Some East Africans live on less than a dollar a day. Some live in tin shacks with no running water or a toilet. Some East African children have to live in orphanages because they are orphans or they don’t have immediate family members to take care of them. Clearly, there’s need to improve the living conditions of the underprivileged in this society. However, slum and orphanage tourism is not the solution.
Slum tourism is also called poverty tourism. A tour operator’s itinerary may combine climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a visit to a children’s home in Tanzania. In Kenya, a weeklong tour of the country’s national parks may culminate with a visit to children’s home in Nairobi or Kibera, which is one of the largest slums in Africa.
During such orphanage tours, the director of the home will take you around, into the dormitories and classrooms. The tour will probably end at the orphanage’s office where you will sign the visitor’s book as you flip through an album with cheerful blowups of the faces of children in the home. Under each picture will be a paragraph or so detailing the depressing rescue story. As you wind up your tour, the director will courteously bring out a list of items the home needs, and explain how you can assist. For slum tours, your guide will drive you to the mouth of the clustered shacks from where you gingerly walk along narrow paths, over open sewers and heaps of decaying rubbish. You will capture the shy faces of children peeping behind torn door curtains, and the close-ups of the brave kids who follow your pack through the slums.
Arguably, there will be no difference between a slum tour and a visit to an animal orphanage. The only differences are you wade through a slum on foot while in a park you are in a tour vehicle, and you can greet children in a slum but you cannot have physical contact with a wild animal. Don’t you think there is a problem right there? Children are not wild animals. A children’s home is as much of a private sanctuary for children as your house is for you, and it should remain so. Any tourist, local or foreign, has no business taking pictures of minors to prove philanthropic traits to friends and family members back home. What gets to me the most is seeing the innocent faces of children plastered on social media pages of people they may never meet again in life and for the purpose of getting the attention of people the children will never meet. Your friends and family members will still know you had a great time meeting children in East Africa even if you don’t take pictures of minors. Trust me, nobody visits a children’s home and leaves the way they came. Even an hour spent with underprivileged children will have a lasting impact in your life.
You can sponsor a child in a home, or sponsor the whole orphanage regularly, and when you get the time, go over to meet the children. Alternatively, you carry donations whether financial or otherwise to the home and spend a day with children. Such noble acts do so much more than a planned tour paid to some organization or local guide for a ‘sightseeing’ tour of the situation in children’s homes and slums.
Hence, let us do it right. Let us campaign for volunteering and charity projects and end slum and orphanage tours. I will just list a few good ways to give back to the community when you travel, but responsibly.
- Carry only memories not pictures of children. Etch the smiling, bubbly faces of children in your heart and you will have them with you forever. Carry pictures and they will just be another experience cluttered in the list of places you have been to on your social media pages, or worse, just another GB of files on your hard drive.
- Most voluntourism opportunities invite foreigners to give back to the community whether as skilled or un-skilled volunteers, at a small fee. Such volunteering packages are inclusive of accommodation and meals for the volunteer. Find these packages, and conduct a thorough research to know the benefits you will bring to the community, how/who your money benefits.
- There are already plenty of pictures of slums on the internet that will tell you the deplorable state of the living quarters. You don’t have to take more yourself, to make the decision to help. Instead, pledge your financial support to registered, authentic organisations with ongoing projects in slums and orphanages.
- Do not work with companies solely founded to offer slum and orphanage tours because even though you are creating employment for the few in those companies, they may not even be living in that community. If such companies actually benefitted the community they take you to, they would have to close shop because there would be no more slums for tourists to visit. Therefore, they must maintain the status quo to stay in business. Think about it, if you visit a park to see lions and giraffes then why would the manager of the park exchange these species for cats and dogs that you can domesticate in your home?
- Plan your holiday through organisations with a clear social responsibility strategy. For example, some tour companies run community schools where you can donate school equipment. Therefore, a percentage of the profits from tourism activities go towards such projects. Your resources should be channeled to children who deserve assistance, and with accountability. This eliminates some tour operators who act as middlemen, and whose relationship with founders of orphanages is not incorruptible.
- As opposed to orphanage tours of the residential quarters of children, visit projects that boost income for the under-privileged. Such projects include basket weaving workshops, pottery houses and traditional dance groups. Buys souvenirs from them to support the cause, or participate as a volunteer.
- To volunteer, you do not have to pay the organisation directly, or to stay in the organisation’s premise. Stay in a hotel, or camp within church compounds when visiting remote towns in East Africa, and do community service during the day. You will be amazed at the number of locals who will offer to give you a bed/camping ground so you can bring your much needed skills to the community.
- Visit a children’s home not for a tour of the facilities but to interact with the children. If I came to your house, would take me around for me to see how rich or poor you are? A children’s orphanage is a home too; you don’t have to be shown around for your philanthropic nerve to kick in.
- Saunter down the corridors of dormitories and children will forget you as soon as you sign the visitor’s book; sponsor a sports day, a prize giving ceremony or other child centered activity and the children will remember you for a lifetime. Isn’t that what you hope to achieve?
- Make it clear that you do not want a red carpet entrance complete with a dozen of beautifully clad, young ,traditional dancers. Children shouldn’t be asked to entertain guests unless they want to.
Let us make the world better and brighter for everyone, but without exploitative initiatives that add no/insignificant value to those in need.