July 6, 2015
Right now I’m in Kenya for the first time since my third grade heart got set on coming since my teacher, a former missionary here, described buffalo gorings and snakes being cut open to reveal live babies.Obviously, I had to go. Kenya is my 30th country. I’m super excited to be here working on photo stories forThe Adventure Project and Africa New Life as well as touring schools with The Nobelity Project. Ostensibly, this trip is for work, but really, I was eager to come and explore on my own.
Last week I traveled briefly with a person who, I can only imagine, carries a lot of white guilt or self delusion or something, because he just didn’t get it. When we passed by schools, he lobbed soccer balls into hordes of children and videotaped it. Kind of like throwing feed to koi, it caused thrashing and fights. Hopefully the balls didn’t end up deflated and none of the kids were injured. Hopefully the kids don’t grow up expecting this Santa aberration whenever they see cars of white people pass by. Later that evening, the guy walked up to a perfectly normal looking person in the parking lot outside a grocery store and handed them 500 Kenyan shillings and wished them the best. Because, well, I don’t know why — they were Kenyan? they were black? Somehow, he had decided that they deserved his charity. I was gobsmacked.
The most stomach churning part came when we passed an accident and there was a dead guy face down in the road (which I’ve seen more times than I would like while traveling abroad) and the guy in our van shutter-clicked the whole way through like the medical examiner. What the hell is he going to do with those photos? How is he going to explain it when those come up on his screen saver? Not everything is a photo opportunity. Around this point, I began to wonder if maybe he’s just a bad person all-around and not simply a bad tourist.
The kicker (oh yeah, this was all within about 36 hours) came when our team was working on a photo shoot, taking beautiful pictures of a family in their garden that had become more green and productive with the purchase of a water pump we are promoting. The guy took one of the producers aside and asked if the photo subject should change clothes because she didn’t look poor enough. Forcryingout… I didn’t ask him to change out of his fully ventilated REI safari outfit because he didn’t look cool enough. Since when is it appropriate to tell people how they should dress in their own homes? And poor doesn’t mean undignified, for goodness’ sake.
I say all of this not really to dump on the guy (but while we’re at it!), but to explain why I didn’t come to Africa. I didn’t come to save anyone, offer anyone money, to take pictures of terrible things or to convince myself that I am different from anyone. I didn’t come with the expectation of poor people looking poor or commanding my sympathy. I came because Kenya is freaking awesome. So often I tell people that I’m headed to (some developing country), and they say “Oh that’s so nice of you,” automatically assuming that I’m making myself miserable or doing someone a solid by visiting their shitty country. I truly just love places that some people assume are only mission-trip worthy. There’s beautiful hiking in Haiti. Rwandan bird watching is top-notch. Some of the best, most luxurious (and, okay, the worst) experiences of my life have been in India. I go to Cuba for the beaches, Nepal for the scenery and Malaysia has the best street food you could hope for.
If anything, while traveling I rely on the mercies of others — endless cups of tea, directions, translations, borrowed phone minutes. All of this from people who might have less money than I do, but they share of their country and themselves with me. I didn’t come here for them, I came here for me. And that’s okay, I think. There’s a glorification of selfless travel, of the typical three days of “building” a school or “digging” a well with a day of beach and shopping at the end, that is truly misguided. Travel is enough. Travel responsibly, sustainably, lightly, respectfully, humbly, generously. That is what other countries want from us as Americans, I think. They don’t want our charity; they want our tourism and our respect as equals. Leave the soccer balls and the vented safari hats at home and just be yourself. Unless you truly can’t help yourself. Then you should go to Europe and a French person can look down on you for being tasteless. What goes around comes around.