The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism
Do-gooders on vacation call it voluntourism. But is it doing anyone any good?
image by Jason Raish / www.jasonraish.com
“What organization are you with?”
The question was surprising, given that it was the first thing out of the mouth of a stranger who, like me, was sitting poolside at a tropical hotel. What organization was I with? I couldn’t just be a footloose wanderer, out thinking big thoughts, maybe smoking a little of what the locals call chamba? No, of course I couldn’t. This was Malawi.
Malawi is a landlocked nation in southern Africa. Its one claim to fame is that Madonna adopted one of its citizens—“Baby David” Banda—in 2006. Other than that, the country is known mainly to people who collect statistics on global misery. It’s in a three-way tie for seventh place among countries with the lowest per capita income. It also ranks eleventh for overall death rate. By some estimates, the prevalence of hiv/aids in Malawi’s cities is one person in three.
One of the few funny things I’ve heard said about the place was a traveler’s joke: “Malawi? I thought you said we were going to Maui!” It is indeed a laugh to imagine a tourist, expecting Hamoa Beach, instead being dropped on so-called Devil Street in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Not that there aren’t any tourist attractions here. Most of the country’s eastern edge spills into Lake Malawi, which has white-sand beaches and the widest variety of freshwater fish in the world. But the sunburn-and-souvenirs set has generally stayed away. Apparently even bargain destinations have to exceed a threshold of human suffering before they’re accepted as believably fun. Snorkeling among aids orphans doesn’t make the cut.
All of which might suggest that Malawi is off the beaten track. Wrong. The place is swarming with visitors, and almost every single one is with an organization. They are volunteer tourists—or, if you’re a fan of neologisms, voluntourists—and they are among the fastest-growing sectors in international adventure travel. I was one of them.
Happy hour on the backpacker circuit is a special time. Weary travelers trickle in from their day’s adventures and as the sun goes down begin to swap tales, compare notes, and flirt. There is a certain amount of community, and an equal dose of what the rednecks back home would call longcocking—measuring off against people around you. Somebody says she got drunk with Roma and learned to play Radiohead on the accordion. Someone else says he swam with penguins.
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