Experiential travel is one of the biggest buzzwords in today’s rapidly changing travel industry, but there’s more than one way to get under the skin of a country. For ultimate cultural immersion, a voluntour provides you with the perfect mix, and there’s a deeper sense of commitment when the holiday is focused on the objectives of one organization or community. In Africa, you might be involved in one-to-one teaching or working as part of a wildlife conservation team, but either way, it’s the reason behind the holiday not an add on excursion on a longer tour.
On the other side of the coin, what can you really achieve in one day, or one single afternoon for that matter? The answer is simple, and it really boils down to how you view tourism, and yourself as a tourist.
For me, the word tourist conjures up images of my parents heading back to the Spanish coastal town of Lloret De Mar. This being their honeymoon destination, I’m sure for them it had that added tinge of nostalgia. And, while there was probably more on offer than the wall-to-wall trinkets, complete with endless rows of donkeys and boxed dolls dressed in national costume, I guess the wheels of ethical travel hadn’t quite kicked in. Move on three decades and even your luxury dining establishment in Cape Town will have a more of responsible flair.
One of the new seven wonders of the world, Table Mountain is perhaps one of South Africa’s best known natural ambassadors, and the mother city hosts any number of events from the Red Bull Big Wave surf contest to Pride and beyond. But sampling award winning wines, gourmet delicacies and tripping the light fantastic in the city’s lively bars could well feel you leaving like you’ve missed a trick.
Volunteering in Africa
Enter, the Townships, and Langa, the largest settlement lying 15-kms from the center of South Africa’s provincial capital. For some, the location might mean going outside of their comfort zone, but in real terms it all depends on your exposure to the globe. Experiential tourism isn’t a fad, it’s a wave of enlightenment, and most of us are now craving the reality of a destination even if it’s far removed from our own.
We stop being tourists when communities invite us in, and Township tours are undertaken by real locals. It’s no longer traveler-centric as it’s the community that is choosing to share their story. Some might see it as voyeurism, but in essence it’s a chance to discuss the history of apartheid and in that sense a very informative experience. The afternoon excursion also creates opportunities for those who want to offer educational resources via their local guide. For others it also serves as a basis to go further. On a return visit that person might be compelled to play a more active role, take on a voluntour in Africa or even do more in their own home town/city.
In terms of cultural immersion, a Township tour may not provide the same depth as a lengthier voluntour, but there is a sense of engagement in the history of the community and the here and now. In addition, there’s also an overwhelming sense of acceptance, whether you’re entering a family home or visiting a Shabeen (local bar). But, more importantly it’s about mindset. While some travelers might see poverty, paradoxically the locals are often thinking about change, improvement and moving forwards. At that point, your status as a tourist is never clearly defined, and real change, no matter how short lived, comes from sharing and connecting with communities.
5 thoughts on “To Be, Or Not To Be A Tourist ― Volunteering in Africa”
I agree. My volunteering experiences have allowed me to learn more about the people and the communities I’ve visited, as well as the country. Most memorable was working at a brown bear refuge in Croatia (in the mountains away from the coast where most tourists go). The people of the village were so accepting of us and I really hope that our volunteer work camp helped in some small way. Thanks for your blog.
I’ve been on the other side. When I was younger, an uncle who worked in the industry would often bring tourists (yes, that’s what they were called then) to our home. My family, especially my grandmother, was always glad to welcome them and she’d share all kind of stories. Several tourists offered to “sponsor” my uncle to the US because they felt he’d do much better there. He never wanted to leave. We were comfortably middle class (by our standards) so we didn’t want anything, just to share our hospitality. But even at that age, I felt like a specimen and maybe because of that, I find those visits a bit uncomfortable and usually shy away from them.
Wow, interesting…. It is very intriguing to me to hear it from both angles. That type of — umm, shall we call it a — more worldly understanding, an ability to recognize AND appreciate the situation from both angles, regardless of personal or political stance…that is why I travel! So yes, thanks again for sharing!
I agree, Derek. The more we travel, the more we learn.
It’s so worthwhile to get off the beaten path and see and appreciate how the other half lives.
Hmmm….there is a flip-side to voluntourism, however. Basically the people who don’t contribute anything, snap a lot of photos, and then feel that by hanging around for an afternoon, that they’ve accomplished something. It’s a growing problem in developing nations and I don’t think the phrase is something that should be encouraged – either become a volunteer and do something worthwhile – putting time and energy in for more then a day – or acknowledge that you’re a tourist and don’t pretend otherwise.