Imagine1day: Voluntourism Done Right in Ethiopia

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Since Walkete community leaders took imagine1day's training, adult women and men have started taking functional literacy classes in the afternoons.

Since Walkete community leaders took imagine1day’s training, adult women and men have started taking functional literacy classes in the afternoons.

By Paula Stefanini 

Today, wanderlust is a common word among millenials, and for good reason. With the proliferation of travel blogs and social media accounts, people are more exposed to the cultural benefits of traveling — especially abroad. Getting to see the most magnificent places on earth, experience the traditions of different cultures, and learn about the history of mankind as it’s been told has quickly become one of everyone’s #lifegoals. But many millennials are traveling for a specific purpose these days: to volunteer.
It’s a phenomenon that some call volunteer tourism or  ‘voluntourism’, and it’s a very simple, growing concept: Nonprofit organizations put together trips that allow volunteers and donors to give back abroad and witness what their donations have accomplished, while also being immersed in a new culture. Imagine1day is one of the non-profits providing voluntourism trips that connect givers and receivers on a much deeper level, and give them a chance to experience life and culture in Ethiopia. 

The Horn of Africa

Ethiopia is a land of contrasts in a region known as the Horn of Africa. Defined by its diverse landscapes and ancient history, the country is one of the oldest in the world, motherland of early Christianity, and home to many ancient African tribes. Many historians advocate that it might actually be the cradle of mankind—a theory supported by the discovery of ‘Lucy,’ an approximately 3.5-million-year-old human fossil found in Northern Ethiopia. The nation is also known for its unique wildlife, multilingual society, vibrant colors, and coffee culture. These assorted traits make it a top destination for travelers seeking cultural, historical, and natural adventures.

A founding member of the United Nations, Ethiopia maintained its independence throughout centuries of turbulent political history in Africa, and is the only country on the continent to successfully resist colonization. In 1991, democracy was finally a reality, but the new government faced poverty, drought, diseases, and fast population growth (from 50 to 80 million since 1994). Today, Ethiopia is working toward a vision: becoming a middle-income country by 2025.

Ethiopian leaders understand that the key to long-term progress lies in educating the people—the only way create higher skilled jobs and achieve disease prevention, population control, civil equality, and environmental preservation. Currently, the country has one of the highest rates of out-of-school children, and to reconstruct their education system into one that reaches everyone, the government is investing an impressive 20 percent of its annual budget in education. By contrast, the United States only invests 4 percent. 

An Org is Born

Inspired by Ethiopia’s forward-thinking, a couple of Canadian entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Chip and Shannon Wilson, decided to focus on helping. When their company, Lululemon, went public, they made hundreds of millions of dollars, which they wanted to put to good use.

“We knew that it was an opportunity to take some of the money that came to us and to give back in a meaningful way,” Shannon said. “We started researching all sorts of different issues all over the world. We also considered what we’re most committed to: kids and education. After talking to everybody, Ethiopia was the place where we thought we could have the greatest impact.”

And thus, imagine1day was born .

Their mission is to make sure that all Ethiopians, adults and children, have access to education by 2030—without the need for foreign aid. Through the support of generous donors and partnerships with rural communities, imagine1day works to achieve quality education for all. Since 2007, the organization has worked with 227 partner schools, impacting more than 103,000 lives each year across five different districts.

Voluntourism in Action

In addition to imagine1day’s educational projects, the organization has an interactive approach that encourages benefactors to embark on a life-changing journey to Ethiopia and experience the country for themselves. Imagine1day organizes donor trips that promise an immersion in the wonders of the land, interaction with local communities, and of course, a personal look at the projects they have helped fund.

Carrie Maloney, president of imagine1day in the United States, participated in one of these voluntourism trips with the rest of her team.

“As soon as you land in Ethiopia, a smell of cardamom and cinnamon surrounds you. Everything seems more colorful, louder and plugged in,” Maloney explains.

The trip’s itinerary enables direct communication between donors and locals in events such as inaugurations of new schools, coffee ceremonies, and workshops. During the trip, Maloney and the rest of the team saw projects in different stages of development, from some schools that were just being assembled, to others that were already established and displaying successful results. The team met children and adults who had once been illiterate, but could now read and write proficiently—a powerful demonstration of how donors are changing lives.


Maloney recalled several stories of her encounters with locals who were participating in imagine1day’s projects. There was an elderly man who explained how foreigners would come to his house in an attempt to persuade him to sign contracts (with his fingerprints) that would eventually strip him of his land without his knowledge, a scheme that victimizes many illiterate Ethiopian farmers. Now, after having access to education, he can read everything, including the content of these contracts, protecting himself from future predatory situations.

There is also the story of a 15-year-old girl who wanted to go to school, but instead was about to be married off by her father. After a long process, the imagine1day crew, along with members of the community, were able to persuade the father to not only call off the wedding, but also enroll in school himself.

Of her encounters, Maloney said, “Ethiopians, at first were on their ‘best behavior,’ and even reserved to a certain extent. But, once they talk about the impact that imagine1day has in their society, they become more emotional, portraying who they really are: a happy, warm, kind, gentle, artistic, proud, and tolerant people—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—that peacefully co-exist throughout the country.”

Cultural Immersion

While these interactions allow donors and volunteers to see the impact of imagine1day’s programs, the trips are not only about volunteering. The travelers also get involved in many other activities, including visiting historical sites, tasting Ethiopian cuisine and learning how to use Injera, an Ethiopian flatbread, as an eating utensil, enjoying jazz clubs, rock climbing, hiking, horseback riding, yoga, mountain biking, and more. The accommodations throughout the journey vary, from hotels to campgrounds and even a treehouse—a favorite among the team.

“I love the fact that this trip isn’t just about community, school, and education, but it’s also been about experiencing Ethiopia in a number of different ways,” said Kathryn Poettcker, an Imagine Ethiopia 2014 Participant. “Literally, every dollar you raise goes directly to a school or a scholarship child. I think the fundraising may seem daunting to start with, but once you see where that money goes, and how little it takes to do so much, you look back and think: ‘Oh, that was nothing.’ And who doesn’t want a life-changing experience?”

“Research the culture, keep an open mind, and expect the unexpected,” Maloney recommended to first-time volunteer travelers.

Looking to the Future

The next 15 years promise to be of continued hard work, but if by 2030, all children in Ethiopia get to have access to education, then every single effort will seem small compared to the grandiosity of this achievement. As they proclaim in their mission statement, “We imagine a day when we’ve put ourselves out of a job because leaders, young and old in all corners of Ethiopia, have transformed their education system.”
“Working for imagine1day makes me really happy and proud of being a part of something honorable. I feel 100 percent aligned with their vision. This is a dream job because I work with visionaries who encourage creativity, confidence, leadership, fun, and traveling. It’s like a glass of champagne,” Maloney said.