Africa is known for its top-rated wildlife safaris, but an increasingly common tourist attraction is what I like to call the African child safari – a showcasing of malnourished orphans to tourists, who rock up in their 4-wheel drives looking for a taste of the ‘real’ Africa.
Inspired by Backpacker Becki’s post, ‘Think before visiting an orphanage’, in which she comments that poverty has become a spectator sport and urges travellers to visit orphanages for ‘the right reasons’, I felt compelled to share my own experience.
I went to Tanzania to volunteer with Path to Africa, a fantastic organisation that puts people in touch with local community projects. I chose an orphanage because I had no teaching experience and decided that at least if I was feeding babies and changing nappies all day, no one could argue that I wasn’t being useful.
This was Africa. I should have known things wouldn’t go quite to plan.
On day 1, after waiting an uncomfortably long time for a pre-arranged lift to my chosen placement, the coordinator arrived and said they’d filled my spot unexpectedly and my help wasn’t required there.
It was a bit of a kick in the teeth if I’m honest, but I was open to her suggestion to check out another orphanage in the community that had only been running for a few months.
This was my induction into the world of the African child safari.
The African child safari scenario happens when the people running an orphanage lose sight of the reasons they set it up. Instead of providing as good a quality of life as they can for the children in their care, they pander to tourists, often forcing the children to perform like circus animals just to generate more cash.
There were about 20 children aged between 4 and 7, sharing beds in just two tiny dorm rooms – one for girls and one for boys. As soon as I arrived, they were gathered into a group and began a well-rehearsed performance.
During the hours I spent there, some of the holiday makers who stopped by only appeared to be interested in adding ‘malnourished child with HIV’ to their sightseeing checklist, as though they were still on safari ticking off the ‘big five’.
Their singing was emotive.
It pulled at my heart strings and made me want to donate my life’s savings (which admittedly wouldn’t have been much). But, as the day wore on, I became increasingly frustrated with how few opportunities they had to interact with each other. If I tried to teach them anything or involve them in an activity, it was interrupted by the arrival of a tourist and a frantic rush to reassemble the group for another run through of twinkle twinkle little star, complete with choreographed dance moves.
The seriousness of the problem really hit home as the children sang ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ for the eighth time that day. Their hand claps and foot stomps were completely void of enthusiasm and they looked painfully disengaged from the monotony of it all.
I suspected I was the only one who realised the irony of their song choice.
The only time during the day when I felt genuinely useful was dishing out lunch and helping to dress the kids in their little matching, and often torn, uniforms.
As I left, a man handed me a business card for the orphanage and told me to tell my friends to come by and check it out. This did nothing but reinforce my suspicions.
Those in charge of running the orphanage saw it as just another business opportunity.
Whether or not they had started out with good intentions, ultimately, the children were now suffering because of the constant pressure to elicit empathy from one-day tourists.
The next day, I started at a project in a local primary school and I spent the rest of my volunteer placement in the classroom. There, at least I felt I was making a difference – however small it might have been. I grew to know each of the kids in my class and I helped them overcome personal hurdles in their studies. I formed close friendships with some of the teachers, who told me moving stories about their lives and asked questions about my comparatively straightforward and easy upbringing. And after school each day, I met 6-year-old Samweily at the school gates and walked hand in hand with him down the dusty road until the turning to his home.
This was the reason I had come to Africa. I wanted to help out and, somewhat selfishly, to be inspired by these wonderful people who faced adversity every day with a beaming smile.
Should I have stuck it out at the orphanage?
I’m not sure. I don’t think I would have been very useful there, and I wasn’t about to confront their practices after arriving on the continent only hours earlier. Some will find the reality of the tourism orphanage hard to digest, while others would argue that at least these children had a home. Who could blame the staff for trying to find any possible way to increase funding for the care of the kids?
Should we all boycott visiting these orphanages on moral grounds, or is the act of handing over some loose change and increasing awareness of their suffering via a Facebook photo album actually a small step in the right direction?
These are ethical questions I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to answer, but, at the very least, I think we should all make an effort to travel responsibly, to try to help local communities and to make sure our eyes are open to the ways in which our behaviours shape the places we visit.