Lions, Zebras, and African Children: Voluntourism in the Age of Social Media
I never meant to make anybody cry. I wanted the students at the small high school in Brooklyn to question themselves and the institutions that they are a part of, but I didn’t want to make them cry.
Soon after walking off stage, a teacher pulled me aside to let me know that one of his students had left in tears. I gave him my email and offered to talk to her, knowing that I was probably the last person she wanted to see.
Over the next 24 hours, I pieced together that she’d worked in Africa; she’d done trips and created service projects, she’d been on the cover of magazines and received awards. She’d just gotten into a top tier college that rejected me, and there she was having an existential crisis at 17 in the middle of a crowded auditorium. They must have felt like bullets, the words that I was spraying out into the crowd about zebras, lions, international aid, volunteer work, and impoverished African children.
She hadn’t been warned that I was coming, and I was not told that she was there. Had I known, I would have started with a disclaimer – “Hi there, my name is Pippa and if you do international volunteer work I’m about to crush your world. Feeling shitty after? Come talk to me.”
The school called her parents before she went home to warn them. I hear that they weren’t too happy with what, as a peeved teacher who hadn’t been present but felt strongly put it, “I’d done to her.”
My speech had been about my opinions on voluntourism. This time I’d done my research and padded it out with facts. Like how 88% of the 1.1 million Americans who volunteer abroad each year are white, or how 1 in 3 comes from a household that makes at least twice the average American income.
It was probably the guiding imagery I used, not the facts, which hurt her. The thousands of Facebook albums full of pictures of lions, zebras, and African (or Asian, or South American, etc.) babies, the young children reduced down to a prop to hold hands with or perch on your hip for a developing world photo shoot. Pictures to be uploaded upon return.
I imagined a scenario, fictional but oh so plausible, in which that young person in the photo puts down the baby with the distended belly and reaches into her backpack for a packet of peanut butter because lunch was basic and haven’t these people ever heard of protein? Maybe they’ll have chicken at dinner. As she squeezes the peanut butter into her mouth flies descend on the child’s face.
The truth is, I have some of those photos. Photos of me with three or more young children on my lap smiling for the camera. Most of the one’s from Tanzania I have taken off of social media, finally accepting that when you don’t even know the other subjects names the shared stage of your Facebook profile picture becomes an altar to the commodification of poverty. You might as well tag them “African Child 1-3.”
The photos I removed are, to just about everyone who doesn’t work with me, indistinguishable in nature from those that remain on my Facebook profile. The composition is the same. Me seated or standing, surrounded by small children. The difference? These children I know. These children I have lived with, learned from, and watched grow up for years. Yes, I rarely go back to the Dominican Republic anymore, but my love for the kids we serve is unchanged.
To the untrained eye, the pictures from Tanzania and the DR and interchangeable, but I like to think that my campers held me a little tighter, hugged me a little closer, and know that they were never props.
At the end of my speech I encouraged the high school students to travel. I told them to go with an open heart, helper’s hands, and to have the first thing they ask be “What do you need?” rather than “Where can I put this thing that I’ve decided you must want?” I don’t know if the girl was gone by then, but I don’t think it would have made a difference. The icky feeling that we get inside when our most basic values are questioned had boiled over.
The next day, I helped lead a White Affinity Group at the school. They hadn’t heard about the incident but one of two students had read my article. We had a tough discussion fueled by frustration at being there in the first place. While we were cleaning up, three of the kids, one of whom had all but refused to participate, came back into the room. They wanted to thank me for challenging them, pushing them, but more than anything listening to them. They want me to speak at the middle school. I wonder what their parents might think.
In a few weeks, I’ll be returning to the small Brooklyn school to lead a follow-up discussion with students. I am sure that they have a lot of questions. In an effort to use social media for good, and recognizing that my point of view is controversial, I encourage readers to post the questions that they might have about my experiences and/or opinions as comments on this piece. In the coming weeks I will answer as many of them as I can.