When I was 23, I lived in Udaipur, India for 3 months. When I was 24, I moved to Seoul, South Korea to teach English for a year. I have traveled to Nicaragua, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia. Now, having lived in Uganda for almost 4 months and nearing the end of my time here, I have been reflecting on questions I often get asked by family and friends while I am away and when I return home.
The first question that I tend to get asked is: are you safe? Is it dangerous? This question stems from a place full of love and concern for my safety, but is a question that I wouldn’t really get asked if I was living in Switzerland, or even the United States. This question drips with colonial/post-colonial/Othering stereotypes. There is an assumption that these places are dangerous and that I am ‘brave’ to go there. ‘Developing’ spaces are painted as places that are always on the brink of war, where people are overcome by emotions, where there is corruption, a lack of law and order, and are scary to visit. Yes, scary places do exist to visit. And yes, while travelling, sometimes bad things do happen (although some/many of these can be attributed to a lack of cross-cultural competence). However, the places that I have lived in and been to are no where near close to being conflict zones. When responding to these questions, it is hard to realistically delve into the legitimate risks (Uganda has a much higher traffic accident rate than Canada, so I need to be cautious on the roads; as a white Westerner who appears to be affluent, I am more likely to be pit-pocketed than a local), what is the same as back home (just like in Canada, I don’t walk around by myself at night, because, just like in Canada, there might be a couple creepy people out there), and things that are plain silly (no, there is no civil war here. Or as I experience when living in South Korea, no North Korea is not going to drop a nuclear bomb on us). Only asking this question to people who visit countries in the Global South overlooks the fact that conflict, violence, and lack of safety are things that can happen anywhere. One of my professors was robbed in Barcelona, Spain. A girl in Kingston, Ontario was attacked outside of her house for speaking out against a Men’s Rights group while I was at Queen’s. Cops shut down a street in my hometown because there was someone stabbing people on the loose. We, as a society, seem to have designated certain areas as “safe”, which, to be honest, tend to be white, Western spaces, and “unsafe” spaces tend to be ‘ethnic’, ‘tribal’, or ‘developing’. When we designate the “other” as unsafe, we are (intentionally or unintentionally) glossing over the violence that exists in our own context.It’s not to say that bad things don’t happen in these spaces, or that they don’t have challenges, or you don’t need to take precautions, but it reflects the fact that we see ourselves as exceptional, as outside the realm of violence. This is especially damaging as it can also mask how we, as Canadians, are connected with the rest of the world: a Canadian-owned gold mining company, Barrick Gold, operating in Tanzania is facing backlash after a government inquiry which found that through its use of police force, 65 people have been killed and over 270 people injured (click here to read the story). Another Canadian mining company, Nevsun Resources, is fighting a lawsuit that it has used slavery in its mining operations in Eritrea (click here to read the story). The list goes on and on of Canadian companies who are engaged in resource extraction being party to human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Violence is not insular and not exceptional. We are all implicated.
Another question I get asked is: you must feel very grateful after seeing all the poverty over there? This one has usually stumped me. The easy/simple answer: Yes. I feel lucky. It’s hard to witness poverty. The slightly more thorough answer is: I am grateful for all of the privilege that I have. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to travel. I am grateful that I have been able to go to school. I am grateful that I have the privilege of choice.
Both of these answers, however, are incomplete. The long answer takes a lot more time and isn’t one that most people expect/want to hear. Focusing on this type of gratitude implies (and creates) this weird power differential between us as ‘people who have things’ and them as ‘people who don’t have things’. Having studied voluntourism and listened to talks by people like the Kielburger brothers (celebrity-crazed, commercialized “We Days” anyone?), we are bombarded by messages about how travelling will change your life – it will make you realize all that you have (by seeing people who don’t have as many things – and yet can still smile and be happy!), make you a better person (by giving things to people/building a school), and change your values (building humility through helping people who have less than you).Travelling/voluntouring will transform you into a new/better person [insert Facebook profile picture of you with black children]!
This view of people who live differently than us is (as people to be compared against and who come up lacking) is ridiculously patronizing. It places us at the center, as the agents of change, going into a static/timeless culture to help them progress. It simplifies and reduces people. It negates the good, the positive, the instances where people over here have their s*!t figured out and know what’s up and instead focuses on what people don’t have – instead of seeing people who have a way more environmental lifestyle, we see people who lack material things. Instead of seeing a child who is playing outside with their friends, we see a kid with no shoes and dirt on their face. Instead of seeing many conflicts as vestiges of colonialism/neo-colonialism, we see them as “tribal”. We gloss over the systems of community and reciprocity where people pitch in for each other’s weddings, funerals and celebrations, where you greet people that you know and become friends with strangers (and they don’t think you’re crazy like back home), and you are physically active. We are surprised that people living in “places like this” can still smile and be happy. We get annoyed when people in developing countries express frustration at persistent inequality between countries (don’t they know we’re trying to help them?!).
People here, just like people everywhere, are just people, insofar that they’re all unique and complex. People are more than their sum parts. They are more than their poverty, their religion, their family, or their good/bad days. When we talk about the Global South/Developing world, we need to move away from paternalistic, simplistic and patronizing interpretations of people living in other areas. We need to check ourselves, and hold integrity and dignity as a core value. We don’t need Western, middle-class teenagers going to ‘Africa’ to build a school. We need those same teenagers to help level the playing field by holding corporations accountable, calling for changes to trade regulations, and holding governments accountable to fulfill their duties. We don’t need to “empower” people in other countries. We need to respect people who already know what they want to change in their own country (which often includes how Western countries need to stop patronizing/exploiting them). We need to work in solidarity and collaboration across cultures, which means taking an honest look at both the good and the bad of both the country you’re in, and the society you come from. So more than feeling grateful, I recognize the structural/Western privilege I enjoy by virtue of being born in Canada and I am lucky to meet and learn new things from wonderfully intelligent, kind people.