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.
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 people 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.
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).