Instagram Barbie & An African Child: The Upvotes In Voluntourism

Fascination is often found in new and exciting experiences that contrast one’s daily routine. Traveling awakens a childlike sense of wonder, derived from a new perspective enabled by a new environment. The further one travels out of their comfort zone, the more heightened the mental stimulation. The ability to travel for pleasure is most often enjoyed by those coming from developed nations in the Western World.

Africa sits at the top of the list in piquing western interest and tourism; this comes after centuries of enslavement, exploitation and a slow progression toward independence. People cater their interests in many ways such as ecotourism, religious tourism, adventure tourism, and cultural tourism. In recent years, the options to combine all four have produced voluntourism. The theory behind volunteer tourism is to gain intercultural experience while getting to visit exotic locations around the world. This highly attractive to young people working to build resumes for job related experience. Charity work is also highly regarded as it is considered noble giving one’s time and services to those in need.

Volunteer programs thrive on good natured people who want to make a difference with seemingly harmless intentions. But there lies another side to the story many tourists don’t consider; the danger of how the host communities are affected by the volunteers. As the volunteer tourists leave, do they solely post pictures of their exciting summer abroad or can they vouch for the misconceptions in countries that rely heavily on foreign aid. Africa’s economic past poses a specific threat to the culture and dignity of the people disproportionately exploited for the benefit of volunteers. This paper has a purpose of exploring how the growing use of self-validating social media accounts are pushing affluent youths towards voluntourism and the effects it has on the specific African country of Ghana.

The Peace Corps has “Making the Most of Your World” in bold on the front page of their website. Founded by American President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps offered the first voluntourism of its kind. Kennedy’s plan capitalized on the need for young people to find a greater purpose in the world by presenting them with a way to help others who were suffering. Ghana was a former colonized nation that faced many setbacks from decades of oppressive British rule. That same year Ghana was the presented with the aid it needed as a newly sovereign republic. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president accepted the Peace Corps support as it continues to operate today. For the program’s effectiveness, applicants are vetted rigorously for physical and mental health. The program asks a commitment of twenty-seven months to ensure quality work is completed. Through this time the program offers a deeper appreciation of local languages, culture, and customs.

After their program ends, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Intergovernmental Affairs at Peace Corp Shannon Kendrick suggest cities should hire these volunteers because, “they’re passionate about mission-driven work, they’re experts at working with limited resources, they speak your language, they aren’t afraid of a little red tape, and they invest in their communities.” Programs such as this have created a long lasting partnership between Ghanaians and Americans. Time and effort make a difference in the quality of cultural emersion experienced. The idea of helping others is always commendable, yet short term voluntourism leads to superficial understandings that take time to learn.

Quality trumps quantity with the mobilization of the internet. Globalization continues to encourage people to share their human experience on social media for validation, acting as a window into the best or at least most important parts of a person’s life. Although profiles are often highly curated, it is common for professional workplaces to inquire access to a potential employee’s Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. Reports note the jump from social media presence by adults was 7 to 65 percent from the years 2005 to 2015. The report also shows a growing importance for future generations with 90 percent usage for young adults 18-29. Social media gives users options to operate with goal of “selling” themselves. Forbes magazine explains the wealth that is obtained by flaunting exotic encounters on social media as “the ever-increasing pervasiveness of digital media is now of the factors mediating the dramatic growth of experiential luxury”.

Voluntourism provides moral credibility and exposure to an exclusive experience. This makes countries like Ghana with a long history of voluntourism an easy target for posts of white westerners posting with the ever exotic natives. [ See American Psychological Association (2017). Stress in America: Coping with Change. Stress in America™ Survey.] Early European settlers derogatorily referred to Africa as the “Dark Continent” in reference to the lack of education and civilized manor Europeans were used to. The stereotype has survived for centuries with English justifying occupation in Ghana with objective of turning the local savages into “proper” human beings. After the abolishment of the slave trade in 1833, there was a change in the African narrative due to anthropological studies which showed a culture that was still unacceptable to that of the traditions of the Victorian era.

Patrick Brantlinger explains in his essay Victorians and Africans: Genealogy of the Myths of the Dark Continent as a hostile takeover that replaces the slave trade. “[The British] see themselves less and less as perpetrators of the slave trade and more and more like the potential saviors of the African”, as if their way of life was a sickness that can be cured. There was an emphasis to absolve the “darkness” that lived in the continent and swap it for the preferred “white cleanliness” of Christianity and Eurocentric customs. Brantlinger comments further that the need for the British was encapsulated by the Berlin Conference of 1844 with the British “tend[ing] to see Africa as the center of evil processed by a demonic ‘darkness’ or barbarianism…which it was their duty to exorcise” (Brantlinger, 175).

The plight to uplift the peoples of Africa was done in the name of God, which lead to the acceptance on a global level. The English had a new cause: to show the “poor” or “innocent” Africans the light. Depictions of Africans were non-descript and lacked acknowledgement of differences in culture but rather lumped into one idea of “the native”. To build the caricature that the natives could be brought to learn civility, children and childlikeness was symbolically used so showcase naiveté in need of Anglo-Saxon education.

The modern view shown to the western world is of children starving in the streets to promote the Eurocentric obligation to provide the suffering with a healthy dose of Jesus. From a Feed My Starving Children commercial, “the only thing that can rescue their health and their malnourishment is to give them the Feed My Starving Children food”, which insinuates the Christian organization is the only hope the children have for a better life. Videos of this nature continue the narrative that encourages westerners to “do the right thing”. No country is a utopia, but it is unfair for countries like Ghana to be thought of as helpless. Angela Thompsell captures the essence of the harm in assuming the role of savior:Thanks to a sensationalistic news media, people worldwide associate Africa with famine, war, AIDS, poverty and political corruption. This isn’t to say that such problems don’t exist in Africa. Of course, they do. But even in a nation as wealthy as the United States, hunger, abuse of power and chronic illness factor into everyday life.

While the continent of Africa faces enormous challenges, not every African is in need, nor is every African nation in crisis.It is not the act of helping; it’s presenting the idea of Africa as a whole has no chance of success without Western interference. Trends show that more and more youths are taking the opportunity for a more culturally integrated experience. Working with or for the locals, volunteers have the idea that they spent their summer making a difference bettering the world. What isn’t considered is what is left after they hop back on the airplane to first world comfort.

How were the locals treated? What level of engagement was shared between cultures? Was the objective project completed or did volunteers just post pictures of themselves holding cute babes? What benefits can Ghana truly claim from accepting such transient travelers? First-hand experience is the most valuable when developing a true understanding of how things are in their true form. The rose colored lens of what a stereotyped African country should be is immediately broken down upon arrival. Travelers arrive at an international airport, on a tarmac, in a city surround by sprawling urban development. The process is similar for that of all international airports; you are greeted by a customs officer, shuttled to pick up your belongings that (hopefully) traveled safely in the cargo, and approached by taxi drivers whose job it is to convince you to get in their car. This is contrast to the scene of arriving in the heavily isolated jungle by a hanger plane seen in films such as Walt Disney’s George of the Jungle. The movie is a live-action depiction of a character based on the historically controversial Tarzan.

Ghana is not the land of Bushmen dancing in forest that had elephants named ‘Shep’ for pets. The view you don’t get on TV is of the people that sporting designer Virgil Abloh’s brand Off White[footnoteRef:5] and Adidas sneakers while consumed to something interesting on a smartphone. Ghanaians are successfully integrating the old with the new as not all culture is lost to what is trending. The practice of wearing traditional kente cloth has in some cases been updated to ebb and flow with what global runways demand while maintaining its African identity.

Millions of Ghanaian’s enjoy other modern luxuries such as the internet. As of January 2018, We Are Social’s annual global digital use report show that over 5.6 million Ghanaians are accessing popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Beyond the internet, healthcare availability and education are on the rise while clean water issues and HIV/Aids cases are lowering in numbers.[footnoteRef:6] The imagery of terrorism and civil unrest can deter visitors who might fear for their safety based on these preconceptions. The United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security rates terrorist acts as only medium-threat although there have been fewer than ten reported incidents from 2000-2016.

Chart courtesy of the IMF Datamapper via the World Economic Outlook Numbers collected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) support the scene of modernity. The 2018 International Monetary Fund’s economic report shows growth rates in Ghana are some of the highest in Africa. Ghana is one of the many African countries that have succeeded in having a steady higher GDP growth rate that tops that of the G7 since 2001. Growth rates helped to manage the ratio of annual debt to revenue ratio as well. Overall IMF Ghana Mission Chief Annalisa Fedelino has claimed the success of the “macroeconomic stabilization is ongoing” and predicts better rates for the nation to support the statement (GhanaWeb, June 26, 2018).

Moral accreditation can fuel positive public image of friends, family, and organizations alike. When one is considered to have sound standards and a positive influence towards society, the public is more likely to trust the product being sold to them whether it be a mop or a TV personality. A good way to show solidarity to the greater good of humanity is to help with countries that are still developing and do not have easy access to basic services. Many of those countries are in the African region and often get categorized together as war torn or dying from starvation. Ghana was the first nation in the world to allow cultural immersive experiences for those with a hunger for travel by accepting aid such as the Peace Corps shortly after independence.

Today we are working towards a Ghana that will soon stand on its own feet as a nation beyond foreign aid, but until that becomes reality it still needs international assistance. It is imperative that Ghana preserves its rights and dignity to be taken seriously as having cultural value that needs protecting on an international stage. Advertising programs that are changing lives for only a small fee sustains the idea that a Western superior class is best required for Africans to function in the modern globalized world. This further extends the divide between the idea of the natives in Africa and the developed world. Using children symbolizes the thinking that all people from Africa are innocent but can be taught or cured of their savage habits. Washing over the cultural value of Ghanaian’s and other nations oppresses the potential for a truly liberated state. On March 6, 1957 Kwame Nkrumah spoke towards Ghana’s new found independence for a call with the words “Ghana’s independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa and with the projection of the African personality in the international economy”.

Treating countries that are in need of aid with respect is the only way they will gain true sovereignty. The time to end posed pictures with small children is imperative to equality on a globalized world. Depictions of the Anglo-Saxon savior to Ghana act as a suppressant to socioeconomic independence. How the country is presented gains credibility for those who are shown giving a helping hand, while it typecasts Ghanaians as unable to survive without help. Being pigeonholed into this category will inhibit Ghana ever reaching autonomy without aid. Global economies will continue to be able to benefit off of the raw materials needed to fuel the lifestyle of their own nations. Ghana’s economic growth cannot meet is full potential until the abuse of power is no longer seen as acceptable for personal or government use alike. When Ghana is respected as the modern country that it is, then its people can benefit from true freedoms. While participating in volunteer tourism, the use of locals for validations on social media degrades subject’s dignity and pride of their heritage. Until this changes Ghana will persist to be socioeconomically enslaved, never to escape the stigmatization the myth of the Dark Continent left behind.

03 December 2019
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