It seems the debate over poverty tourism is back to the surface again. You know, (at least as I understand it) that debate on wether it is morally right for tourists to wade through slums, snapping pictures. Over at AidWatch, there was a call for African voices to add to the cacophony of Western academics owning the mic on this topic. So here’s my two cents for what they are worth.
As an African, I have to say that poverty tourism is about the worst thing we could do for our dignity. If you have to travel thousands of miles from the comfort of your own home to experience a change in your life.. then you will have to admit, there’s something feverishly wrong with either you or your culture.
To get to my point, if all you are doing is going to a slum and taking pictures, yes you are robbing those individuals of their dignity. If you are also going there for that reason, you automatically assume that something is wrong. The West has this trumped up assumption that if you are not making money, then you are poor. Sustainability does not mean everyone has to be making beyond $3 a day. My mother makes less than that but she eats every day, is never starved of food, has a mobile phone and enjoys her existence. Ask anyone in her community if they think they are poor, they’ll tell you they are not rich, but content.
So we have to be careful about the labels we impose upon indigenous communities. Just because where you come from defines your idea of what it means to be content, that streets have to be paved in gold.. then you are going to have a skewed perception of those with less possessions.
Is there poverty by academic definition? Of course there is, but having yourself a tour doesn’t give you license to all of a sudden have the solutions to solve the problem.
CLUE: If you are an outsider, visiting a slum, and you need an escort and security to walk around, then you are not now, nor will you ever be the solution to the perceived problem. You might find out something profound about yourself or the meaning of life you lost years ago because of bad career choices or dissatisfaction with realizing that life is just a rat race of useless oneupmanship. You will discover things about yourself, but don’t get disillusioned thinking that by being there and snapping pictures you are going to play any role in bringing change.
But if you must, if you absolutely can’t live with yourself and feel it is your calling to make a difference (yay for altruistic passion), then get to know someone there, find out what’s missing in their life that you could contribute to. Pick your winners.
Then listen. It’s that simple. Listen and have a conversation.
Share your life as they share yours. Make a friend for life. I had a similar conversation with one of the workers at the Kireka quarry while I was trying to understand where I fit in as a difference maker for our Women of Kireka project. Amos taught me more than I could ever teach him in less than 10 minutes.
Have a listen (heart-breaking stuff):
You are nothing but a cog in the machine of inequality. It is part of this life and we are all on board for the magical ride.
You really want change? Put down the camera, walk up to anyone in that slum, get to know them. Have some tea and crumpets, maybe a chapati slice or two. But please, do adhere to Jeffry Sach’s guidelines and don’t feed the locals, not even sweets. Really Sachs, really? Let them feed you. Then when it gets down to why you are there, tell them you are there to learn how to make the most of life your life, how to be content, how to maintain culture in this ever-changing world. Ask them, ever so gently how you could help strop rampant muzungus wading thru their life and snapping pictures like they are wild animals. Because truthfully, that’s more achievable than solving a problem caused by your own lack of perception.