I don’t hold with the term ‘giving something back’ in connection with travel because it implies that something has been taken away in the first place; responsible travellers aren’t necessarily obliged to do more than put money into a country by paying their way, take care not to damage the environment or people, use locally run institutions (hotels, tour companies, restaurants, shops...) where possible and respect local customs and sensitivities. However, increasing numbers of travellers nowadays are choosing to become more closely involved with a country and its people, whether during their trip or afterwards. The hints below are for them.
- What is your name?
- An empty suitcase
- Using your assets
- Street begging
- Bargaining with street vendors
- Interacting with children
- After you've returned home
After the normal courtesies, this is possibly the most useful phrase you can learn in the local language. It immediately shows that you’re interested in the person you’re talking to – and he or she will respond. It’s also a wonderful way of opening an interaction with children, even quite little ones: assuming that they’ve understood your accent their eyes will widen in astonishment and a tiny voice will whisper Christophe or Marie-Claire or Tito or whatever. Then you can say ‘Hello Christophe’ and shake hands – and enjoy their reaction. If you can also learn to say ‘My name is...’ that’s even better.
I also used this in Madagascar when two ragged teenage girls were pestering us in the street for money. As soon as I’d asked their names (which they told me), they straightened up, met our eyes and behaved like people rather than beggars. I’d given them dignity. Then, using their names, I said in Malagasy: ‘Please, go away. No money. Goodbye.’ And off they went, chatting together. But without the use of their names they’d have continued bothering us.
Before leaving home, do check www.stuffyourrucksack.com. Set up by Kate Humble, it’ll show you the type of things needed by charities and local organisations in the country you’re visiting. These vary from coloured pencils to basic medicines to clothing and even laptops. If you can take something out and deliver it, you’ll be able to see how it’ll be used and perhaps get to know the people involved. You can also drop off unwanted things there at the end of your trip. In Namibia, this led me to a wonderfully un-touristy afternoon talking and reading to school-kids in a poor area of Windhoek. If you’re bringing ball-point pens, do check that they work well and have plenty of ink: it’s a terrible disappointment for a child to be given one that fails after a day or so.
At the end of your trip, consider how much of your stuff you really need to take home. Could you spare that t-shirt, sweater, torch, soap or rain poncho? What about those batteries, toiletries, first-aid items, flip-flops or (clean) socks? Ditching them would lighten your bag wonderfully, and they’d be hugely valuable to some local charity or orphanage. If you don’t know of any (Bradt guidebooks list a few) then ask your guide or driver or at your lodgings.
Something that takes up absolutely no space in your suitcase is your ability to speak English! And it can be invaluable in countries where English is a second language. If you want to mix with local people, find out what English-language classes for adults are being held locally. Sometimes they’re the initiatives of organisations like VSO or Peace Corps (I had a hugely enjoyable evening at one of theirs in a small town in Madagascar), or in cities there may be private language schools. Offer to spend an hour or so chatting to the students and you’ll meet interesting professional people, keen to improve their language skills. Or you could see if a local secondary school would like an addition to their English class: smaller ones that are some distance away from cities tend to be more flexible and appreciative, and the enthusiasm of the pupils is a delight.
How much you give, and to whom, is of course up to you. Often it’s hard to walk on by. I give to the old and visibly infirm: the fact that they’re begging at all, in countries where the elderly are generally looked after by their families, suggests that they have no-one to help them, and they’re unlikely to be part of organised groups. The important thing is to look them in the eye, smile and say an appropriate ‘Good morning’, treating them as fellow human beings: which is probably more of a novelty to them than being handed a few coins.
Travellers are learning, at last, that it is much, much better not to give (whether coins, sweets or pencils) to individual children, for many reasons. For example it encourages them to forsake school in favour of begging, or the gift may well be grabbed by a bigger child as soon as you’ve gone. Also they learn to pester tourists, some of whom may react angrily. If you’ve brought gifts with you, give them to a responsible person or institution (school, orphanage...) so they can be shared out fairly and safely. Sometimes your empty plastic water-bottles can be useful gifts; ask local advice about this.
Once in Rwanda, in the city, a very small child was running persistently after me, hand outstretched; I was walking fast, so he was clearly going to get tired and hot. I asked a local passer-by (in French) to explain (in Kinyarwanda) that I hadn’t any coins on me so he should stop running. The child then trotted off and the passer-by thanked me for being considerate. Even street-kids deserve courtesy. Another time I found four of them shivering in a doorway in the morning after sleeping rough; a cheap local café was just across the road so I took them in and paid for them to have bowls of hot soup. Later I met a couple of other tourists who’d also provided street-kids with a meal instead of giving them cash: in a town it’s one of the more positive ways of helping.
Everyone has something different to say about this! Some see it as a challenge and beat the vendor down relentlessly; others feel that ‘the people expect it’ (as indeed they do, in many countries); others link it to their estimate of the actual value of the goods; and others prefer to go into a shop where prices are clearly marked.
What we don’t always remember is that vendors are all different: they include unscrupulous sharks; those who price their goods fairly (allowing a small margin for negotiation) and are genuinely trying to earn a regular living; those who consider it a pleasurable challenge to outmanoeuvre the purchaser; and the very poor who are just desperate to get the cash they need to feed their family that night. Distinguishing between them is hard, but it does affect our response – and it’s important not to beat the desperate ones down to an unreasonable price just because they need the money so badly. Remember that a small amount to you can represent a large amount to them.
My own system is to assess the value and quality of the item, taking into account the time, skill and materials needed to make it, and, once that price has been reached, not to bargain below it. I try to be polite rather than brusque or dismissive, and to explain why I think something isn’t worth the price being charged, or why I really don’t need it. Injecting a bit of humour into the situation helps too: if you can end with a handshake and smiles all round, it has been a good encounter.
Apart from asking ‘What is your name?’ (above) there are plenty of simple possibilities. Carry some short lengths of string to introduce them to Cats’ Cradles, or a longer and heavier length to get them skipping. Let them look through your binoculars, including the wrong way round. If there are flat stones about (as on a beach), and it won’t harm the environment or contravene local customs, produce some wax crayons or felt-tips and involve the kids in decorating them. Bring a few old tennis balls or a blow-up football with you – they won’t weigh much in a suitcase. You’ll be providing entertainment that the children will remember long after you’ve gone.
Travellers continue their involvement in some unusual ways: for example one designed a knitted lemur (soft toy), the sale of which raises funds to help street children in Madagascar. Another, in Mali, spotted a charity, the Joliba Trust (www.jolibatrust.co.uk), listed in our Mali guide and through it financed the construction of a solid and much-needed well in an arid area. One couple were so struck by an orphanage in Rwanda that they ended up sponsoring not one but five children. Others (often teachers) have set up links between schools at home and in the country they’ve visited. Bicycles, footballs, sports kit, medical supplies, tools... have all been provided by travellers who, returning home, wanted to help to meet a need that they’d noticed during their trip.
There will certainly be charities specifically involved in the country you’ve visited: track them down via the internet or the Charities Aid Foundation (www.cafonline.org).
The big international charities are colossal, and it can be hard to remember that their work does genuinely reach down to benefit the poorest at grassroots level. It’s particularly hard to believe – although it’s true – that they need our small donations! Most of them don’t deserve their reputation for spending too much on administration, and they respond magnificently to disasters as well as to ongoing needs. But you’ll possibly prefer something smaller and more individual.
Nowadays the smaller charities are amazing in their range and variety – whatever you want to support, you’ll find it somewhere. The few below, small enough to have a personal approach but large enough to make a useful impact, are only a tiny sample of the many available.
Good Gifts Catalogue (www.goodgifts.org) This enables you to support development schemes while remembering friends and family at anniversaries, Christmas etc. For example you can buy a ‘Goat for Peace’ for your aunt’s birthday; it’ll be delivered to one of the schemes providing goats to poor families in Africa, and you’ll get a card for your aunt explaining the gift. That’s just one of many possibilities – including beehives, bicycles for midwives, giant gro-bags, duck farms, water tanks, pigs, books for Indian village libraries and even medical sniffer rats that can diagnose TB (one of these costs £15). Many other charities now operate similar schemes.
Hope and Homes for Children (www.hopeandhomes.org) works in Central and Eastern Europe (including Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine) and Africa (including Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, South Africa), aiming to get children out of institutions and into a family environment, helping to keep stressed families together, tackling local problems and preventing child abandonment.
Practical Action (www.practicalaction.org) Formerly the Intermediate Technology Development Group, founded in 1966 by the radical economist Dr E F Schumacher, Practical Action demonstrates that correctly chosen small-scale technologies, appropriately adapted and using accessible materials, can provide long-lasting and widespread solutions to poverty. Currently has activities in 11 countries in East and Southern Africa, also Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Latin America; but its publications, knowledge, approach and often ingenious solutions are used in almost every developing country worldwide.
Shelterbox (www.shelterbox.org) This very practical UK charity, with affiliates in 20 other countries worldwide, provides refugees and the survivors of severe natural disasters with sturdy plastic ‘shelterboxes’, each of which contains a two-roomed tent, sleeping bags, water purifiers and containers, basic tools, colouring books for the children, a stove and cooking equipment : enough for a family of ten for six months. Launched in Cornwall in 2000, so far it has provided lifesaving aid to well over a million people in more than 75 countries, as well as equipment for temporary schools in disaster areas.
Stuff Your Rucksack (www.stuffyourrucksack.com), described above, lists a variety of small charities in the countries it covers.
WaterAid (www.wateraid.org.uk) This well-established and effective charity is dedicated to the provision of safe domestic water, sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people. Currently works in 27 countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region and Central America.