An open letter to National Geographic

As some of you know, the Young Women’s Group and I have been working to start a library. I have been running into serious roadblocks, however, as there are very few books that are translated into Swahili. There are some great Tanzanian and Kenyan writers who work in their mother tongue, but just as many greats from both Swahili-speaking countries and the entire continent who write in English and are not translated into Swahili or any other African language.

This creates a hierarchy of who gets to read — many of us who speak English or other European languages have been lucky to have access to the works of writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but many living here do not. If a person who speaks Swahili happens to be working class, they are effectively denied the possibility of reading not only much of the great literature coming out of both their home country and the continent, but also widely-translated classic publications, like National Geographic.

My Tanzanian friends I have spoken to about it are also insulted at the lack of translations into their home language, so, in the name of libraries, book-lovers and book-lovers to be, I wrote this letter and sent it to Nat Geo.

Here we go…

Dear National Geographic,

I remember the entire shelf devoted to your magazine at my parent’s home in Canada, and how as a child I eagerly awaited it each month. I would re-read the old issues and explore the world vicariously through the eyes of the writers and photographers whose work you published.

Now grown, I am living temporarily in Tanzania after completing my undergraduate degree in Sociology at York University, Toronto. I will be returning to Canada for my Master’s degree this coming fall, in the same field.

I am writing to you because I have a problem.

While here, I am working with a women’s support group in New Land, a village on the outskirts of Moshi (I’ve also enclosed the flyer for the group). Since many of the women in the group said one of their main problems was the difficulty of educating their children and themselves, I suggested we work together to start a small community funded library. They were immediately enthused about the idea of having books in the community, and 22 young women signed up to be on the library committee the very day we decided – unanimously – that the project should run.

The first publication I dreamed of contacting to ask if they would be willing to contribute a free subscription was, unsurprisingly, National Geographic.

I was very disappointed when I found that among the 40 languages into which National Geographic is translated, the most widely spoken language in Africa, Swahili, is not one of them.

Not that you are the only ones who do not translate into Swahili. No one does. Even the works of even great African writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have not been translated.

Therefore, the pool of information that is available to almost everyone else is denied to large groups of native Swahili-speakers, who number approximately 100 million people in total. This is frequently explained away with assurances that “everyone speaks English too, anyway.” However, the Tanzanian educational system has operated on a two-tiered basis whereby primary school education is conducted in Swahili and secondary school education is conducted in English. Given the fact that Tanzania is very poor, and that secondary education is not free, many people (in fact, most people I have come in contact with in Moshi and the surrounding area) speak either very rudimentary English or none at all.

I recognize that the people who cannot read the magazine in English may not have the same spending power as other readers, and that it may not be a profitable enterprise to translate your magazine into their native tongue. However, access to knowledge that one can access on one’s own outside the classroom is an integral part of a person’s education, and can help lift a country and a people out of poverty in the long term.

National Geographic’s long history – 123 years of bringing knowledge to the world – has put the publication in a position to be a global leader in education and development. The success of the publication has also presumably put it in a position to engage in some development projects on a voluntary basis, possibly with little expectation of return beyond the satisfaction that more people worldwide will have access to the publication.

The spread of knowledge is development. We must believe that it is worth translating publications into a written word that people can understand, and that such availability will have an impact here just as it has had in other countries. The complete lack of translations of books and magazines into languages that the working class in Tanzania and other Swahili-speaking countries can read means that it is more difficult for them to educate themselves and their families in the same way that many people in the developed world have been privileged enough to take for granted.

It is for these reasons that I implore you to consider translation of your magazine into Swahili, so that others may enjoy it as much as I have.


Edith Wilson

Tusaidiane Women’s Group, New Land, Tanzania

York University, class of 2014

The Search for Ethical Voluntourism, Part II

Although I initially thought I’d be volunteering with a local environmental organization, the volunteer coordinator at the hostel offered me a job at a women’s group in a village about 20 minutes from Moshi. She thought my sociological background and my relatively long-term stay would fit well with an organization that was in need of specialized help. I’m the only volunteer on the project and work alongside my boss, a lovely and tough as nails local woman, to serve 151 group members. My work consists, among other things, of continuing a survey among the members of the group that a previous social worker had begun to establish what the group needed and wanted from the program. We also offer educational seminars (a few of which I’ll be running given my sociological background), group meetings, and home visits to allow women to share feelings and problems they may not be comfortable airing in public. So, despite my frequent doubts, I think I’ve succeeded in my mission to find a project that would genuinely benefit from my presence and serve the needs of the community I’m in. Programs addressing women’s needs and gender equality are deeply needed everywhere in the world, and Tanzania is no different, as the results of the survey I’m conducting are increasingly showing. My boss has also offered insight that indicates the work the group is doing is extremely valuable.

However, a pall is cast over my mood by the realizations I am coming to about the industry at large. Tanzania, and the Moshi area in particular, welcomes a huge amount of international volunteers each year. Although hard data on the exact numbers and qualifications of volunteers is scarce, anecdotal evidence from my boss as well as my own observations indicate that a great many volunteers lack the appropriate qualifications to serve the projects they are working on. Since working with children is a popular volunteer vocation, many are high school graduates with no teaching experience trying to manage classes of 20 local children. In short, many come here with their heart in the right place, but as one frustrated young volunteer said to me: “It’s not right. I’m really not sure we’re helping. I feel like not knowing what to do just makes the system worse…”

In a country where the educational system is already severely depleted, I am unsure that bringing in very temporary staff (most volunteers at the hostel stay between 6 and 8 weeks) that have little or no experience teaching is a viable solution to improve Tanzania’s educational system.

International volunteers can bring a lot of good to projects they are working on – my boss says: “It’s about getting ideas. I get ideas from you, you get ideas from me. I get ideas I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. We help each other.”

But I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that potential volunteers as well as the organizations that bring them in need to see their time in another country as a job that they must be qualified for in order to make a tangible contribution. In the case of the many schools here who rely on temporary volunteer labour, I worry that Tanzania may be educating many children below the expected standard, partially because the lack of continuity in education that is a consequence of changing teachers perhaps three times or more a year hardly lends itself to academic excellence.

The difficulties Tanzania has in getting children through secondary education (never mind university) is reflected at the end of the line in the depressing statistic that Tanzania boasts only two doctors per 100,000 patients. There are also comparatively few teachers at one teacher per 46 pupils – probably one of the reasons so many from abroad can find volunteer placement. The lack of local people that are able to continue on to higher education (neither primary nor secondary school is free in Tanzania, a huge problem for many families) impacts all areas of the economy – there are fewer social workers, nurses – just about every profession that requires a higher degree to do effectively seems to be underserved.

Consequently, many areas that volunteers work in are those very areas that sorely need at least some related qualification – hospitals, schools and education programs for special-needs kids. Some volunteers do indeed bring experience and/or a variety of degrees with them, but many don’t, and I worry that a lack of experience or a related knowledge pool can cause harm at worst, and stagnation at best.

It would be more respectful and would better serve the long term development of Tanzania and other developing nations if those who wish to help were to assist local leadership by using the skills they have to bring quality help that contributes to the eradication of the need for volunteers. I think this would be possible by providing equally skilled and dedicated support to the specialized workforce that already exists, thus expanding the number of skilled people in underserved professions. This might provide an opportunity for more effective functioning of the systems that would allow local children and teenagers to grow up and take the volunteer’s place.

I hope for this quality in volunteer educators, social workers and health care professionals because I hope that my boss will see the day when the children from her village are able to go to university and come back equipped to work with her on the program she founded. I hope that the contributions I am making towards the welfare of those children’s mothers will help make that possible, and that the quality of the small contribution I am offering is helping to make me obsolete.

Sources: (World Bank development statistics) (World Health Organization statistics — Tanzania doctor/patient ratio is on page 136)

In Search of Ethical Voluntourism

The voluntourism industry is a 2 billion dollar business with around 1.6 million people jetting off to less privileged locales every year. Given the popularity of the altruistic tourism trend, questions have begun to arise about whether the host communities are true partners and beneficiaries, or if they, at the end of the day, come to be seen as just another life experience rich guests can buy to add to their bucket list. “As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs…” (Zakaria, 2014) In a brilliant article written for AlJazeera America, Rafia Zakaria describes situations in which AIDS orphans in South Africa are taken care of for a few weeks by well-meaning tourists, where “The orphans’ conditions are effectively transformed into a boutique package in which “saving” them yields profits from tourists.” However, she says that despite its pitfalls, the volunteer tourism industry must be improved upon and saved, because of its rich possibilities for cultural exchange and education between people. Volunteers being more mindful, adaptable, and less concerned with the photo-ops, would “…enable the dislocation of the stereotype that finds need and want in other and exotic places by revealing the same dimensions within their own locales and the connections between the marginalized of here and the excluded of there.” (Zakaria, 2014)

The stereotype that Zakaria references – that need exists only elsewhere, far from here, reinforced daily by constantly circulated, mediatized images of the conditions of life in African countries, can be misleading and at its worst, feed prejudice. Many people I talked to about the trip did not realize Tanzania was on the other side of the continent from the tragedy of Ebola, and that indeed there had been not a single reported case of the disease in the country. Not only that, but many people assured me that I would die if I went, and absolutely refused to hear evidence to the contrary despite the battery of vaccinations I received and our good fortune in Canada to have easy and relatively inexpensive access to antimalarial medication. One acquaintance said: “Why would you go there, everyone’s diseased.” Others said that I might as well be going to Sierra Leone, because Africa was Africa, and it was all the same: a dustbowl of misery. Some even thought that Africa was a country, not a continent. Although I would be hard-pressed to say that these (sometimes) genuinely concerned entreaties were always uttered in bad faith, many of these comments were racist and pointed to a deeper problem in our society: we have, as a whole, a very poor understanding of a very large and diverse continent. This poor understanding is reinforced by constant negative media images that do not show the diversity and strength in African nations, but set up a paradigm where Africa – as the capitalized whole, devoid of internal borders – must be saved.

Part of repairing and eliminating the exploitative business practices of the mainstream voluntourism industry involves humility, as well as a willingness to educate oneself to the best of one’s ability, on the part of the traveller. Nothing I, or you, or anyone else does is going to “save” anywhere. People save their own places, sometimes with help from earnest, mindful, and humble collaborators. The current feeling that less economically fortunate nations need to be saved by an imposition of (often inefficient) outside help has been fuelled in part by the same media images that fuel our passive-aggressive prejudice towards those same nations. After all, isn’t the belief that a people can’t help themselves, that they have no agency or ability in the matter, also a form of prejudice? This is not to say that those who wish to help should wash their hands of the matter, or that the idea of aid is obsolete. But aid should be asked for, not imposed. At the very least, possibilities for lending aid should be offered by members of the community who need it if they so wish, not made available by companies to tourists as elevated vacation packages. In addition, one should attempt to make the aid offered truly useful. Think of the basic training time required for a job. To be truly comfortable in a work environment takes a few weeks at least – to know where the garbage goes, what you always forget to do, and the most efficient way to do it takes time. If a volunteer is offering their services for a brief period of time in an area that is not their field of expertise, they will be inadvertently reducing the capacity of that organization to provide the service to the community that they are trying to. The turnover in labor will simply be too rapid to assure that the job gets done long term in a sustainable manner.

Given these reservations, I’ve tried for my part to educate myself to the best of my ability and to set up a living and working arrangement that makes sense for the community I’ll be visiting. However, I haven’t yet seen the snows of Kilimanjaro – though only a few days remain until my departure, I write this from snowy eastern Quebec. Whether I succeeded in my quest for an ethical way to live temporarily in another country remains to be seen.

Here are both the primary and secondary sources for this article. I’ll make at least a partial bibliography available for every article I write, as I’ve always (even as a non-academic person) believed in the power of research and the extra click of the mouse. Feel free to post other interesting findings in the comments!

Welcome and Stay Tuned

Hi friends and colleagues,

This is where I’ll soon be posting a series of essays inspired by my imminent trip to Tanzania. Topics I’ll be exploring are the ramifications and effects of volunteer tourism (as well as my own contribution to these effects, both positive and negative), food security, and environmental conservation, as well as any other interesting social issues that I feel I can write about with confidence. I’ll be examining the social and political pros and cons of my own role as a volunteer-tourist, as well as interviewing and talking to people who can offer their own perspective on the value of this relatively new form of tourism.

Stay tuned for the first essay, which will be on this page early-mid January, just before I leave Canada for four months.

Thanks for reading!