Worlds Collide

(Gosh, that was all getting a bit emo there for a minute wasn’t it? Like a fleeting return to my early naughties LiveJournal days. What’s needed here is some decent deconstruction to chase the melancholy away. I know just the thing…)

IMG_5519The tourists arrived in two open top safari cars, the sound of the over-powered 4×4 engines practically drowned out by the flickering of camera shutters and the wondering gasps of rich Western city-dwellers confronted by the sight of mud-brick houses roofed with leaves. They were bedecked in the greys and khakis and greens of expensive jungle gear bought especially for this short sojourn into the fringes of the rainforest, their necks adorned with high-end camera bodies attached to pricey glass. They descended, cameras glued to their faces, shooting wordlessly as curious villagers came to greet them. With some bemusement they were shepherded over to the village chief, sat by the remains of a fire in his deerskin chair, who proffered a hand for each of them to shake. Then they were shepherded back again, cameras still snapping, to a row of plastic garden chairs; fine luxury in this part of the world, laid out especially for them. They settled – each with one camera in their laps and one poised, ready, viewfinder to eyeball – to watch the singing and dancing that would take place in their honour. And not one of them had any inkling of the mess their fleeting collision with this other world had caused.

Visits to indigenous villages have become a staple of tourism in the so-called Global South, as sightseers from across the price spectrum – luxury travellers and backpackers alike – have proven themselves hungry for glimpses of peoples and worlds unlike their own. Such ventures are often marketed as alternative livelihood solutions for communities living in poverty – particularly in conservation areas where local people are no longer permitted to hunt and gather as they used to. Branded as “eco-” or “sustainable” tourism, the fluffy language in which they are couched for consumption by the globetrotting occidental middle-classes serves largely to mask the deep power imbalances and pernicious consequences that tend to permeate such projects. This was only the third time tourists had visited Mboka*, the most easily accessible indigenous village on the outskirts of the National Park where I’d been working – and just as on the previous two occasions, (and completely unbeknownst to the camera-laden Swedes and Americans), it had been preceded by several days of arguments, in-fighting and, sometimes violent, conflict.

IMG_5497The theory goes that tourism can generate a supplementary income for communities like Mboka, but it is precisely this income that lies at the root of many of the problems. Cash is something of a poisoned chalice in the rural landscape of Congo, where the economies of local and indigenous villages have only recently begun to monetise. Where previous subsistence practices, based on immediate-return hunting and gathering, had drawn on a cosmology that emphasised the necessity of sharing and ensured more-or-less egalitarian social relations between people, money has introduced alien concepts such as private property and the capacity to store and conceal value from others. All fairly well when the sums are small, but Western tourists become rapidly associated with untold riches that no one can agree on how to divide appropriately. To further complicate matters, the “indigenous people” that the tourists come to see are so entangled in discriminatory relationships with their agriculturalist neighbours that any money the tourists bring in is soon captured by local elites. And, when spent, it rarely goes on the schools and medical care that the tourists desire to provide, but more often on problematic consumables, such as alcohol.

The National Park’s social team are trying hard to work out how to introduce a tourism scheme that won’t result in rampant alcoholism and elite capture, however most of the proposed solutions are necessarily paternalistic and deny much self-determination to the indigenous populations in deciding how money earned from tourism will be spent. In fact, some suggestions that the population have made – such as corrugated tin sheets to replace the leaf roofs of their houses – have been directly denied, for fear that the tourists will be put off by such an “inauthentic” look. At the same time, concerns that if the tourists’ visits are not “structured” enough then they won’t feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth are motivating Park employees to push communities into developing hierarchical organisational structures, and to “packaging” indigenous dances, songs, households and culture into repeatable, accessible morsels removed from their wider cosmological and ecological significance. This sort of approach can serve largely to exoticise and “other” indigenous lives in the eyes of those who come to watch, while at the same time rendering the actual practices on which the tourist-friendly versions are based things of a half-remembered past.

IMG_5499The irony of the whole situation is that if it wasn’t for the presence of the National Park then an income from tourism wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. While it was established to protect elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other coveted species (coveted, that is, by foreign markets and conservationists, rather than necessarily by local people), the Park itself is one of the biggest drivers of the species loss it seeks to avoid. Indigenous people have hunted and gathered in remote areas of forest like this for thousands of years using sustainable practices that have ensured animal populations can thrive. However, the establishment of the Park brought tourists and management staff, and the tourists and management staff needed roads and a service economy. The roads make access easier for illegal poachers intent on feeding ivory-hungry Chinese markets. The service economy has prompted the development of a thriving bushmeat trade. Both hunter-gatherer and farmer populations are now denied access to large swathes of land, and therefore to the ability to move around as animal populations fluctuate. Formerly sustainable practices have been rendered unsustainable, and draconian enforcement measures used by Park-employed “ecoguards” mean that local people end up not just hungry, but often badly abused.

Short wonder they are wary of new livelihood initiatives the Park is bringing in; as our research assistant commented: “I think that the people here would prefer it if the white people left altogether and they were able to get on with hunting like they want to.” I’d be inclined to agree, if it wasn’t for the fact that in the face of the current global land grab the National Park is almost certainly the only thing keeping out forestry firms, palm oil companies, and now coltan prospectors. The Congolese government is already planning a new road through this region; when it arrives, tourism may be the least of their worries.


*I’ve used a false name, for obvious reasons. While my feelings about indigenous tourism and fortress conservation come across pretty clearly here, I have an enormous amount of respect for the National Park employees working in this context – they have a tough brief and not a lot of options in the face of global forces they can’t control.

Robbed in Egypt

[singlepic id=4 w=320 h=240 float=left]Before myself and my three companions left the safety of our homes in Blighty last week, we knew that in the adventures ahead there were a few traumas that at some point or another on our journey we would have to face. We knew that long nights of vomiting and diahorrea would become comfortable normality, that regular showers would become a distant memory, that hot showers would become a barely believed myth and that we would be risking almost certain mild peril in every destination that we visited. We also knew, with our packs stuffed with expensive cameras, solar powered gadgetry and plastic currency, that we were bound at some point to get robbed. We prepared long and hard for all eventualities; mountains of Imodium, rehydration sachets, all purpose soap, dry soap and SAS survival guides weigh down our secure bags, protected from slashing and pick-pocketing by exomesh cages and security alarms. But despite all of our best forward thinking and planning, none of us were prepared for the foe we would meet only hours after we’d stepped off the plane in our first destination – Cairo, Egypt. We were robbed of our money quickly and effectively, not by the gun toting desperados against whom we had sought to defend ourselves, but instead by our seemingly kindly hostel owner who claimed that he just wanted to help the four poor, exhausted white girls who had stumbled through his door to see all that they wanted to in Egypt safely. In short, we were stiffed. Tired from the hours of flights, grumpy from the lack of our checked baggage that had actually made it to Cairo with us, disarmed by “welcome drinks” and (in my case) uncomfortable from pissing daggers every time I used the bathroom, we were in no place to resist the hard sell or to disbelieve the patter that this was the cheapest and best way we could see all of Egypt’s many sights. It wasn’t until the next morning when we woke up from a refreshing sleep and began to decipher who and where we were and how we’d gotten there that we began to wonder exactly how we’d both signed up to and paid for that hideously expensive tour of Egypt the night before.

It could have been an awful lot worse. We did actually get a tour of Egypt for a start, and although well beyond the shoestring budget that I had been planning to stick to, it was a very nice and well organised tour of Egypt. We were sorted out with student cards so that entry to all the sites would be half the adult price, met in each new town by a local rep, shown around each temple and tomb by a knowledgeable guide, ferried from place to place by private minibus and lodged in hotels that were nicer than any accommodation that we can expect for the rest of the trip (one of them even had a rooftop swimming pool). Had we been on a holiday to Egypt, with no pretentions of going any further no doubt we would have been delighted. But we weren’t. Well, I’m being a bit generalist here; I wasn’t. There was something about the whole affair that offended me, and not just because I thought I’d been ripped off. Not just because I think we were patronised for being female either, although that certainly came into it. Making our own way around Egypt on local transport would have been much cheaper, but it wasn’t the price that was the point – it was the “making our own way”. After even the first day of being driven around by pre-organised drivers from place to place, met by guides, guided around monuments and then allowed a small amount of “free time” to take some photos and have a closer look before our next pick-up we all felt utterly smothered and molly-coddled and like we weren’t in any way the independent travellers that we’d set out to be. We had become just like all of the other tourists being ferried around Egypt in coaches and on boats, seeing all of the same tourist sights, and never getting an insight into the “authentic”, “real” Egypt that we felt should be the preserve of independent travellers like ourselves. It was this that we had been robbed of.

[singlepic id=7 w=320 h=240 float=right]The distinction between “travellers” and “tourists” is of course a pretension. People who call themselves “travellers” do so to set themselves apart from the “mere tourists”, upon whom they look down from a lofty high ground built on their certainty that they find a richer and more fulfilling experience in their vagabond-like wanderings than anyone on an all-expenses paid tour to see the sights. I have to admit, it’s a pretension I find it difficult not to ascribe to; there’s something about spending a night in a cramped and battered bus chatting merrily to a local in some poor pidjin approximation of your language and their own that you feel the “tourists” in their air-conditioned tour buses where they sit next to only other tourists will never be privy to, and maybe that’s true, but both are looking to see something new. The new that they’re looking for might be different in each case, but in the eyes of those whose countries they’ve come to visit they are all tourists, one and the same. And in the words of Jarvis Cocker, everybody hates a tourist. Well, that’s perhaps not quite true, but in Egypt and I suspect much of the rest of Africa, everybody is out to make money off a tourist, whether they want to look at temples from the comfort of their tourist bus, or meet “local” people doing “local” things – after all cultural, volunteer and adventure tourism is a big market these days, and the world is full of backpackers, budding travel writers and shoestring travellers all after a more “authentic” experience than everyone else.

Authenticity is an interesting concept, and one highlighted very well by the pretensions of world travellers. It begs the question – what is an authentic experience and what isn’t – particularly in a world where tourism is such a big market that the extent of cultural change that has taken place in the last few hundred years and the influences of globalisation are often removed from the picture in the name of “authenticity”. Is the recreation of a “traditional” Masaai Village in Kenya, with songs, beaded tribal costumes and handicrafts more “authentic” than a visit to such a village when the inhabitants aren’t decked out in the tribal finery that they reserve for the tourist buses, and are instead clad in jeans and t-shirts, talking to friends in the city on their mobile phones? The answer would depend on who you talk to, but its a contentious one – Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things talks of the way people define authenticity as a kind of “cultural capital”, used by people in place of more traditional displays of wealth to mark out their place in a social hierarchy. Nothing could be more true of the typically white, middle class, well-off shoestring travellers like myself who head off backpacking around the world – they may be living on a budget, but the feeling of cultural and intellectual superiority they gain from their experiences are considered priceless.

[singlepic id=11 w=320 h=240 float=left]So what of our experiences at the hands of Mr Ataf, the not so kindly after all hostel owner? Were we really robbed of the “authenticity” of our Egyptian experience, even if just an imagined authenticity that we were unlikely ever to find in a country so tailored towards tourism? As I’ve sat and licked my wounds, I’ve begun to think that there’s another way to see it. That maybe the reality of life in Egypt is itself the tourist industry, and the culture is one where the uninitiated are led astray, sold luxuries for more than they are worth and invited with open arms to experience, as long as they pay the right price. Over the past week we have seen more ancient monuments than you can shake a papyrus stalk at, ridden camels at sunset, sailed on the Nile in a felucca, been given a personal guarantee that if we buy Arabian Nights perfume then our men will become stallions and ride us for four hours and drunk enough “welcome drinks” to fill a small section of the Nile. We’ve haggled in markets for tourist tat and still probably been ripped off even after our best efforts to barter down the stall owners. In short, we’ve done everything that a tourist in Egypt could possibly want to do for a much greater price than we wanted to pay. But maybe that’s just what travelling here is like. And looking at it that way, what experience could possibly be more “authentic” than being robbed in Egypt?