Uhm, yes, and I’ll have one of those handmade African bracelet thingies, a kitenge and half a conscience. Takeaway, please.
Providence fate entropy Popular genetics has decreed that I will never be the most interesting conversationalist within a three-mile radius. (Damn you, extra-chromosomal DNA. I shall have my revenge. Cc: Stewie Griffin) It was always often with a generous dash of schadenfreude, therefore, that I prepared to receive the news of some stranger’s conversational faux pas.
She was still fuming, nearly a week later. ‘Can you imagine—?’
‘—I’m sure I can,’ said I.
So she got into it right away. She was at this joint being the well-spoken, well-dressed, even-tempered MAW that she’s always been. There was this good-looking tourist with a seven o’clock shadow.
‘Wait,’ I cut in. ‘How did you know he was a tourist?’
‘How do I know you fantasize about Kenshin Himura?’
‘Touché,’ said I. I grudgingly conceded three and a half points. She continued.
eyes wallets met; Pluto was reinstated as a planet; there was snow in summer; They got talking.
‘If had a bird for every time a tourist said, “Oh, Africans are such friendly people” I would have an aviary the size of Bulago Island. They never get over how sociable we are.’
‘This is a bad thing?’I asked.
‘It’s just that they overdo it…I have to restrain myself from saying, “Urgh, I have gooey hypersensitivity. Let’s move on.”’
‘…with this very fatalistic tone, moreover, as if friendly is the only thing we are ever going to be good at, as if friendly is the be-all and end-all of our existence.’
‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘this is all sort of beside the point, isn’t it?’
‘Sorry. Anyway, everything was going well until he asked if I was from a rich or poor background.’
I gasped. ‘Nooo. He did not. What did you say?’
‘I said, “What do you mean?—you mean, do I live on more or less than a dollar a day?”’
‘Nooo. You didn’t. And then what did he say?’
‘For a while, nothing. He must have realised he’d blundered.’
‘And then I’m over it.’
Those of you that have had to sit through such inconvenient conver-questions before and aren’t yet over it will be happy to know that your salvation is here. Rather, that it has been around for a while. Thanks to poverty tourism, no one has to suffer such tactlessness any longer. Not the fumbling tourist that’s trying to understand why there are about 3,000,000 less poor people than he expected to find. Not the upper and lower middle-class citizens that are just trying to enjoy a relaxing night after a stressful workday. The idea is that if tourists are curious about how less fortunate people go about the business of being, well, less fortunate, they should find an operator that organises slum tours and get an education.
There is, of course, a sense in which poorism isn’t as new as it appears at first blush; foreigners have been gawking and marvelling at our poverty for decades. The only difference, perhaps, is that there is now a caveat. You can gawk and marvel, but you have to do so ‘ethically’. In other words, you must pay a lot more than a dollar a day to find out how people that have no idea what a dollar looks like get by.
Think of it as a guilt trip people actually pay for. Or not. You could think of it as a ‘sustainable’ way of promoting an, er, ‘appreciation’ of how multifaceted the issue of poverty is. In the latter case, the argument is that by giving foreigners a chance to step into our world and witness firsthand what goes on behind the scenes, we are ‘helping’ them comprehend the magnitude of the problem. Ostensibly, this might be the better way for them to learn that it isn’t always about the absence of a ‘brilliant workaholic ethic’ and/or plain sloppiness that keeps some people poor but a combination of miscellaneous factors (many of which are beyond the average poor person’s control).
A series of ‘meaningful dialogues’ with poor communities might just do the trick; maybe foreigners might not be so quick to pass judgement after.
Well, the thought counts. I think I get the idea. Poor people are people first: their poverty is secondary: they can be counted on to exhibit mostly human behaviour in even the most dehumanizing conditions. Pay to see the iceberg of this super-human defiance—this brave living against all odds—and in so doing, help send a child to school. Like I said, I get the idea.
Still, aren’t the assumptions a bit naive? For instance, what sort of meaningful dialogue are we talking about, exactly?—and what are tourists supposed to do about the results? Take the earliest flight home to kick-start a dozen ‘G8, YOU SUCK BIG TIME’ campaigns?—organise hunger strikes on our behalf?
Another concern has to do with the voyeuristic bit of it:
(‘So you are off to Africa, huh?
‘Oh, to watch poor people being poor.’
‘Sweet. Can I come?’
‘You might as well. Formula 1 doesn’t resume until March. You can’t bum around all day until then.’
‘True. I’ll just go get my toilet bag, then.’)
Is this just another way for people to escape the monotony of their mainstream, first world lives?—and if it is, what’s next on the menu?—tourists sipping on fizzy drinks and watching, round-eyed and open-mouthed, while a group of people hack themselves to death?
Finally, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we spent half as much time trying to understand our issues as we did trying to help foreigners understand them.