June 10th 2015
As you may have already read on Jeremy’s blog, yesterday we went rafting at the source of the Nile! I have my own version of the events typed and ready to go, but I’ll wait to post it until I have the pictures to go with it.* For now though, I want to talk about a strange encounter that I had before we got in the rafts: an encounter with my former self.
Let me back up a bit. Yesterday I woke up at 6:30am in order to be ready for the rafting bus to pick us up at 7:10. When we boarded the bus, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we were struck by a funny sight: the bus was full of a dozen white girls. Jeremy and a few Ugandans were the only outliers, since everyone else was an average height, average weight, dirty blonde, sports bra-wearing, slightly sunburnt white girl, with her unwashed hair thrown into a messy bun. Essentially, they looked just like me and Shelby.
A few minutes after we’d plunked ourselves in our seats, we discovered that the girls not only looked like us, but the majority of them were 20-22 year old Canadians. Go figure. But even more coincidentally, they soon told us that they were in East Africa on an Operation Groundswell trip. Now those of you who know me well know that this is the same company that I traveled with to Peru the summer after my second year. And, even more coincidentally, I only chose Peru after the trip to East Africa I was meant to be on was cancelled due to a lack of enrollment. Crazy! What are the odds that I’d run into members of a trip that I was supposed to be on three years ago, with an organization that only has five staff and does two East Africa trips per year?! Not very high, I’ll tell you that much.
So for the purpose of this post, I’m going to say running into them was fate. Hearing them talk about their experience so far, I was transported back to my Operation Groundswell trip. Except in hindsight vision is 20/20, so I saw it in a completely different – and much less flattering – light.
It was the summer after my second year of university that I decided to go to Peru. At that point I’d taken one full year International Development Studies course and had decided that it would be my second major. I liked it because it dealt with global issues, with the purpose of creating positive change in the world. So when I decided to go to Peru it was because 1) I wanted to travel for an extended period, and 2) I wanted to get some real experience in the field of development to know firsthand what the challenges are. I knew a little bit about the pitfalls of voluntourism** so I was determined to do it right. Unfortunately, due to limited time – I had a job starting in June – I was unable to go on a more extended trip, which might have been the more ethical thing to do. I also chose to go with a group instead of going alone, which was good for the sake of my comfort, but maybe not as beneficial from a development perspective. Still, I was confident that I could find a way to still do some good.
When I found the Operation Groundswell website, I liked it for several reasons. Firstly, it was a small, Canadian-based organization started by students with the mindset that development trips shouldn’t break your bank account. They gave a detailed explanation of where my money would be going to, and they had a fundraising component which would go towards buying the materials and making a donation to all the projects we’d be working on. Secondly, all the organizations we would visit were created and run by locals, and our role would simply be providing manual labour. Thirdly, they made no big claims about changing the world – the idea was that we would be backpacking for our own personal gain, but we would be doing so as ethically and sustainably as possible.
Luckily for me, everyone on my trip was a development student. My trip leaders were also well versed in the issues with development – they made sure we read books like Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America before our departure, we took a week of intensive Spanish classes upon our arrival, our leaders had regular de-brief sessions with us during projects, and they were incredibly respectful and mindful of everyone we encountered. For the last few days of the trip we had a ‘disorientation’ session, and when I returned to Canada I took an experiential learning course to reflect on my experience (it was actually from a student in that class that I learned about this internship – funny how things work out).
In Peru I had no illusions about saving the world, but I was also fairly certain that because of my careful choices and my trip leaders’ diligence I hadn’t caused any harm, and had maybe even had some mutually beneficial encounters. But talking to the girls on the rafting trip yesterday, I was forced to once again look back at my experience with a critical eye. I still maintain that my time in Peru wasn’t necessarily BAD – I certainly gained a lot, and at the very least our donations went straight to the local organizations – but I know the practice of voluntourism isn’t something I’m proud to say I’ve participated in. Especially after hearing those girls say things like how they saw the “real Africa” because they visited a slum. Even a five minute conversation with them made me uncomfortable.
Now one reaction would be to sneer condescendingly at these twelve girls, disgusted by their ignorance to the glaring flaws of voluntourism. But then I realized that these flaws were only glaringly obvious to me and my fellow scholars, as students of International Development Studies. I’ve spent the last four years studying the ins and outs of development – learning about the problems with voluntourism and the detrimental mindset that the Global South needs “saving”. But when I was nineteen and signed up for Operation Groundswell, I wasn’t too far off from where they are now. True, I’ve never owned a piece of Lulu Lemon clothing in my life, or gotten an inaccurate tattoo of a world map on my feet, and I’ve never said something about getting to stay with “real Africans”. But I may have been similarly smug about seeing a different side of Peru because we spent some time with a family in the Patchecutek slum outside of Lima.
So am I somehow better than those twelve girls? No, most definitely not. More educated on development issues maybe, but not better. I think they probably think they’re doing really great work. They genuinely want to help. Little do they know that the well they built probably needed to be redone by locals after they left. Or that the mindset of “saving Africa” is robbing the agency from a whole continent of intelligent, creative people. But that’s not their fault – like any of us they’ve most likely grown up with the rhetoric that Africa needs saving, and that the problems on this continent somehow happened in a vacuum, instead of being created and perpetuated by people in the Global North.
Mohammed Ali once said, “service to others is the rent we pay for our life here on earth”. Those girls are simply trying to do service, but are maybe approaching it from the wrong angle. But on that note, what is the right angle? In her article entitled ‘The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism’, Pippa Biddle explains how as a 19 year old she realized how silly it was that she had flown to a developing country to build a house – despite having no expertize in the field – when there were many highly trained carpenters and stonemasons in the village who could have done a much better job. Similarly, in Peru I struggled to strip bark from a log, and then watched a local Peruvian man do it in a fraction of a second. Pippa Biddle makes the point that often, the best way for the white, middle class development worker to do development is to not be there. In her case that meant working with a camp in the Dominican from behind the scenes. She says she would much rather have the children there look up to a local counselor who they look like and can relate to, rather than a foreigner who will leave in a matter of months. This is a hard pill to swallow for those of us who like to travel and be engaged on the ground, but this probably just shows the level of selfishness associated with development work – at least in my case.
Finally, the sense I get is that often people doing ‘good’ development work look down on those doing ‘bad’ voluntourism. This is true in many situations in life – people judge others for being ignorant, but then often don’t do anything to reach out to that person or meet them where they’re at. It’s not fair to those girls to judge them for their actions but then not give them the chance to learn more. If people had scorned me for having been a voluntourist I would never have learned about all its flaws, or what to do better. Not that anyone really knows how to do better. But I think a start would be counteracting the stereotypes that Africa needs saving, or that the West is somehow better than the rest. To watch some awesome clips from people who are already doing this, check out the links below:
To conclude, I hope this post doesn’t sound too holier-than-thou. These are just my musings from yesterday’s encounter with twelve slightly exaggerated versions of my 19 year old self. I’m definitely much different than I was then, but I’m sure I still have many blindspots.
*The pictures were being sold for an outrageous price, so as poor but resourceful students we haggled with the camera guy and decided to split the diminished sum between the six of us in our boat – one girl took the pictures, so we’re waiting until she can find an internet café to send them to us.
**Voluntourism is the act of going overseas for a volunteer placement and to travel. Usually the placements are short term, sometimes over a March break or a Christmas holiday. Trips like Habitat for Humanity, Me to We, etc. are perfect examples. The issue with voluntourism is that such short term projects are likely to do more harm than good, since unqualified young tourists just swoop in, get an ‘authentic’ experience that makes them feel validated and then leave. It also might perpetuate the negative stereotypes that the visitors have about the country because they aren’t there long enough to understand the local dynamics. Although the trip members undoubtedly learn a lot, the communities rarely benefit. Furthermore, people pay ridiculous amounts of money for these trips, most of which goes to the organization that’s sending them and not to the people in the place they’re going. Very few of the organizations are actually locally based, which reeks a bit of neo-colonialism. I could go on, but you get the idea.