Why travel helps abroad and at home.

On my way home tonight, I came across this article published by the Ottawa Citizen entitled “Don’t go to Africa ‘to help’”. I spent today thinking about the next ten years of my life, years that I hope will include lots of travel, and was enraged by this article to the point where I paced back and forth on the dock for 15 minutes trying to understand what I was thinking and feeling.

To read the words: “Don’t spend six months travelling Africa. Don’t bike across Canada to raise awareness about world hunger. Don’t go to Cambodia to volunteer at an orphanage. Stay put and work on fixing problems at home, including your own,” made me feel uncomfortable as I am preparing to embark on a trip to British Columbia and a two month journey to work for a magazine in Rwanda, followed by traveling for almost a month to many destinations throughout Africa and Europe.

I don’t think we should criticize those who live outside the box. I acknowledge that traveling is often a privileged activity. This doesn’t mean we should discourage anyone from seeking information or methods of organizing some kind of adventure within their means.

Quite often when people travel, whether for pleasure or volunteer work (or both), they find that their problems really are not that significant. That right there is a viable solution to working on one’s problems. Not everyone dreams of staring at the inside of a cubicle and coming home to a small apartment, only to pass out with a lap full of takeout on their Karlstad leather couch from IKEA.

This piece suggests that travel involves either life experiences or volunteer work, both of which, it states, are inherently selfish. Yes, I found that many people I have worked with overseas had no understanding of the context, history, or political situations of the communities we were working in, but were there to take pictures, return home, and make Facebook albums of them smiling with African children and trying to look like the next Mother Theresa, only to resume their individualistic lifestyles they had when they left upon their return to Canada.

But many people came home and did not run to their laptops. They sat down with their families and told them about communities they had never heard of. They took shorter showers, started drying their clothes outside, bought locally produced food, stopped buying bottled water, campaigned for causes they believed in – whatever social issues that had impacted them, they worked on.

Life experiences are what make living worth it. Living in a bubble can fulfill some people. For others, it does not, and they can increasingly fulfill their desire to see the world as our societies and technologies continue to develop. Volunteer work can be convoluted, but what is neglected within this article is that volunteer work is a two-way street, and having both parties benefit is not a bad thing.

One party will likely develop economically, or socially in terms of health care, housing, or education. The other party develops on a personal and emotional level. If I was to ‘quit my internship and start a business that’s better than the one that wouldn’t give me a job’, I would not hire those with a resume filled with jobs within a ten-block radius of their apartment (or, in realistic Toronto-terms, from their parents’ basements).  To be building a more compassionate, worldly generation, you need people with these ‘life experiences’ to bring these memories to the table. We need to value these experiences back at home.

Traveling to Kenya changed my life. It changed me because I could see, experience, and learn about sustainable positive development (and no, I did not blindfold the children I worked with and hand them a Bible).  I could give a hand, and not a hand out, by actually being there.

It is true that the Kony 2012 campaign revealed the “white savior complex” and number of slacktivists there are. No, liking a Facebook pages does not make you an activist. Yes, it is true some generations (or some people) are selfish. There are many valid counter-arguments to this oversimplified campaign (it’s ineffective, inaccurate, not sustainable, etc.), but it did something to the slacktivist generation.

The first step to social change is to generate excitement and awareness – how to maintain social change is another story. However, communications classes will study the Kony 2012 campaign for years to come, and maybe one day we’ll have an answer as to how we can maintain enthusiasm. Travel is one solution I can think of.

Of course there are social issues in our own communities, and of course we should extend a hand to those around us. Extending a hand to those abroad will also help our communities become composed of compassionate, worldly, and knowledgeable people. More people will know what it means to truly be human and experience life, rather than robotically walk through our own institutions and systems.

Maybe I would rather spend my money on seeing the world, and not just the inside of the house I could spend my travel fund on. Does this idea sound romantic? Sure.

But we need to learn to hold romanticized adventures on a higher level than mundane existences that simply exist to make money. Maybe then we’ll find freedom from our ‘boring jobs’ by coming home with the experiences, knowledge, and vision to create sustainable, culturally sensitive initiatives.

Our problems should not include figuring out how to buy a big house to live in. Maybe with some travel experience, we’ll know what it truly means to live.

There are definitely corrupt organizations, and traveling without educating yourself first is a waste of time. But where do you think the people who run organizations abroad started from? To sit back and do nothing, to encourage complacency in an already self-centered society, will do nothing but maintain social injustices and ignorance across the board.


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