forward.  It is important to focus your perspective on a localized set of goals. You will not solve global poverty in a period of weeks, but you can make an enormous impact on the lives of those in the community you work in.

“There are times for all volunteers when the difficult conditions under which they live and work prove upsetting. Many experience intense feelings of discouragement and futility, especially [early on].”(10)

In addition to your work abroad, one of the best ways for you to maximize your impact is to continue your advocacy work upon returning to your home country. As international development expert Jeffrey Sachs observed, two overwhelming barriers prevent the wealthy developed world from solving global poverty: “people think there are no solutions other than what we are doing, and that we are doing enough.”(11) After having spent several weeks working abroad, you will have the knowledge and credibility to change such thinking. If you take the time to spread awareness and galvanize others, you will be giving the poor and powerless a voice. This is no small impact.

In the same vein, do not forget the importance of the personal growth you undergo during your volunteer experience. You will have grown emotionally and professionally, and gained clinical and cross-cultural competence. You will carry this newfound global citizenship with you in your future endeavors, which may very well include continued work in international development.

“The student’s own advocacy throughout is acting, helping, empowering, understanding and speaking out. Their experience in the field became commitment and in returning from these experiences, the students made commitments to be part of international health in their careers and throughout their lives… The local impacts of a two-month student experience may be modest, but the impact on creating professional global citizens who will come back again and again in the future to this type of work [is] very significant.”(12)

General Tips for Coping with Culture Shock and Emotions (13)(14)(15)


(1) Jinha, A. “Students in a Globalized World: Impact of Volunteer Work in Developing Countries on Students of the Health Professions.” Honors Undergraduate Thesis, University of Ottawa (2006). Accessed on 8 December 2008.

(2) Karen’s blog, as quoted in Jinha, 2006.

(3) Angela’s blog, as quoted in Jinha, 2006.

(4) Jinha, 2006.

(5) Candice storytelling, as quoted in Jinha, 2006.

(6) Jinha, 2006.

(7) Clarke, J. “Cushioning Cultural Shocks: Guidelines For Volunteers To Ghana.” Accessed on 10 December 2008.

(8) Adapted from “Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” p. 163. Peace Corps Information and Collection Exchange. Accessed on 12 December 2008.

(9) Jinha, 2006.

(10) “Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyles in Cameroon: Rewards and Frustrations.” Accessed on 11 December 2008.

(11) Epstein, J. “Economist urges Americans to do more to fight world poverty.” San Francisco Chronicle. 8 May 2005: A-4. Accessed on 11 December 2008.

(12) Jinha, 2006.

(13) “How to Prepare: Cultural Adjustment.” Center for International Education, University of California, Irvine. Accessed on 5 December 2008.

(14) Cultural Adjustment.” International Office, University of California, Berkeley. Accessed on 5 December 2008.

(15) What is Culture Shock? And How to Adjust in a New Culture.” Consortium for International Education & Multicultural Studies. Accessed on 11 December 2008.