August 28, 2009, Tanzania
We visited an African village called Mtu Wa Mbu as part of a “cultural tourism program.” I had read about the proliferation of such programs in Tanzania, and their alleged benefit to local communities, but I was hesitant to participate. However, I was eager to see more of rural Tanzanian life.
The whole program felt grossly voyeuristic. Paternalistic. Colonial. Condesending. (Relatively-)rich-white-person-goes-to-see-how-poor-Africans-live.
That said, I can’t say that it felt exploitative. In fact, I wonder if participating isn’t one of the best contributions I can make to rural economic development. The programs are locally run, and proceeds benefit community development projects. Since the Mtu Wa Mbu program began in 1996, they have used revenues to expand the school and improve the irrigation system. Now they are working on building additional water taps,to improve clean water access for more of community members. Participation in the program by villagers is voluntary. It creates jobs and provides a source of desperately needed cash flow to villages that otherwise have no major source of income. But it remains to be seen whether the disruption of culture and traditions caused by the regular intrusion of Westerners into traditional villages outweighs the economic benefits.
Arguably the local and homegrown nature of such ventures is far better economics and development practice than any kind of internationally-sponsored project, bank loan, or volunteer system. And, on a selfish level, I learned a lot about local agriculture, education, religion, and culture in the process. It may be just another perfect symbiotic relationship of the African bush.
I am very much looking forward to our arrival in Malawi in a few days to start our volunteer work, and I do still believe there is a place for and value in doing such work. However, in terms of pure, direct, bang-for-your-buck benefit to local economic development, I wonder if paticipation in cultural tourism is the better way to go.