They say there are two sides to every story. Some say there are actually three sides, the sides of the two parties involved, and the truth. I say there are really no sides, only various perspectives, which can change based on feelings, experiences, how big your shit was that day. So I seek to offer my own perspective on a subject I have spent countless hours trying to wrap my head and emotions around. I can assure you my morning poop was sizable in mass.
We have all seen the commercials showing the horrors of “those poor starving kids in Africa.” They come complete with pathetic pictures of starving children, with helplessly sad eyes, a good endorsement of guilt, and a plead for you to support a child for just $1 a day. Majority of us exit that experience with a combination of pity and guilt. Others are moved enough to call the number listed below and donate. A rare few are moved enough to drop everything, and go overseas to try and save the poor starving children in the vast country of Africa. I am apart of the latter group, which I say with a mixture of slight disdain and gratefulness for the lessons I learned.
The commercials only show one part of the story, one perspective. What the commercials don’t show that behind every pair of tom toms you buy, are a heap of unworn tom toms on a rural homestead in some third world country. The children those tom toms were given to are running around playing ball, barefoot. They grew up with their bare feet treading over the ground, and their feet are tough enough that they actually don’t need the shoes, prefer not to wear the shoes. But that isn’t the story we are told. The story we are told is that these poor kids don’t have shoes and it is our responsibility to share our wealth of shoes with them. That story is retold again and again and again.
There are countless NGOs, government organizations, and missionary groups that go over to “developing” countries to offer their expertise and aid to eliminate the problem of poverty. While most of these organizations stem from a good place, I believe they are actually doing more harm than good. It is the dynamic that is created by these relationships that causes the damage. It is the idea that we are rich and they are poor and therefore we need to help them. We don’t need to ask what they as a people want, or what they perceive as their problems, or what their ideas are for solutions, or even pay attention to their culture or values. We simply need to give them food, build them schools, give them water pumps, and send groups of missionaries to speak to them about the love of Jesus Christ for a week or so.
There are many problems with this ideology. One of which is that it creates a power dynamic, where locals are taught that they are poor and in order to live happy fulfilled lives they need to be more like the west. This strips people of their cultural self-worth and causes them to forget about the beauty that their way of life holds. It also creates a dependency syndrome, where a country believes it has to rely on outside forces to clothe, feed, and take care of its’ citizens. The reliance on the west for basic necessities strengthens this power dynamic and strips citizens of the non-western country of their self-confidence, and desire to find unique solutions to solve their own problems. The third and perhaps saddest outcome of these influences is that they introduce an infection that causes a culture to become sick in its’ desire to become “more like the west.” This creates a loss of diversity, perception, traditional customs, and different ways of life. This hurts all of humanity, because this is a loss of opportunity, creativity, and perspective.
It is because of these reasons that I advocate for the idea of “leave no cultural trace.” Travel is a beautiful and wonderful experience, as is sharing your culture with someone else. However, instead of creating a relationship where one party is above the other, I think a relationship should be created where both parties are equal. Instead of sending people overseas to fix “those poor people’s” problems, we should send people overseas to learn about how other people do things, to experience a different way of life and gain from that experience. The conversation should not be about what we are going to do for you. The conversation should be a mutual exchange of ideas, where both parties gain insight and knowledge; because the fact is is that while Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV in the world, terrible access to much needed healthcare facilities, and horrible education, they also have time to foster meaningful relationships, spend half of their lives laughing and smiling, can dance with a kind of freedom that I have never seen, and spend the majority of their lives outside in the sun in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. This contrasts sharply with a culture that is too busy to get to know their own neighbors, pays professional cuddler’s to help with the feelings of loneliness, spends majority of each day in the car and at a desk, and finds life to be so serious with its’ deadlines, insurance claims, mortgages, full time jobs, and car payments. No country is without its’ blessings and curses. There is something to be learned from each way of life. So let us hope that the western way doesn’t phagocytise the rest of the world, because we already have a west. What we need is to allow room for an east, north, and south to stand up and allow their voices and ideas to be heard, and leaving no cultural trace is the beginning to creating this space.