Should we visit, as tourists? Is it enlightenment, or voyeurism, when tour companies arrange sightseeing trips to the ghettoes of Nairobi?
The problems are so massive that it’s easy to admit defeat – to assume that if governments can’t sort the problems, then aid agencies and individuals don’t stand a chance.
I don’t share that view. There’s a lot we can do, and here are some suggestions.
Visit Africa, if the opportunity arises.
Take an open mind with you. In world terms, we are fantastically wealthy. And wealth carries with it the responsibility to help others less fortunate than ourselves. It’s too easy to cite safety and convenience as reasons for shying away – if a billion people are living in desperate poverty across an entire continent, surely the least you can do is make yourself aware of it ?
By visiting, you will be investing some of your own money into the local economy, and that’s a very good start. Once there, I guarantee you’ll see things differently. You wouldn’t be human if the sight of hardship, starvation and disease didn’t change you into a more thoughtful person.
When you go to Africa, get out of your hotel.
There’s just no point in travelling halfway across the world to see Africa, and then remaining closeted inside little Europe or little America. Hire a driver, and take a tour of the local surroundings. See how people live. Talk to them. Listen. Smile. Be friendly. You’ll learn.
Take your old clothes and shoes with you.
Rather than junking them at home, or giving to the charity shop, it’s easy to pack your old clothes into an extra case, and take them to Africa. Leave them at the orphanage, or give them to needy people that you meet.
Anything you can take yourself will get through directly, without any commissions or administration costs. You can take quite a lot – as a family, we travelled out with seven suitcases, and came back with three.
Children’s clothes and shoes are especially needed, and don’t take up much space. Just amongst our stash we counted 35 pairs of outgrown children’s shoes.
Take unwanted toys.
Many African children have no toys at all. Electronic goods, or those needing batteries will be of limited use, but basics like dolls, card games, and toy cars and figures can bring happiness to a poor child, anywhere.
Take books, pens and pencils.
We had millions of old kids’ books at home, and stacks of odd crayons and pens, too. They all went in the suitcase, and came out at the orphanage. I read four novels on the beach, and gave them to the orphanage staff. All those books will be well-read now, and the kids will be scribbling for years more to come.
Take unused and unwanted medicines.
You shouldn’t travel with restricted drugs, but most family medicine cabinets contain a few packs of basic analgesics, anti-biotic creams, insect sprays, bandages and plasters which are incomplete or close to expiry. Don’t throw them out – take them with you to Africa. Supplies like these make a huge difference.
Give good tips to thin people.
At home, you’d tip $20 or £10 with a meal. The guidebooks will suggest you tip a quarter of this in Africa. But by tipping on a western scale, you’ll be injecting real cash, and helping an African family buy food for a week, or even a month. Tip those who serve you, in shops, hotels and on buses. It costs very little, it makes a big difference, and it’s rewarding to give.
Book local services, wherever you can.
Most hotels offer trips to local attractions, and arrange safaris and flights, too. They take a huge cut, then send the profits back to their foreign owners.
You have to exercise rudimentary caution, but if a local company has a good reputation, make the effort to use it.
The best trip of all that we did ? A dhow journey around the bay, arranged through a friend of our waiter. Three unforgettable hours for the whole family, and it cost $20. With a $20 tip, it was a win-win all round.
Recycle your packing.
Two days before we travelled, I ditched the entire contents of my suitcase. I left my new summer clothes and shoes behind, instead taking half-worn stuff. At the end of the holiday, I washed everything out, and gave T-shirts to the waiters and my gym shoes to the pool man. They wore them the next day. I travelled home in my beach sandals. That cost nothing at all.
Give spare food and toiletries.
If you have useful items left at the end of your stay – packets of biscuits, half-used hotel shampoos and soaps – don’t throw them away, give them to someone who can use them. They’ll really appreciate it.
Think about what you’ve seen.
When you arrive home, try to keep an interest in Africa. It’s easy to forget everything too quickly, but try to retain some of the new perspectives you’ve gained. Talk to your friends, and tell them about life in Africa.
Next time the TV news talks about starvation or disease in Africa, don’t switch off – stay and listen, take note of the telephone number and think about making a £10 or $20 donation. If everybody does it, we can make a real difference.
Speak up for Africa.
Many people will tell you that as Africans, these folk must expect less. They’ll say that it’s the African countries’ fault, and we can do nothing to help. So tell them they’re wrong. Explain how you spoke to local people when you were in Africa, and they they’re just like you and me. They don’t deserve their plight, and we should do all we can to help them.
Buy Fair Trade products, wherever you see them.
The system isn’t perfect, but it’s there for a reason, and African workers get a better deal for their labours.
Ask questions of the companies you use.
Enquire with your hotel operator how much tax they pay locally. Most likely, it’s nothing – the byzantine tax structures of western companies are designed to avoid paying. Look at the roads and medical services, and you’ll see the effect.
When you buy imported Kenyan flowers from Marks and Spencer, drop the chairman an e-mail, and ask how much tax the company paid in Kenya last year. You don’t need to push too hard – just asking the question is making a point.
Convince your politicians to make a difference, too.
Have a look at the candidates standing in your next national election. Chances are, one of them will be in favour of cutting your taxes, sending back immigrants and invading a few foreign countries, whilst the other will speak up for people who have much less than you, both at home and abroad. Think about that, just a little, and make the right choice.
Well, that’s a long list. If you have more ideas, I’ll be delighted to hear them.
And if it seems too much effort, then please remember this: the poor of Africa have only problems on their plate, whilst we have so much more than we need.
168. Kenya 4: on the orphanage, and AIDS
164. Kenya 2: The dusk behind the beach
161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa
124. Exploring Africa with Bono
172. Kenya 5: on corruption and a crooked election