Poverty tours travel a fine line
Does peeking at how the other five-sixths lives preserve culture – or commodify it?
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But Josh Ruxin, who founded the Millennium Village at Mayange in 2005, says the conceit of a tour alters the relationship between foreigners and locals in a beneficial way. After generations of well-intentioned handouts from tourists, who bring everything from candy to soccer balls, "the perspective in kids is, 'Outsiders come to give us stuff,' " Mr. Ruxin says. "We need to turn that on its head. Tourism shows, 'This community has value, for which we will be paid.' It's a totally different way of thinking about mzungus."Skip to next paragraph
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It's also a totally different way of thinking for the mzungus. Grosspietsch's clients say they see Rwanda as an optimistic country making admirable, if incremental, steps toward economic prosperity.
"We have been on every continent except Antarctica," Donna McNeese-Smith, an American, says of her and her husband, "and I can't think of any trip we've enjoyed as much. The places we went were all places that were contributing to progress in Rwanda."
They say the tour also showed them the human side of the country's immense everyday challenges. Over a lunch of rice, beans, and goat meat at an orphanage for young adults who survived the genocide, "I asked … if this was what they ate all the time," Ms. Mc-Neese Smith says. "They said, 'Pretty much, except they only have meat and Coca-Cola when you come, because you pay for the meat."
McNeese-Smith and her husband took their two-week immersion so seriously that they joined in umuganda, a community cleanup that happens nationwide on the last Saturday of every month. Together with locals, they picked up trash along the road in front of their hotel, Kigali's only five-star. "They enjoyed seeing us doing manual labor," Bill McNeese-Smith says. "They thought we were maybe beyond that somehow."
Other tourists have been inspired to help out when they get home. Helen Kweskin, an English teacher at a private school in Stamford, Conn., went to Rwanda on a professional exchange, managed locally by New Dawn.
Inspired by the hard work of her colleagues in Rwanda, Ms. Kweskin started a nonprofit organization to raise funds to buy books, school uniforms, and other educational supplies. "If they need books, it seems the least one can do here is bloody well find them books, or school uniforms, or sports uniforms," she says. "It's not so hard."
But this spring, Mayange farmers will harvest their first crop of pomegranates, introduced after a suggestion by a visitor from the US. And if you visit Rwabuzisoni, he'll invite you inside and show you a picture of him and his family with an Australian couple who came here last year. It hangs in his home's place of honor, between a drawing of Jesus and a drawing of Mary.
"I'm black, and they're white, and they come from so far. To travel so far and be friends, for them to send me something – it amuses me very much," he says with a wide smile. "I only wish the visitors could spend a long time, maybe drink some fruit juice, maybe eat some eggs – you all like eggs so much. I wish we could talk for hours. I hate when you run away."
[Editor's note: The original version spelled "Mayange" incorrectly throughout the text.]