When I told my grandma I was studying abroad in Ghana, Africa, her exact words were, “why on earth would you want to go to such a place?” Other family members had the same feelings when I told them about my upcoming study abroad program. The concerns they had were all similar: “you are going to catch a disease (at this time Ebola was a large concern),” “there is so much violence in Africa,” and “why would you want to go to such a poor country?” For someone who was extremely excited to travel to Ghana, I did not understand why these concerns were keeping them from being happy for me. I wanted a different experience from study abroad than the somewhat traditional program to Europe. I had already previously traveled to England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy, but I wanted to see more of the world, even the places that are considered not so glamorous. However, my family and friends did not understand why I wanted this, but of course they would be concerned. Surely you have seen images and videos of many African countries being portrayed as poverty stricken, disease-ridden, violent places. Based on the places shown in media, why would anyone believe otherwise?
Above I have included a video called, “UK Student-Athletes Reflect on Life Changing Service Trip to Ethiopia.” Even though individuals may not have meant anything negative by it, trips to Africa are often reflected on as life changing and responsible for individuals being grateful for what they have. In the video posted by the University of Kentucky, student-athletes traveled to Ethiopia and messages such as these are echoed throughout. In the video, the student-athletes are shown “helping people that don’t have much.” The clips in the video only showcase many areas that are what we would consider poverty-stricken. Initiatives like this, while in some ways are beneficial, further contribute to the stereotypes currently surrounding African countries. Images corresponding to the stereotype are what media tends to portray, but this is not the only side to these countries. Even in the United States we have areas that are poverty-stricken, but these are not the areas of our country that the media focuses on, so why do we do so for other countries, especially African countries?
The act of visiting these countries on service trips brings up the concept of “voluntourism,” which is defined as a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work. This does not seem bad. In fact, this seems like a good way to travel while also making a difference. Trips such as these have been gaining popularity recently. Yet, this concept assumes that the people of these countries need to be saved. In the case of these student-athletes, how did they really help the individuals in this country? The student-athletes say this trip helped to develop them into a good person, but what good does six days of a “service trip” really do for these people? Once these student-athletes left, the residents were in relatively the same situation as they were before the student-athletes came to help. I do not think the answer to helping these people lies in trying to “save” them by going on a short, one-time service trip. With that being said, there certainly are long-term initiatives out there that are truly making a difference to populations in need.
The other part of “voluntourism” is tourism, which in my experience visiting Ghana, was what many local people depended on for income. Because many businesses in Ghana are locally owned, the owners truly benefit from tourists coming and spending money at their establishments. Rather than going into a country with the mentality that you are helping people who have nothing, why can’t we treat these countries as we would any other destination? Destinations like Ghana have many beautiful sites to see such as the Cape Coast Castle, Kakum National Park, and Elmina Castle. Ghana also has a rich history and a lot of interesting museums where one can learn more about it. This is the side of tourism that I think we need to focus on while visiting developing countries. While in Ghana, a local told me to take pictures of the beautiful country in hopes of promoting more tourism. Ghana is not necessarily at the top of many people’s bucket lists, but it is an absolutely beautiful country with a lot to offer. It is true that many areas look similar to those shown by the media, however, there is so much more to the country than poverty. Rather than going to these developing countries and spreading negativity; I think visitors of these countries need to spread positivity by showing that there is so much more to offer than what the media portrays.
Danielle is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying human nutrition and biological sciences at the University of Kentucky. She studied abroad in Ghana in summer 2015.