Poverty tours travel a fine line
Does peeking at how the other five-sixths lives preserve culture – or commodify it?
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"Often, rich Western tourists are interested to see people who have a strong cultural and social ethic – which they often don't have themselves," he says. "One thing that's clear is … that the economic poor are often culturally rich."Skip to next paragraph
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South Africa's townships have become some of the most popular destinations of this kind. Michael Huber, an Austrian who visited Cape Town last summer, says he wanted to understand the legacy of apartheid in the townships, but the idea of visiting other people's poverty made him uncomfortable.
"I think I always had the fear of … looking at other people in a way that basically makes them a spectacle," says Mr. Huber, a newspaperman who took a tour of Langa Township, one of several areas where blacks were relocated under apartheid. "But I was able to talk to people and get their perspective, have them reassure me that it's an OK thing to do, that it actually means something to them. And I learned a lot about life in a South African township that I only could have learned by actually going there."
In Rwanda, a few small-scale companies try to capitalize on gorilla trekking by offering side trips to communities in the country's northwest. The Millennium Village tour, run by New Dawn Associates, a tourism agency based in Kigali, is a departure from most add-on tourism in Rwanda, where day-trips tend to focus on genocide memorials.
"We work with people who would like to have … a holistic experience – see the culture, the authentic local life," says Michael Grosspietsch, one of the company's founders. "It's a combination of real tourism and education."
Nearly 500 tourists, paying about $90 each, have visited Mayange since tours began in mid-2007. Seventy percent of New Dawn's profits, roughly $35 per person per tour, goes back into the village. Most of it is donated to the local tourism cooperative, which has sprung up independent of both New Dawn and the UN, to make decisions about how to invest the tourism windfall and to generate ideas to attract even more visitors.
A token sum also goes directly to the people whom tourists visit. One of those is Apollonaire Rwabuzisoni, who farms cassava, bananas, and sorghum on his small plot. On a woven mat in front of his home, his wife dries sorghum seeds she'll use to brew a local indulgence. His cow chomps grass in a small thatch-roofed hut.
Mr. Rwabuzisoni leads visitors down a skinny dirt path to his cassava patch. He hacks with a hoe at the roots of what looks like a sickly weed with tall, crooked branches and thin green leaves. After about a minute, he uncovers a long, plump cassava root. He peels it with a sharp knife, then offers visitors slices; it has the texture of coconut, meaty and milky, and the bitter taste of potato peels.
Rwabuzisoni's farm is on the tour to show visitors how the UN's intervention helps local farmers. Planting in rows increases output, and the cassava Rwabuzisoni grows is genetically modified to give a beefier root than most. He'll make about $2 for his time with the tourists, and a dollar more for the root he's dug and diced up to serve them. (Ninety percent of Rwandans live on less than $2 a day.) For no extra charge, he sends each visitor off with a few bananas from his trees.
"It's part of Rwandan culture" he explains. "If someone visits you, it's not right that they leave without eating something."
So Ms. Murungi takes tourists to a tailor and a hairdresser, where visiting women like to get a small piece of their hair braided. They wander through the market, where guides point out food: the sweet-and-sour ibinyomoro, diamond-shaped red fruits called "tree tomatoes," or small, green Rwandan eggplants that end up tough and bitter in the hands of inexperienced cooks. These are all things Rwandans would gladly show any ordinary visitor, sans SUV and prepaid tour package; the country has largely cultivated a tradition of hospitality, and locals are usually welcoming without the promise of a few dollars.