When poverty tourism slapped me across the face (and how bias keeps us from learning)
I had an odd experience last week. I was on the gorgeous Kenyan coast enjoying a weekend with friends. We were in Watamu, the earthly manifestation of paradise for weekend travers. On my second day there hanging at the beach with a gaggle of kids someone came up to me and metaphorically slapped me across the face and said, “I am a poverty tourist, can you help me save these poor Kenyans?” Those weren’t his actual words, but they might as well have been.
(photo of the exact spot of the “incident”)
Because it matters for the story, picture this. One white woman and 6 kids of various shades of black hanging out in the shallows of the beach. We were having a really fun time. Out of nowhere a tourist comes strutting down the sand, shirt open and chest hair enjoying a breeze, and stands next to me and asks, “are you working with these kids?”
Am I working with these kids? On this gorgeous tropical beach decked out in a massive sun hat, one of those SPF water shirts, and swim shorts. Surrounded by kids ranging from 2 to maybe 10, all of whom were playing in water.
Uh, no. These two are my kids and these kids are our friends. I didn’t need to tell him that a few of them we just met, they came down the beach to play with mine and my friend’s kid. For him to see a white woman playing with a gaggle of kids of different shades of black could only mean one thing. It surely couldn’t mean that I was just enjoying my life with the people in my life.
A bit sheepishly he said, “oh, sorry. I am looking for volunteer work and thought maybe you would know.” He then went on to say that perhaps he could teach kids how to swim.
Teach kids who live at the ocean to swim? Perhaps you want to teach my kids to swim for free? I have been looking for a swimming instructor in Nairobi. He might as well go to an airport and ask if he can volunteer his services to teach pilots how to fly. He just needed to spend one day interacting with people on the beach to see how obvious it is that the people who grow up on the coast not only know how to swim, but they can navigate the tides and sea life better than any tourist. How ignorant and helpless must he believe Kenyans are? Or perhaps, how desperate was he to be able to go home and say that he volunteered on his holiday to Kenya?
I can’t blame that man for his ignorance. Most of the time Kenya pops up in international news it’s typically to share news about poverty and violence. There is a general misconception that everyone just needs help, any help. Even to teach swimming to the very people who grow up on the water. I am disappointed though.
I chatted the eager and generous man up a bit. I couldn’t leave our conversation at that awful place. It just got a bit worse. Apparently, he’s been around East Africa a bit and has come to holiday here before. He’s from Spain, so it’s not that far. I always assume that when you spend time in a place, you learn. But bias prevents us from learning.
The deeply engrained biases about places like Kenya are so imbedded in our collective psyche that it can blind people from the actual realities on the ground. Our mental models filter what we see and what we understand. That’s the shitty thing about bias, it just sort of reinforces itself no matter how many signals might be indicating the opposite of what we might mistakenly believe.
To anyone reading this: don’t be that guy. Don’t assume that people in Kenya, or anywhere in Africa or the world, know less than you and need your help. It might very well be the exact opposite. Kids growing up in Watamu cannot just swim in the ocean, they can feed you delicious fish, crab, octopus they procure from said ocean. They can also catch puffer fish and get them to display their spikes for you before releasing them back in the water. And if a young kid new to the water gulps a big chunk and chokes a bit, they’ll know how to help her recover.