That title might tempt you to think I'm referring to apartheid. Not at all. Stay with me here.
Dear Reader, this isn't a rant. It is a heartfelt attempt to educate anyone who travels to another culture. I write this with all the respect in the world for those of us who want to travel, but who really, truly need to understand how their innocent actions have terrible and long-lasting consequences.
Alladin, my driver, assigned to me by E-Trip Africa, curved around a corner in the dirt track which suddenly revealed a broad swath of dry river bed. We'd been driving for some time, from the Lemala Nanyukie property to Ngorngoro Crater here in Tanzania. Habitat had changed. We'd driven for some time across very low grass, miles and miles of phosphorus- and calcium-rich plants perfect for building the bones of wildebeest and zebra babies.
There had been only one kopje, one stone outcropping. The best seats in the house.
A lineup of Jeeps and Toyotas had pulled over with all the white tourists leaning out, cameras aimed at the top. Eight lions.
Best seats in the house.
We kept driving. Now the land was changing again. Suddenly a type of sisal plant appeared, a succulent. Ahead, the road would pass through Maasai country, full of large herds of cows, goats, sheep.
If you've been out here you know what's coming. Maasai kids, herders of all ages, stand on the roadside flagging cars down. They keep their herds near the road for this purpose, which can prevent the animals from getting better fodder.
Too many of the kids do it. That hurts their animals, their families and their futures. That's on us.
Because tourists stop. They offer water, food, candy, anything. The kids learn to beg, tourists get their photos, the kids dump the waste along the roadside.
Alladin told me that tourists in his cars get angry when they see the bottles. It doesn't occur to them that other tourists are the reason the bottles are there. Those kids not only do not have the money to buy bottles of water, there's no place to go get bottles of water way out there.
Too many of the kids try to flag you down. It's not cute. It's a real problem.
Guides don't want to stop but the tourists can get very angry if they don't. That can cost them tips, a bad review or worse, their job. So they stop.
Tourists decide, without the slightest reasoning, that these poor little kids need help.
Um, no they don't. For centuries their predecessors ate a good meal in the morning headed out for a long day's herding, then came back to another good meal at night. Nobody's starving. They know where the water is.
They are NOT starving. They are NOT thirsty. They are just fine. They do not need us. They don't need our sympathy (which is racist, it's not kind). They don't need to be judged on the basis of OUR culture. That's also racist. Stay with me here.
But we decided that they did, and in that way that ignorant people impose their values on other cultures, fundamentally change behavior to the detriment of the locals. This is just a tiny shapshot of what tourists and missionaries have done for centuries. We interfere, impose our values where they can do damage, and then get irritated with the outcomes our actions produce.
So now these Maasai kids are used to getting fed midday, which creates problems for their families and for the kids. The kids don't take care of the herds as well as they could and they have become beggars.
What's racist about this?
For the last 22 years I've been coming to Africa. From Egypt, which is considered part of Africa, all the way down to South Africa, nine countries, countless trips. I've watched what happens when ignorant tourists, who decide that they HAVE to give something to these poor savages, rip holes in the fabric of cultures. NGOs have been doing this for so long that begging is a way of life. If you are white you are rich, and people here now expect handouts.
There's nothing kind or cute or well-meaning about it. Not at all. It creates damaging and dangerous conditions not only for the kids but also future tourists.
In 2013 I rode a camel into a small town near Moshi, where my party of seven arrived. Three camels, one white woman, five Maasai and a Meru man. My ETrip operator was there to pick me up. We'd also been surrounded by the entire village. Mzunga (white people) here!!!
I made the tactical error of taking out my wallet to tip my crew.
Suddenly the entire village mobbed me. I leapt into the Toyota and slammed the door just in time. Outside, people were banging on the window yelling Dollars! Shillings! Euros! I feared for my life in that moment. That was my early introduction to what we have created in such countries.
Someone had to teach them that. Wasn't other Tanzanians. It was white folks.
On a trip to Ethiopia in 2019, a guide drove a bus full of fellow horse riders to a viewpoint. Along the way, we passed a school. The children poured out of their classrooms, hurtled screaming at us, leaping onto the bus, holding onto anything, hanging off in an effort to pull at us, reach into the window and rip things off our shirts and necks. It was terrifying not only for us, but to see these children risk life and limb to try to get to us.
They had to learn that. Our guide told us that nowadays, some parents tell their kids to beg instead of get an education. There has to be a source from whom to beg. That would be tourists, vistiors, do-gooders, which is a category all its own. The condescension of the church, any church in my experience, as it pertains to other cultures takes the breath away.
Upon leaving the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, our guide, with four of us white folks in the vehicle, got stopped by a carefully-placed line of large stones across a road that was under construction. As soon as he spotted them, the driver told us to be ready to leap out at speed and throw the stones off the road. We did, barely making it back to the vehicle before a gang of kids wielding heavy sticks and rocks attacked the car. To get to the white folks.
They had to learn that.
Those behaviors are the natural outgrowth of what white tourists, NGOs, missionaries and all the other visitors have taught the locals via racist behavior.
You might argue with me on this but hear me out. It is racist to consider a culture beneath you. It is racist to make assumptions that a child by the roadside needs a anything from you simply because in YOUR culture he appears too skinny. It is racist to give handouts to people without giving the slightest thought to what such handouts will do to a culture. It is racist to assume that the local culture is inferior to yours for any reason whatsoever. If anything, that culture may have a great deal to teach you and me.
It usually does. It's just one of the many reasons I travel to developing countries.
I have not only watched this for years but spoken to untold numbers of folks about it. This is not just my opinion. I am sharing with you observations of locals, guides, professional folks who are sick and tired of bad tourist behavior. They are frustrated when they watch- as I have- people in my own car hand out candy to kids just to get a photo.
As soon as one girl did that, an entire gang of kids, watching for just that, rushed our vehicle and started ripping at everything we had on, everything on the car seat. She was furious with me for pointing out that her very behavior was the cause.
You and I have a dental plan. These folks don't. Until our bad food showed up they frankly didn't need one. Thank you, Coca-Cola, the world's great rot.
You and I go home. What we leave behind when we behave in such condescending ways is bad for the kids, the culture and their futures. But we got our photos, right? That's the important thing. At what cost to the culture? The kids?
Therein lies the problem. "It's just this one time" whether for a photo or a cute kid is repeated billions of times over the years until cultures are irrevocably altered. Then new tourists are terribly irritated or angry when people behave this way, when it evolved from what we have done consistently out of skewed values, racist ideals that we often don't realize are racist at all, and fundamental ignorance.
You and I are not there to show our magnaminity. We are here to learn, to appreciate and to absorb the culture, beauty and lessons of those marvelous places. When we give handouts, including pens (bad idea; the kids sell them but they lie to you it's for school), and think we are oh-so-wonderful to those poor people. We are making them poorer for taking away their focus on education, work, and all the values which their culture already has in place.
Our implicit need to feel superior is racist.
We don't ask what happens to a child who learns to beg, skips school, learns no skill or trade. Now they're adults. I've seen what happens. They hang out, approach cars, demand money, and are furious with you for not giving it to them. Now they're adults, strong, and in numbers. How would you feel? Threatened?
We built this, coke by coke, water bottle by water bottle, chocolate bar by chocolate bar. Racist behavior. I am sorry if pointing that out is uncomfortable. Our discomfort pales in comparison to the damage we do in our ignorance.
Racism. The assumption that "those poor little kids" need anything from us.
Yes, they do. To leave them the hell alone would have been a fine move.
But we didn't, and we still don't. However, you and I can do better. When you travel, do not bring stuff for "those poor little kids."
That's racist. Want to do something? Donate to establish causes. Volunteer. Teach English. Transfer a key skill, donate to well-run organizations which focus on education or those providing meaningful employment. Leave having supported a skill, not lose the will to work.
Educate a life, support a life, change a life.
Teach people to beg, kill a life.
This is an essential, life-changing lesson in sustainable travel. That photo op is NOT worth a child's future, and YES, just this one time is one time too many.
And it's racist.
Let's be better.
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