The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism

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image by Jason Raish /

“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 houron 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.

Poolside in Lilongwe, the conversations were more finely tuned: Whom have you helped? How have you grown? A ranking emerged. Living in a rural village (no pool) beat living in the city. A project in which you might see someone die was a few cuts above, say, computer-skills training.

I held the trump card. I was in Malawi to set up a creative writing program. For orphans. In jail. Even to my own ears it sounded like I was trying to get laid.

Am I being unkind? Maybe. But if I engage in some healthy mockery, I am also mocking myself. I was just another do-gooder splashing my own tablespoon of water onto the fires of hell.

I won’t ruin your day by going on about the conditions in the Kachere Juvenile Centre, the jail for kids in Lilongwe, because an excellent book is already available: Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens (“where 20 or 30 juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing”). I’ll limit myself to one detail. On the day I visited, the boys were paisley. After more than a month without soap in hot, dirty, and crowded conditions, whorls of fungus blossomed on their skin.

I hadn’t gone to the jail looking to do good. It’s an impulse I’ve always dis­trusted. But then what was I going to do about the paisley boys? Go home and literally let them rot?

I handed out some soap, and that was the start of it all.

Some dismiss volunteer tourism as “a morally seductive adaptation of modern mass tourism,” as it was called in an international studies conference earlier this year. Many volunteer projects serve the egos of the tourists more effectively than they serve the locals. Even the idea that it creates a pool of people committed to ending global poverty is questionable. At least as many come home with their optimism in tatters.

We debated all of these issues between laps in the pool. The closest I’ve come to conclusions can be reduced to three. First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors.

Many of the favorite stories at poolside were of this nature. There were the usual language mix-ups: ordering chamba (marijuana) instead of chambo (a kind of fish), or emphasizing the wrong syllable in the Chichewa word for ancestors so that it came out as testicles. It was also routine to hear that people had gotten hopelessly tangled in mosquito nets, and found themselves lost in the bush only to be saved–and laughed at–by children.

I should be honest. That last paragraph? Those are all mistakes I made myself: I don’t even need to dip into the lives of others.

On one ofmy last nights in Malawi, I escaped the hotel with two of my Malawian friends, one of them a pastor, the other a coffin maker. We headed for a local watering hole.

My arrival at the bar was not without controversy. A lot of the patrons had experience with aid agencies. Some welcomed me as another person seeking relief from the day; others were irritated to see a foreign face. We shot pool and drank beer. The ring of empty Turkish pilsner cans expanded around the overturned crates we used as bar stools. At last, the preacher was ready for some truth telling.

Recently, he said, he had helped a European camera crew organize a shoot in Lilongwe’s market. A local woman had agreed to do her shopping on camera, showing the world what a pitiable basket of food she could buy. All was going well until the crew passed a group of drunken young men. One of them seized the preacher by the throat and shouted, “You! You are one of those who sell our people to the foreigners!” The situation was turning ugly when the police arrived. The young men were beaten and arrested. Perhaps they are still in prison, the preacher said, and the coffin maker arched an eyebrow to remind me that I had some idea of what prison life was like.

The preacher sat back. Was his story a warning about the limits of a nation’s patience? A comment on the unpredictable outcomes of good intentions?

“I’m not one of those who is against what you people do,” he said at last.
“I respect what you people do.”

Then my friends took me by my elbows and led me into the street. It was getting late, the preacher said, and there was liquor in the young men’s veins.

J.B. MacKinnon is Malawi projects coordinator for I Live Here ( His writing from Malawi is published in the book I Live Here, and he is also author of Dead Man in Paradise. Excerpted from Explore (June 2009), Canada’s outdoor adventure

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