Going Beyond Voluntourism In The Eastern Cape
An initial response of resistance was felt in my guts as soon as I heard the term Voluntourism.
Whether wanted or not, this word triggers a small inner storm of reactions, for having been associated, especially in recent decades, with a few bad practices worldwide, built on fake humanitarian projects .
Regardless of those unconscious feelings, the straightforward and down-to-earth energies that Zoliswa delivered to me disarmed my backlash, and while she revealed the background story, exposing the core principles of her social enterprise’s activities, I found myself becoming immersed in a fascinating new grassroots story.
This “100% black female-owned Social Enterprise business”, as it is presented on their website, was founded from the discomfort experienced by Zoliswa Samantha Mtinini while employed as a tour guide in the townships of Cape Town.
The discomfort came directly from witnessing, over the years, that the only options available for tourists to visit the communities of Langa and Gugulethu were the brief views and quick sightseeing tours of the drive-through. To her, these were not enough, because – as she put it – “they never impacted the community positively”.
I immediately connected with her words, for having shared those same feelings of discomfort – which in my case were something closer to a deep irritation – when observing local residents and visitors, barely able to see each other from the distance of their separate worlds, let alone gain any kind of new information from one another, in the Slums of Rio de Janeiro.
Somehow, Zoliswa perceived that the tourists were demanding to spend more time there, that they wanted to look closely at things, with a more personal approach, based on human proximity.
Twenty years after she had arrived in that unfamiliar urban environment, Zoliswa decided to go back to her remote rural village of Kwetyana, around 20 miles from the city of East London, in Eastern Cape province, South Africa, to serve her community through an international Voluntourism programme and a series of social projects.
She found Voluntourism to be the most immediate way of connecting the dots, and of shaping a new win-win situation in which revenue would be created, cultures finally exchanged, and useful skills acquired.
But to guarantee that tourism activities are conducted in a ‘responsible’ way, rules are of course needed, such as that “both sides have to be a good fit”, as Zoliswa remarks simply and straightforwardly.
Zoliswa’s innovative take on Voluntourism is moulded on the concept of sharing rather than only giving: the sharing of skills offered by the visitors and applied according to the community’s needs.
If there is nothing beyond, a unilateral act of giving can so easily compromise the goodwill of initial intentions and, as history has shown, create vicious chains of dependence and self-serving feelings of righteousness.
Happily, I find out that at Kwanda the sharing is built around the encounter.
Any time that the tourism encounter is consciously designed and is seen as having great value as a fundamental and indispensable part of the process – any time that the quality of the encounter has been considered as a goal in itself, meaningful transformations are likely to happen.
It is not a mere coincidence that travellers find Community-Based Tourism (CBT) experiences so immersive and, often, life changing. In this modality of tourism, in fact, the encounter is not seen as an accessory, but rather as being at the very core of the activities, and, at least in Brazil – although I have also seen this incorporated by many other projects globally, well beyond Latin America – the Storytelling circle and campfire moments so distinctively mark CBT that they can always be found, like a ritual, at the beginning of every visit.
FROM THE ENCOUNTER TO SHARING
The first encounter that the Kwanda volunteers undergo is also the very first activity that was designed for them: being guided through the community in what Zoliswa refers to as the “introductory tour”.
At this point, a full immersion in the life of the community begins, which can last several weeks.
During the tour the volunteers see, and are led to understand for themselves, the local residents’ needs and priorities.
By focusing beyond their own needs while on holiday, they are reversing the position of centrality that tourists are so used to occupying when visiting other countries.
The “why” of the tour – Zoliswa explains – lies in the fact that through it the volunteers can see the need for the improved quality of life and positive impacts that Kwanda’s future projects will bring.
LOCAL NEEDS, FOREIGNERS’ SKILLS, IMPACTFUL PROJECTS
Moreover, the volunteers’ presence, and the skills that they will leave in the community, are seen as being temporary and – importantly – as part of a complex puzzle and a bigger, global chain of solidarity.
The projects have always been born out of real local needs, and the reports of the local Volunteer Coordinators – young residents in charge of organising the programme and identifying the social priorities of the projects – are subjected to strict scrutiny.
Zoliswa shares that she constantly focuses her efforts on how to sustain the projects after the volunteers have gone. The skills learned should activate a local virtuous cycle and trigger other constructive changes at the grassroots level.
As an example, Kwanda is currently looking for volunteers with expertise in nutrition and organic farming, to complement the work done in the food gardening project that involves local women, men and youth. The project’s mission is to go beyond growing fruit and vegetables in the communal allotments, and Kwanda aims to inspire each family to start growing crops in their own backyard garden, with full awareness of the specific nutritional qualities contained in each type of food they raise from the land with their daily care.
The overall goal of this specific project is to “extend the knowledge about good food and the connections with good health to the people in the project”, affirms the inspired, and inspiring, Zoliswa.
ON SOLIDARITY, GIVING AND RECEIVING
Solidarity is a remarkable engine that gives us a sense of perspective, and moreover provides strong boundaries for the Ego; considering how spoiled we sometimes are as tourists, I believe that this is very valuable.
Its essence is the act of selfless sharing, which, particularly in this case, takes the form of both hard and soft skills, as well as broad multidisciplinary knowledge.
Giving is very much the essence of what Voluntourism affords – even in Kwanda – however, tourists do seem to receive much in return, and most importantly in unexpected ways.
In any case, for both sets of actors, it is only when the essence of giving goes beyond the material level that the real magic happens.
In fact, it seems that beyond the extra bags of rubbish produced during their stay, tourists also leave behind some sort of ‘change’, mainly in the perspective of the locals, a change that is embedded with hope.
Most of all, volunteers contribute to increasing not only the sense of belonging and pride the locals have for the place they call ‘home’, but also “a sense of ownership”, adds Zoliswa, gratefully.
I can see – because I have seen it in so many cases, and in so many communities before – how the simple act of receiving curious and open-minded visitors in the alleys of the village can boost locals’ self-esteem, and how the skills exchange programme can open new possibilities and provide previously unthinkable professional options.
And I can see how selling to those visitors locally produced handicrafts, that will travel to international destinations far away from the village, can increase the sense of pride and joy in having produced something valuable that is appreciated by others.
All this gives much more than just an extra source of income, although usually that is indeed sorely needed.
It gives a positive and much-appreciated fresh ray of hope in humanity, I suppose.
Tourism can really work its magic, sometimes.