Monday, November 25, 2013

Slavery, Colonialism, and Revisionist Histories: Why Traveling isn't Always Simple

Because, really, doesn't everyone love talking about slavery? I'm sure this blog post will be a fan favorite.

Joking aside, I don't think you can responsively travel to Tanzania or (probably) anywhere in Africa and not talk/think about slavery. Not that it has to or should be defining, but slavery had a huge effect on the world and it continues to flavor our experiences today.

While we were in Zanzibar it was important to me to see historical sites that included the history of both colonialism and the slave trade. We visited a former slave market and I was actually less shocked by my surroundings than I was the version of history that was being given to (affluent, mostly white) tourist. In four lines the basics of our 20 minute tour were as follows:

There was slavery here. And then a white dude (David Livingstone) saved us. And then church was built where the slave market used to be. The end. 

The interesting thing about all of this is that the slave trade ended roughly 140 years ago, basically two to three generations ago. The oral histories may even still be in circulation. It's not that our guide didn't know the fact it's probably not a lack of knowledge but the exact opposite. He knew both his history and his audience. Most people who pay thousands of dollars to go on vacation (we were literally in a country where our plane ticket costs more than the average person's annual income) probably don't want to hear the ways in which they were the beneficiaries (in the form of unbalanced accumulation of wealth) of horrible, terrible actions. I wonder if the story is presented any differently to African-American tourist. I can't imagine what the experience of doing the same tour we did but as an African-American would be like. Probably even more emotionally complicated.

A sculpture at the old slave market. 

Zanzibar was a hub of the Arab slave trade and historians estimate that between the years 650 and 1900, 10 - 18 million people (a broad estimate, I know) were enslaved and sold. As I stood in the cathedral of the Anglican Christ Church, which was touted as the happy ending to the slavery story, I couldn't help but wonder about the labor practices used to build that building. I doubt that those laborers were paid a living wage almost as much as I doubt that the African men and women who were enslaved were simply helpless until David Livingstone arrived. 

The revisionist history...and knowing that it was created for me (because although I identify as Latina, I was receiving all the privileges and perceptions of whiteness while on this trip) was overwhelming. It was as if colonialism had never ended. We were catered to and history was edited all for our comfort, regardless of who that inconvenienced, or worse, whose history and dignity that overlooked. 

Prior to our trip I was really excited for the tour of the former slave market. I was hoping it would give our trip a flavor or authenticity and a jumping off point for discussion that I wasn't expecting to find on the beautiful beaches. What I got was a reminder that there is still so much work to be done. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tanzanian Vacation: Michamvi, Zanzibar

After seeing Stone Town we headed to the Michamvi Peninsula along the Southeastern coastline of Zanzibar (about an hour and half drive from Stone Town). Now, I'm not the most extensively traveled person (although I did grow up in California and I've been to beaches in Mexico and Costa Rica) but this was hands down the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. We were really only at the beach for two days and I easily could have spent a third. 


When we got to Zanzibar we were told that our reservation for the second part of the trip was being changed to a different hotel. I wasn't super thrilled with this; it felt a little bait-and-switch and I just don't love it when plans change and I'm on a new continent with limited knowledge of how to get around or in contact with others. I think I sent an email to a few friends in the US saying something like, "Hmm, plans got changed it's probably fine but if we disappear we're with X tour company and suppose to be staying at X place." Needless to say, it all worked out and the change in hotel was totally fine...but a healthy dose of paranoia is fun for everyone right? Here are pictures of our bungalow at Kichaga Lodge which had a stairway that lead directly to the lodge's private beach. 

As we were waiting to check in we chatted with a British woman who was finishing up her vacation. She recommended a boat/snorkeling trip offered by a company called Safari Blue and the next day we decided to check it out. The trip was a little spendy (I have a theory that the price might fluctuate depending on where you are staying) but it was really cool. If I had it to do over again I would have done this day trip while we were still in Stone Town (it was over an hour drive from Michamvi), but other than our timing I would definitely say this is worth doing if you find yourself in Zanzibar. 

I'd never been snorkeling before (as previously discussed, my swimming skills leave something to be desired) and the dudes on the boat were very helpful (although right as I got into the water the guide gave me a very serious look and said, "now, don't panic." It seemed a little unnecessary.). Anyhow, snorkeling, the lobster lunch and the boat trip were all very cool. 

 It wasn't an intimate trip but the tiny German lady that sat across from us was definitely a highlight for me. 

The boat, there were about four of these. The German tried to re-tie the sailing knots...the guides were not amused as I was. 

So sexy. 

Don't worry, it's a dolphin not a shark. 

Lunch buffet. It was accompanied by some moderately offensive music performances but on a tour that is trying to please 60+ people you're not going to win 'em all. 

After one more night at Kichanga we headed back to Northern Tanzania for a few more days of site seeing before the men folk returned from the mountain. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tanzanian Vacation: Stone Town, Zanzibar

As I mentioned, we took an amazing two week vacation to Tanzania with Truman's family. For the first part of the trip Truman, his brother and his dad climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro while his mom and I wandered around. We spent two nights in stone town on the island of Zanzibar. This was the part of the trip I was most excited about and it didn't disappoint. 

This was the view from our room (through a fisheye lens). The first hotel we stayed at, the Maru Maru, was fantastic. Great location, great room...and a view. Oh,and also, they had happy hour. 

On the second day we wandered around Stone Town, checked out the fish market and the shops. This was taken at either a boat building place or a boat repair place (I really couldn't tell the goals of the boat construction activities). 

On both our evenings in Stone Town we wandered down to Forodhani Gardens (about 2 blocks from our hotel) for some good people watching and cheap eats. Forodhani Gardens/Park becomes packed with food vendors every evening. You know those food truck get togethers hipster cities have? This is that know, Zanzibarian...and with the most amazing chai I've ever had. 

What can I say, I like taking pictures of food. 

Stone Town was full of winding streets and lovely alleyways. 

See what I mean?

The alley ways are full of these intricately carved doors. I sort of wished I'd had a wider angled lens with me to get a better shot of many of them. 

Many of the walkways had little shops filled with fabrics and souvenirs. I think I could have wandered around taking pictures of the surroundings for days. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why I don't want to visit a school/orphanage/mission in Tanzania

This is a post I wrote a few weeks ago while we were in Tanzania that I never got around to posting. More updates coming soon.

I'm in Tanzania (more on that later) for two weeks which is, by all accounts, totally f'ing amazing.

That being said, it's also really f'ing complicated (more on that in person...if you're someone who actually knows me in person). My husband and his male family members are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro while his mom and I hang out in Tanzania until they get back and we all pack up into jeeps for some animal peeping.

Since we had about a week to kill we ran through a plethora of options while trying to decide what to do. Because we are privileged people in the United States of course "Volunteering! At a school!" came up. Because, you know, Americans are all inherently helpful to Tanzanians all Africans.

I hate the idea that many Americans see the whole of the African continent as a place that needs their help. More than the general idea, I hate that for many people "helping" doesn't require that they critically examine their own privilege or the ways in which they have benefited from both racism and colonialism. It also doesn't require that they/we advocate for international policies that treat African countries like equals rather than charities. The oversimplification and lack of analysis simply says that  what Africa needs is our (mostly white people's) help. Preferably in the form of one day of volunteering.

Now, as someone who has worked at nonprofits for about a decade I can tell you, there is almost nothing worse than a one day volunteer (unless you're Habitat who freaking mastered that model...kudos, Habitat). One day volunteers take more time than they give. You have to develop a program, find someone to supervise them and come up with tasks that feel important but don't actually have to get done because you don't know the skill level of your short-term volunteers. Honestly, unless you need a pallet of Ikea furniture (or you know, a habitat house) built it's pretty tough to handle.

Now layer on hundreds of years of colonial rule, the slave trade, and some pretty massive economic disparities in many of the areas where people want to "volunteer" and you have a hot mess if I've ever seen one. And by hot mess I mean a situation that is more beneficial to the volunteer than anyone else.

The idea that I can show up in a country where I've never been before and where I'm totally culturally illiterate and somehow be helpful to a school/orphanage/mission is insane. I may grant you a pass here if you're an actual trained teacher or orphanage worker...but even then.

If you think of the two groups of people as equals the idea of volunteering seems a little weird at best. I think that these volunteer experiences can help to reinforce the inaccurate idea that the two groups are not actually equal in agency and dignity, they often serve to reinforce the White Savior Industrial Complex.

Here's my litmus test: Would you do it in France? If not, you probably shouldn't do it in Tanzania. If you wouldn't try to hop into a school in Paris and show small children how to add (for a day) then you should probably show the people of whatever African country you're in the same respect.

Look, I am (obviously) not saying that people shouldn't travel. I'm saying they should do it honestly and with awareness of histories and systems of oppression (and privilege). My personal preference is to be honest about what I am: a tourist. Not a savior, not a teacher, and not a qualified childcare worker. I'm a tourist that has the ability to go on lavish vacations in part because of those very histories and systems (which is the terrible part that I'm still working out what to do with). But none the less, I'm a tourist and it probably makes the most sense if I stay in my place. If I treat people with respect, tip well and pay my admission to the national parks...and maybe leave the teaching to the pros.