After ten days I’ve just about recovered from a trip to Kenya, including unravelling all the rasta-plaits that enabled me to look half presentable in the absence of showers. All hail the basic British bob.
I’ve been drowning in people’s oohs and aahs at the very mention of the country: apparently the safaris there are out of this world but anyone who thinks that I can afford 5* Safari accommodation complete with jeep, game driver, security etc etc etc is also on another planet.
As I sat in the airport, longing for the flight home to start boarding, immersed in my thoughts, not all of which were charitable, I heard a couple who had been celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary on just such a safari sharing their holiday with an NGO project leader who happened to be sitting opposite. The luxury and joy they described bore no resemblance to the journey I had just made and as we waited on the tarmac for yet another ‘technical fault’ to be resolved before take-off, the on-board magazine informed me that I would be parting with a cool 11k for ten days in that little oasis – come the revolution.
Now, I heartily endorse treating your other half magnificently after two and a half decades of squabbles over washing up, toothpaste lids, the wheelie bin and who’s having the kids on Saturday that plague those engaged in love overcoming all things during two short lifetimes. After all, my Mum and my sisters treated our Uncle and Aunt to a trip on the Orient Express for their silver wedding anniversary. Good for them.
But I did take issue with the surrounding 60% of us who were recounting our ‘charitable missions’ in a wide variety of Kenyan circumstances that had little if anything to do with real poverty such as those living in slums, those without access to food, education, roofs over their heads or access to water. In the two adjoining rows I reckoned that enough airfare to pay for two youth workers on Ordsall in Salford estate to work full-time for at least a year had been spent on journeys by those who felt that they were doing good or supporting others in difficult economic circumstances. But some of those circumstances were simply another culture where a democracy remains dependent upon some skewed post-colonial legacy.
Of course, the NGO talked eloquently of her work with a charity whose name, sadly, I didn’t catch as a mere eavesdropper. But I do know it was about indigenously lead community regeneration that would enable and empower the community members to make their own trajectory, for good or ill, in the future. They enable it over five years and then withdraw. Totally. And there’s the rub.
On our own doorstep we live an attitude of ‘ you made your bed’ or ‘know your station’ or – let’s be brutally honest here, ‘tough, I fought my way out, you get off your backside and do the same’. We endlessly judge those from a different culture or background to us, judging people’s drinking or smoking habits, even the TV programmes they watch or e clothes that they wear. The upshot is, we condemn such people to their circumstances as if their we’re wholly responsible for market forces, and academic, economic and social hierarchy dictating lifestyle. What, you’ve never heard the term ‘white trash?’ But when is the last time you saw a five year plan to enable a council estate, for example, to be turned around to empower and motivate a community to turn itself around and build its own future?
But we’ll jump on a plane and condemn a democratic republic with very clear socio-economic hierarchies as we wade into the communities and cultures we denigrate on our own doorstep all hung-no about stepping up to the plate with our faith or altruistic drivers energising us changing the lives of others. Surely an alcoholic of any colour or language deserves the same treatment? I spoke to as many NGOs as I could (the last hotel I stayed in was basically populated by them and the odd lorry driver on an over-nighter) and everyone one of them told stories I would love to be hearing right here on my doorstep.
One man and his mother took a teenage girl and found her a hairdressing apprenticeship and a family she could live with whilst she was a college. They set up another young man with a local garage to train as a mechanic living with another employee. The man – a really lovely Christian guy as it hapoens – was amazed that it simply took him arriving with a two line letter, hastily written and bingo. Job done. Happily they left Kenya keenly feeling the difference they had made in those two young person’s lives. I’m really not sure you hear too much of that going on over here and there’s a part of me that wonders if the state would even allow it. I’m thinking of the homeless claimant who needs an address to receive benefits and so the merry go round continues on its merry way. No, you will not pass go or collect two hundred pounds until you achieve the impossible.
A Kenyan woman with her own business kitting out Nairobi’s hotels and plush suburbs with soft furnishings, swags and tails, after telling us all about the equivalent of £400k she and her husband had just put down for their plot of land on which was being built a beautiful house, tried to tap us for money day after day. I can still hear her words spilled out to us white people before she’d even realised what she’d said, ‘oh yes, you’re quite right; when you see a white person coming, you just think, ‘right, how much can I get out of this one?’ She rubbed her hands together and laughed momentarily before her eye widened at her own lack of discretion.
My travelling companion and I encountered rascist abuse almost every day ranging from scathing interactions and over-charging irrespective of clearly displayed payment charges as people muttered ‘huh, musungu’ (white person) under their breath, to very aggressive men shouting rascist abuse in English down the street to attempted theft, aggressively sexual approaches and harassment that often required other Kenyans to step in. One Kenyan woman was shouted at so violently for standing up for us, she was called every name under the sun by the ticket collector who almost chucked her off in the middle of nowhere for standing up for musungus. To get off a bus after a crammed, five hour, 40degree journey, lugging a rucksack, whilst wearing a dog collar having hot-footed it from a never-ending service to be met with groups of people clearly *not* happy to welcome you to their country has to be experienced to be understood.
To stay in perfectly respectable hostelries and visit perfectly respectable restaurants and banks where every door is locked and unlocked around you by men with batons. Where you are advised to walk around in groups in broad daylight (difficult if you’re not travelling with one). Where the good guys are always stepping in to protect you from the bad guys at cash points and tills and at bus stops. Both myself and my companion have been to other (curfew end and dangerous) parts of Africa before yet neither had felt a hostility like this that was continual and overtly aggressive.
Now I’m not saying that there isn’t real need in Kenya, I’m sure that there is. But just we have Govt policy, law, order, and the opportunity to think about water supply, food supply and how to look after our poor, so do they. I saw just as much obscene wealth there as I do here. I saw just as much inequality, and I hear some Kenyans speak about other Kenyans the way that we speak about our underclasses. Some found it amusing that we help their alcoholics or people who ‘don’t want to work’ (yes, their words).
After just two weeks I was left with an uncomfortable feeling that much of this was just a form of colonialism that appeared to be charitable but effected little in terms of self-sufficiency and real lasting change from the infrastructure that is not actually our responsibility. As the bus hurtled down the trunk road, little more than a shed load of prayer on a couple of rusty axles, overloaded and in danger of thuggery or worse at every turn, we passed medical centre after medical centre, US, UK, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Humanist (yes, that’s righ!), Czech, Polish, German, Swedish – I can’t even begin on the different denominations, need I go on?
And as I saw this, I heard another woman’s words in my ears, ‘why don’t we do these things? Well we don’t need to do we, not if you lot are coming over and doing it for us?’ She laughed as if we couldn’t see our own stupidity, as if the joke was on us and we were the one’s deserving of their sympathy. ‘Look how much Aid we get, we don’t need to worry about it, there is always somebody to help. They will do it for us.’
But on Orsdall Estate, where next year the Youth Centre will stand empty because there are no more funds for youth workers, in an area of the worst socio-economic deprivation, highest unemployment rates, highest health indicators, where benefits are about to drop dramatically, in a place where youth unemployment, young people’s mental health and those from abused and dysfunctional backgrounds have little if any support, what are we doing? Saving our airfare for our next charitable venture?
I’ve been in countries and visited projects where people are in desperate need of our help and I wholeheartedly support people getting stuck and making a vital difference to those who cannot, *cannot* do it for themselves. But I know that this trip has taught me that I need to open my own front door and see the needs rut in front of me before I waste my time and money flying halfway around the world to meddle in somebody else’s backyard.
It was an expensive lesson to learn, in time and money and although obviously it’s very personal to me, I hope that as developing countries start to stand on their own two feet, we will start looking at the needs of our own communities as a country and look at some of the real social issues that are clamouring for our attention right on our doorsteps. We need to rethink our view of countries that have really moved on unlike our peculiarly colonial charitable thinking.
I hope I won’t get a stream of people telling me about their sex worker projects in India being denigrated by this piece, because that is absolutely not what I am talking about, more power to your elbow. But I hope I do go someway to questioning whether compassion tourism is the best use of a truly charitable heart and its purse strings.