When I first moved to East Africa, most of my friends assumed I lived in a mud hut with lions on my doorstep. The reality is I live in a two bedroom house, with fast internet, and DSTV on tap. I drive on normal roads to supermarkets that stock everything from Oreos to flat screen TVs. My version of Africa is a foodie paradise full of thumping bars, eclectic markets, loud music, raging sports fans and expansive natural beauty. It is a continent teeming with life, and you should come. But before you do, consider a few things:
Do not Assume all Africans are Poor, Malnourished, or in Need of Your Help.
While poverty is a problem in many areas, it does not mean there isn’t a middle class. Furthermore, there is a huge divide between starvation and not having the finer things in life. Assuming a lack of toys for kids makes them ‘needy’ is not entirely accurate. Rather, pay attention to what Africans are saying they need and what your actions may look like from their point of view.
Also, by assuming all Africans are poor, illiterate fools, you not only diminish their humanity, but erase the reasons that some aren’t being empowered. Why are there slums in Kampala? Could it have something to do with government corruption or do you honestly think that Ugandans are just too stupid to take care of themselves? If you want to address the inequality across Africa, stop talking to individuals in ripped shirts and start talking to policy makers.
Stop chiding people for having too many children unless you’re providing sexual education in rural communities, as well as affordable birth control devices (and last I checked, the United States doesn’t have a terribly good track record of doing this for its own people). Most people don’t have the slightest clue where to start when it comes to tackling the big issues here, so unless you’ve spent a fair amount of time on this continent, your opinion is generally unhelpful.
Don’t Take Photos of Yourselves with African Children You Don’t Know
I know that many of the kids in Africa are giant hams for anyone with a camera. They will follow you, they will shout ‘mzungu’, and they will ask for their photo. It can feel inconsequential to indulge them, show them the instant results, and watch their excited laughter as they pose again.
But imagine if a tourist came into your town and started taking photos of your children. No matter how much your kids enjoyed it, there’s a fairly good chance you would feel defensive and threatened. Respect that parents in Africa might feel the same way. Ask, smile, then click.
Do Not Assume You Know Better Than the Locals.
Are you an IT technician? That’s great, so is my Ugandan neighbor. My Ugandan landlord runs a radio network. Across Africa there are cities, in those cities there are often universities. We have surgeons, veterinarians, geneticists, professors of law, human rights activists, and architects. Just because you have an engineering degree from the West does not mean you inherently understand how to work a system better in Africa. As peasant farmer and desertification expert Yacouba Sawadogo proves, you might not.
Your Work Might Not be Needed Here, but Your Tourist Money Is.
Many people want to lend their ‘services’ to Africa but if doing so means you take away a local’s potential employment, you’re not helping. Rather, we need you to go see the gorillas because that permit you have to buy goes to conservation. We need you to eat at local restaurants, to buy African products and to take local taxis.
That is giving directly, and in doing so you are empowering local employment. Please, do not build a church and take away that job from an African. Most voluntourism opportunities are scams, where you pay in to go ‘work’ in Africa. What you are actually doing is ‘paying in’ to take a job away from a local.
Africa is Not Your Personal Version of The Lion King
In a must-read article, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina discusses the way we give African animals’ consideration we rarely bestow to Africans themselves: “Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant.”
In reality, in areas of Southern Africa, there is an overpopulation of elephants that absolutely destroy villages, home and livelihoods. While some chide humans for ‘encroaching’ on their territory, it would serve them well to remember that Africans have existed in those regions for thousands and thousands of years. Rather than choosing between who or what deserves protection, realize your feelings on the issue do not outrank a villager’s health and security.
If you decide to visit a region on this great continent, and you absolutely should, we’d love to have you. However, just come as yourself, a tourist, and have a good time. Come with zero ideas about how people ‘should’ act, as it’s not your place to instruct them. Visit responsibly and figure out beforehand if your money is being funneled out of Africa and into Europe or China, or staying on the continent. Do your homework, respect the people and don’t try to save them. Simply enjoy what this continent has to offer, because if you stop worrying about your western savior status, and simply spend your tourist money wisely, you are giving this continent exactly what it needs.