An Orphanage is not a Tourist Destination nor am I in ‘Africa’

I took a week long camping safari with Intrepid Tours where I traveled from Nairobi through to the National Parks and sights. I was more than happy to see the Maasai Mara, the Great Rift Valley, Hells Gate – among other natural sites full of wildlife, geologic beauty and grandness, but to have one of their stops be at an orphanage? I couldn’t stomach it.

We pulled up and stopped just inside the gate of the orphanage. Everyone stepped out of the bus to meet the orphaned children, take their photos and squeeze in some cuddles. I remained seated on the bus and silently waited for this horror to be over. The tourists get time to hand over some gifts – pencils, colours, exercise books and sweets during this visit. A tour mate comes back onto the bus to grab his camera and he asks me if I’m alright. I say that I’m just fine and don’t offer any further explanation. I didn’t want to pass off any judgement or criticisms until I had real time to process the events and have a real discussion about it rather than the fleeting one that would happen here. Concerned, he asks why I’m staying on the bus and I simply explain: I don’t feel it’s right. I don’t think an orphanage is a suitable tourist stop. It just doesn’t sit well with me. “Fair enough” he replies and he’s off the bus. I’m left with my book and my thoughts. My thoughts making the text incomprehensible and I’m left stewing with a mix of anger, sadness and an unrelenting stream of questions and criticisms of this tour and of my own journey.

When the crowd boards the bus again I remain quiet – it’s easy for this to be normal being a lone traveller – and I overhear what I expected: ‘Oh they were so cute!’ ‘I wish we could take them home with us’ ‘One came up and grabbed my hand and oh you have to see this picture of us!’ and then I heard the unexpected. “Monika, you must be so used to this! This is what you must see every day so you really didn’t need to go out and see more of it,” one woman says, trying to justify my silent protest. I bite my tongue and try not to say all that I’ve been thinking and instead opt for “I work in schools with children who may be, and often are, orphaned; yes” and leave it at that – being as polite but as honest as I can be. I can’t think of any other way to respond and know that any discussion I would have with her about it might be a bit too critical of her zoom lens in all these children’s faces. But then, I’m critical of myself. I’m trying to distinguish the difference between me taking the photos of my students and these ‘tourists’ taking photos of these children.

There’s obvious differences – I know my students fairly well, their quirks, their dreams, their personalities – while these children are essentially nameless to the tourists on the bus. They might have caught a few of their names in this brief visit but when they go through their countless photos I doubt they’d be able to associate the face to that name. But the differences that are not so cut and dry are the ones that plague me. What’s the clear distinction between visiting an orphanage and working long term in a similar circumstance? Each is taking an ‘experience’ from the children and their situation. Which is more ‘right?’ Can there ever be an ethical or moral way of visiting the continent of Africa as a fortuitously privileged child of the first world? You definitely cannot do so without facing en masse criticism, especially when ‘voluntourism’ is involved. I spend a lot of time on this Safari questioning my participation on this tour and what it all means in the grand scheme of things. I’m reminded of these questions time and time again and it doesn’t take long for another set of questions to arise.

Attempting to get to Lake Nakuru National Park.

Attempting to get to Lake Nakuru National Park.

When travelling to Lake Nakuru National park we ran into the heaviest traffic I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to China and still, I have not seen as many people in one place as I did here. An alleged prophet was in town and hosting talks and healing the sick. We just so happened to show up on the last day as everyone was trying to get back to their homes. And when I say everyone, I really mean half of Kenya was inundating this one spot to get a glimpse of this prophet. As we were stuck in traffic I popped my head out of the car and tried to barter for some sunglasses in my broken Kiswahili. I must have looked slightly insane to the other travelers on our large tour bus as I’m comfortable and confident in talking to strangers – a common thing in Kenya as not greeting people is considered rude. I’m cracking jokes with the boda boda’s asking them how much it would cost to get through this crowd while a few men scour up and down the sidewalk looking for a pair of sunglasses I might like – sadly I’m uninspired and can’t find a pair that would work with my limited budget and vanity. Then something happens. People start to rise from their seats like me, pop their head out of the windows and start taking photos. I reach down for my camera and do the same thinking that it really is something I’d like to show people – especially when explaining the journey to the park. But then I start to hear the phrases that put a knot in my stomach. “Oh get that one – there’s lots of colours” “Oh that’s a good shot of a baby on her back!” “Damn, I missed it, that one had so many things stacked on her head” “Oh she didn’t look very happy that I took her photo but it was a real good one.” I’m nauseous again and my camera is put away. Feeling as if I’m no better than them. Taking pictures out of this safari bus of people. Real IMG_7357people and treating them as if they’re objects or worse – animals you might find on safari. I don’t know what to make of these people and of myself. Should I think of myself as different? More superior as my motives are more ‘correct,’ just trying to capture a moment? But in a way, so are they. But somehow it seems different; a bit more dark and exploitative. Seems like more capturing of these nameless faces of ‘Africa’ to show their friends at home. I feel no better and I become sick and small.

One of the biggest draws to Kenya for me was the Geologic Sites - Here's the Marafa Depression up the coast near Malindi.

One of the biggest draws to Kenya for me was the Geologic Sites – Here’s the Marafa Depression up the coast near Malindi.

What is it with ‘Africa’ that rattles me so? I correct anyone who says I’m in ‘Africa’ and explain that it’s really Mombasa, Kenya. You would never say I’m going to North America if you were really only visiting New York City or you might say Europe if you were travelling all over Europe but would probably specify Germany if that were the only place you were visiting. But usually when people say ‘Africa’ everyone usually know’s what they really mean by that. There’s an obvious generalization of what this continent is and means to the rest of the world that has an image of animals, acacia trees and children in poverty. This generalization upsets me but isn’t it that generalization that lent a hand in getting me here in the first place? Sure I was drawn to Kenya for my own personal reasons – my unflinching connection to Wangari Maathai and her strength as a woman in Kenya fighting for democracy and the environment, as well as the area’s geologic significance being part of the Great Rift Valley and my initial plans to also visit Erta Ale and the Afar Region of Ethiopia (just to be thwarted by instability and safety concerns), but I also wanted to ‘do good’ with the money I’d spend on travelling. And by ‘do good’ I mean help those kids I always see in photos when ‘Africa’ is mentioned.

What I hate about these children being featured is that they’ve become part of the “Package Experience” when travelling this vast continent. The tour operators at Intrepid cater to tourist needs and desires. They’ve planned their Safari to touch on everything a tourist wants – wildlife (Game Drives), landscapes (Great Rift Valley), cultural significance (Maasai) as well as giving the tourist a feeling as though they’ve helped those children they always see in brochures or World Vision adverts (Orphanage visit). But I never want to think of an Orphanage as a tourist destination. With these children being a ‘sight to see.’ They’re not. It would be out of the question for an orphanage at home to open their doors and allow strangers to take photos of the children. But what about ‘Africa’ makes it okay? This definitely isn’t the case everywhere in Kenya and across this continent as I know of many who don’t allow photos to be taken when being visited by anyone, muzungu or otherwise, but it is still a widespread and accepted thing to do here.

Same goes with the schools at home. They wouldn’t allow complete strangers in to take photos of their student’s but it’s allowed here. Sure, the community and parents who send their kids to our schools allow us to take photos and have given their consent but it’s still not an ideal situation. We’ve worked hard to prove to the community that we are not here to just hand out sweets and take pictures, but that our primary goal is the education and future of our students. The photos we take are to capture memories made with these children, the one’s who’ve put an everlasting imprint in our hearts. They are to share with our family and friends to help them understand the beauty, love and happiness found in the unlikely places of a ‘slum.’ I’m not saying that the pictures we take of our students are 100% ethically and morally acceptable as they are too part of this standard ‘volunteer package.’ It just leaves a bit of a better taste in my mouth than stopping in an orphanage for twenty minutes to take upwards of 300 photos of children you won’t remember because you never even had the chance to know. But even still, I feel uneasy about my photos – having them is one thing, but sharing them to people who don’t know them? That’s another. I still don’t have an answer and I helplessly toss and turn in this grey area.

It’s hard to be entirely against and critical of the Orphanage visit being a part of this Safari. Yes, these tourists are reaping an experience from a desperate circumstance. But the orphanage is supported by the tour operators and tourist donations who visit for this very experience. They’re taking advantage of the foreign demand for a few photos of cute children to get the means to support those cute children. My head spins.

This orphanage visit has caused a lot of doubt and necessary questioning. So has the ‘Volunteering with the orphans in Africa’ generalization that I encounter whenever I say I’m in Kenya. It is this broad stroke label that strips away everything these children are – their individual personalities, their distinct laughs and love of football or colouring – to the nameless ‘African Children’ that are ‘as seen on tv.’ So please, if I correct you in saying that I’m in Kenya, not Africa, I don’t mean to cause offence. I’m simply just trying to give these children and this place I call my second home a meaning and respect; that starts with using their name.

As for the photos? It’s still not clear what the right answer is. Nearly all the children in the schools just love the opportunity to take your camera and use it to take photos themselves or pose with you. I guess it is the sharing part of it that has me most uneasy. Do I need to share them? Of course not. It isn’t necessary. But isnt that the quandary of this digital age? I don’t have to share anything online, not a status update or a blog entry of my thoughts in order for me to continue the process of breathing and living.. but then I’m stuck questioning the point in life if it’s not shared and contributed to other lives. Isn’t sharing caring? Especially if done with a heartfelt intent? I digress.

For me, having these photos means more than many will understand. It’s a comfort knowing that when I go to that other place I call ‘home’ I still at least have some photographs of my students. The ones who ran to me in the courtyard during their break time, pulled the bag off my shoulder, took everything out of my hands replacing them with their own, dragged me into their classroom and said, “Please Madam, teach us English again.” I may not need these photographs to remember special moments like those, but they will hopefully be enough consolation for the heartbreak I will feel when I am not continuously mobbed by 25 kids who call me their mother and insist I call them watoto wangu (my children).

Watoto Yangu

Watoto Wangu

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94 thoughts on “An Orphanage is not a Tourist Destination nor am I in ‘Africa’

  1. Gah! I feel your frustration with the generalization of “Africa” as I feel the same way for “America” (we all know what people mean when they use the word, but do we forget our Latin American countries? Or any of the South American countries…Generalization. Anyway…)

    It’s unfortunate to know that orphanages have become a tourist destination. I had no idea, and the thought is quite mind-boggling. Yes, the children will probably receive some benefit from the visits, and any help is better than none. But it just doesn’t sound right to me either …. I mean…WHAAAT???? O.o

  2. These are children that no one wants. If someone wanted them, they wouldn’t be living in an orphanage. That’s bound to be a blow to your esteem – to grow up knowing that no one wanted you. It’s bound to be a boost to their spirits to have people from so very far away come just to see them, even if it’s only for a few moments. Its a reminder that the world is far larger than their little corner of it and that there are other, better places in it. And it might just help a few of them get adopted in the process.

    • Actually, children like structure and consistency. Having new adults continually come into their life and leave shortly thereafter is not helpful. If you want to make a real difference, you need to be in it for a much longer period of time.

      • Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re running an orphanage in Africa. If you can figure out how to save or get people to give you another $10 a month, you can get another kid in who is living on the street, eating out of garbage piles, and drinking out of the local sewer/draining ditch. They are at risk for being conscripted as soldiers and/or prostitutes, among other things.

        If you bring in the tourists, the worst case is that they give money and food. The best case is that one of the obviously wealthy tourists might adopt one of the kids.

      • If only it were that simple. Using kids as bait for money makes kids vulnerable to exploitation- by tourists (not all tourists have good intentions) and by the school (not all teachers have good intentions).

      • No and not all people running orphanages have good intentions either, but you can’t walk around assuming everyone is bad. Based on your logic, we should shut schools down because being required by law to send your children to a place to get educated leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.

      • That is taking my point to completely irrelevant extremes.

        Children should not be paraded around for the fact that they don’t have parents. How does this benefit the child? What does that teach them about their value? What is the point in bringing in money to help the kids if you are hurting them in the process?

        In an ideal world orphanages would not need to worry about funding, but obviously that’s not always the case. So what to do? Well shipping in tourists to take a few photos and leave some money behind is a terrible idea.

        Instead, the orphanage could have a gallery which sells the student’s art/crafts. This would ensure privacy and give the kids a reason to be proud of themselves. There are also micro-economic programs (like raising and selling turkeys) which help the venue become self-reliant.

        Both of those methods are used by many charities and organizations around the world because they work. There is a reason why you don’t stroll into an orphanage in a developed country ‘just for fun’- even if they needed funding- because it does not emotionally help the kids. So why would you do it somewhere else?

    • I wouldn’t assume that these are kids no one wants. There are plenty of kids in orphanages who are wanted and loved but have no available caregivers. 90% of the orphans in Russia are social orphans – they have parents who have addictions, are imprisoned, are in mental institutions, hospitalized, etc. I don’t know the statistics in Africa regarding social orphans, but my bet is that there are significant rates of disease, poverty, unemployment, disability, imprisonment, etc. Addicts, sick people and prisoners often want and love their kids but are not capable or available caregivers. I don’t intend to offend, but I do think you are mistaken in making a blanket assumption that “these are kids no one wants. If someone wanted them, they wouldn’t be living in an orphanage.”

      • The mortality rates in Africa are horrific – much higher than Russia. AIDS, TB, Cholera, Malaria, Typhoid, Tetanus, Ebola, Measles, and more take their toll. Add to that war and famine, and it’s quite likely the these children do not have a single surviving adult relative.

  3. I there is a lack of understanding about how “Intrepid Journeys” works. It is an Australian based company that specializes in tours that don’t only take you to the tourist locations. You stay in the homes of locals as guests and there is an effort to learn about the local culture, and also to have an overview of charitable needs in the area. They did not take you there as a “tourist attraction” but rather a chance to consider possibly returning as a volunteer, or at least to see how some people live so that you can better understand the full spectrum of the place you are in. And since Intrepid Journeys explains this in all their literature and marketing, I find it hard to understand how you interpreted this as poverty porn.

  4. A really thought provoking piece. I often feel this way when travelling and sometimes find myself caught up in taking photos along with others until I think to myself how absurd this is; putting the camera away until I have at least developed some kind of relationship with them over a few days. Zoo-like craziness. A great read.

  5. Hi, I liked the was you approach this topic. Telling it from your piont of view and not judging others. Just questioning yourself. Nice work. I am definitely taking tips from your approach on controversial topics.

  6. Pingback: Africa, Orphans, and Tourists | Musings

  7. Thank you for this eye-opening article, you hit a nerve. I will soon travel to Kenya for volunteering and your thoughts on voluntourism and photographing are something that I will certainly keep in mind.
    Looking forward to reading your future blogs!

  8. I am really sadden to hear that orphanages are part of a stop in a tourist package. I don’t think it’s right. Children, whether they’re from the orphanage or not, should not be treated as tourist attractions. What good will tourists bring? If they’re there to help, however, good. But if they’re just there to see… that’s just wrong.

  9. This was a really amazing heartfelt post. I can understand how you feel about this being a tourist destination, in one hand having the tours there provides them with a little more, in the other hand, it just seems wrong, but they wouldn’t get some of the gifts and I am guessing the tourist companies give them some sort of compensation. I guess it’s just the lesser of two evils. I really feel for these children, I feel for kids like this all over the world. I have been in situations like yours were I’m doing something similar to other people but for some reason their reasoning behind it just seems more shady and less moral and I feel that I have good reasons for doing what I’m doing, and if you feel good about what your doing then follow your heart and do it. You bring joy to those kids, and it sounds like you enjoy teaching them, so bonus. I think what you are doing it great. I wish you the best. Take care, and I wish all the best to your students.

  10. If you´re going on a pre-booked tour to Africa, you´ll always end up in a “human zoo”! And the money you spent is never gonna end up in the hands of the locals! Never ever book, be always self-organized 😉

  11. Reblogged this on FIGHT FOR LIFE and commented:
    I never thought of it like that

    Taking photos with these children doesn’t make sense if you’re not going to help them or ‘meet’ them

    It is literally like going to a zoo.

    It’s like the only thing you’re saying is that they’re poor DB

    ‘—- is a fun kid who loves to dance BUT NEVERMIND BECAUSE HE’S POOR

    AND ALL POOR PEOPLE ARE SAD’

  12. I feel that way about photography when in a tour group- especially regarding the situation where everyone was taking photos of the traffic from the bus. If you are on your own, you might talk to the locals or ask before taking a photo. On the other hand, people in groups tend to feel entitled because everyone else is doing it. It makes for a completely different experience.

  13. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THIS!!!! As a Nigerian, it irks me deeply whenever I watch American TV and celebrities and politicians and TV personalities who should be better informed just lump ‘Africa’ as though it is just one big country full of lions, mountains, war-torn villages and diseased children. It is very annoying, and to hear this from you is most gratifying.
    There are over 50 Nations in Africa, all with different cultures, languages and other differences. Isn’t it weird how ‘Africans’ who “don’t know any better” know how not to generalize European nations or North/South American nations, but the West does not?!

  14. Well, a tour doesn’t limit itself to seeing nature, beautiful scenes, tasting the place’s cuisines but also seeing and feeling it’s people. Sometimes tourists don’t buy the idea of visiting orphanages for they feel there’s nothing to see and nothing to gain from it but to feel and experience the joy of being visited by other people somehow give them some degree of upliftment and acceptance. Although immersion or just to be with them in a short span of time can be a lasting memory to them, photographs will stand witness to your visits.

  15. I volunteered for 3 months in orphanages in Russia and connect with much of what you say. Regarding the photos, my personal experience taught me a great way to turn this tug-of-war with conscience into a win for the kids: print the photos and make sure the kids have copies. It may be the only childhood photo of themselves they ever have. Before I left Russia, I printed photos of each kid and gave them all a photo of themselves as a going-away gift. Their delight at receiving a photo of themselves is the kind of stuff I wish I could bottle. They have so little (maybe nothing) to call their own, and those photos were treasures to them – some even asked the orphanage staff to hold on to their photos until they leave the orphanage so that they wouldn’t be damaged. Granted, I was with these kids 3 months, not 20 minutes, but the photos taken on your tour can still be printed and sent to the orphanage with a request that they be displayed or given to the kids so that, in some way, the photos become THEIRS. Just an idea …

  16. Thank you for your story! What to watch out for I think is commercialization, that is, selling orphanages, more so if it is African, as physical “sites” showcasing “exotic” children instead of as places or communities caring for children.

  17. Fascinating article…I’m curious what your ideas are on a different topic- the abuse of women, actually! I’m at proteccionparaella.wordpress.com…I wonder you agree with my Peruvian-influenced project? -Julia from Protección Para Ella

  18. I work in Thailand and get a lot of this. Tourists come through all the time, take photos, and leave. I agree. An orphanage should not be on a tour. The only people going to an orphanage should be people helping the orphanage (like people sponsoring the children). Even then, visitors should never be a burden to the people running the orphanage.

    Of course, it never works this way, as the whole reason places like this are open to tourists is so they can get extra money from them. But how many of these tourists are donating money through a legitimate charity to help the orphans? Also, it is also common for children who are NOT orphans to visit orphanages when a tour visits so they can get the free stuff. There is another blog about this but I’d have to find it again. It was very enlightening. Another reason donating through a charity is the better way to go.

    This is also why many people here (and likely in Kenya as well) do not trust “white people” who come and go and take pictures, but never do anything to help and never stick around long enough to learn your name.

  19. What a great piece. I agree with all your observations and self questioning. I’ve spent many years on and off in Tanzania, first going as a volunteer for three years. I was just looking for a photo to go with a post I had written and realise that I had not got one. For the same reason as you. I only take photos of friends, scenery and wildlife. I have the occasional shot, as you took, from a bus or car and sometimes I sneak some general scenes with people in, but over a period of thirty years I have only a handful of these. Point your camera at someone’s baby in ‘The Western World’ and you are likely to have your camera smashed. So why is it any different on that amazing continent?

  20. I feel too many westerners visit these orphanages to make themselves feel better about themselves rather than to help orphans. It sort of implies that they are ‘doing something’ if they spend three hours with children far less fortunate than our own. There is something I find pretty repulsive about a bus load of tourists showing up to see ‘how the other half live” and shed a few tears and donate a few dollars, it is just what the title of this article says.

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