Off to Africa?

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Many students in my study abroad program, including myself, chose to take advantage of a travel company that allows students to spend a weekend in Morocco.  While many students went last weekend, I was initially hesitant to sign up.  My hesitation was coming from the following places: first, that one weekend is not sufficient time to understand a different culture; and second, to visit a country without properly understanding it is incredibly invasive.  With that in mind, I eventually decided to partake in the trip, even for the sole reason to decide whether or not my hesitations were warranted.  In addition, I have been researching Morocco in an attempt to minimize my impact while I am there.  While one ignorant traveler may not be catastrophic, the 100 likely uneducated students that arrive every weekend may be.

This week, many students have been excitedly talking about all the fun they had in Morocco.  Many don’t want to go back because it was sad to see so many poor people.  Many complained that they didn’t like having to buy safe drinking water.  Others were frustrated by the ignorance of some group members, who made statements such as “this isn’t what Africa looks like.”  Whether or not they enjoyed the trip, everyone’s profile picture now features a camel.

Coincidentally, today I came across an Onion article called “6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.”

Personally, I can plead guilty to posting pictures of the time I spent in Uganda, of being a serial profile-picture-changer throughout my semester in Spain, and of assuring myself that I will get more likes on my travel photos, especially when I appear to be doing something out of the ordinary or traveling somewhere uncommon.  I am sure that I, too, will have a profile picture with a camel in a week’s time.  It is not the profile picture aspect that is important here, but realizing 1) why you are traveling somewhere; 2) if your travel is sustainable; and 3) if the benefits of your travel outweigh the costs to the communities.  Even in “6-Day visits to rural Africa,” most travelers are well meaning.  Frequently they are there to provide aid, to grow on a personal level, and to be humbled and appreciative after viewing extreme poverty and hardships.  Often, as is the case with the students traveling to Morocco, travelers may not be aware of their impact on another culture.  In this case, it is the responsibility of the travel agency to inform travelers and ensure sustainability.  Given that I depart in two days, I think they’re running out of time to deliver a cultural competency training.

Travel as a whole opens infinite doors to the mind, to other cultures and to the world and allows for unbelievable personal and societal growth.  To suggest that people should not travel would make me a walking (and traveling) contradiction.  That said, I want to emphasize the importance of thinking critically about the discordance between intent and your impact. While your intent may be well-meaning and valid, it may not justify the possible negative impact on a delicate culture.