An Uncomfortable Community Visit in Zambia

Over the years, Ted Martens has visited a number of rural communities as part of his travels and cultural interests.

Some have been amazing experiences, others have been mediocre encounters. But in all cases, the hearts of the organizers, communities, and travelers were in the right place, with the end goal of providing benefits to the host community while providing a rich and interactive experience for the traveler. 

What I'm coming to realize, however, is that even when the system is set up properly, the experience is only as good as the time you put into it.

Simonga Village

The Simonga Village is a small community about 20km outside the border town of Livingstone, Zambia. The region is home to one of Africa's premier tourist destinations, Victoria Falls – one of the seven natural wonders of the world. 

The Zambian side of the falls has seen a tourism surge in the past decade due to the ongoing political and social turmoil in neighboring Zimbabwe, and tourist infrastructure has quickly developed to meet the increasing demand. 

Simonga is situated near a number of hotels and lodges along the Zambezi River above the falls. One of these properties, The River Club, has sort of “adopted” the village as a way to give back to the surrounding community.

Increasing Quality of Life for Locals?

Simonga has learned some important lessons from other neighboring communities, and is one of only a handful of villages that has truly embraced tourism as an opportunity for increasing the quality of life for their people. 

Traditionally, villages in the region were not interested in welcoming visitors to their homes, believing that tourists would bring bad fortune, and the photos they took would steal their souls. 

Simonga's village elders, however, saw the region's growth in tourism as a way to bring great benefits to it's community, and with the help of the River Club and its guests, the community has thrived in relation to its neighbors. 

Community Tours

I gotta hand it to Simonga and the River Club – they are working hard to make this a win-win for everyone involved.  The community tours offered to River Club guests attempt to provide some sincere interaction between guests and villagers (which is hard to do in a 30-60 minute visit).  The tours are conducted in a respectful manner, always requesting entry and permission for conversation and photos.  The kids don't beg for money, and seem interested in talking and playing with the tourists.  As a result, donations from the River Club and its guests have helped the community to renovate their water supply system and school, build a police post and a medical clinic, and pay the tuition for over 50 students to attend high school in the neighboring town.  Additionally, the River Club employs a number of Simonga's residents on their staff.

Is Community Tourism Selfish and Harmful?

Sounds pretty peachy, right?  For some, it certainly is – a few of our fellow guests raved about the experience, how they got to see how rural Africa really lives, and how cute the kids were.  But for me, it was just plain uncomfortable.  A colleague of mine calls these “pet the children” visits – sarcastically comparing the experience to visiting animals in a zoo.  I mean, the idea of a rich foreigner swinging through my neighborhood to see my lifestyle and living conditions is not only awkward, but degrading.  Spending less than an hour with the villagers provides nothing more than surface-level insights about African communities, and little, if any, meaningful interaction.  To me, visiting poor communities without trying to contribute to their well-being is selfish and harmful. 

Take Your Time

So, if Simonga and the River Club actually have a good system in place to ensure benefits are distributed, and the experience is still detrimental in some respects, then what can be done?  To me, it's one simply factor – time.  Visiting a community for an hour, or even three, is simply not enough time to demonstrate that you, the visitor, care about the well-being of these villagers.  In order for them to open up to you, they must have some level of trust in you – trust that you actually care and are not just looking to see how poor people live.  If you want to visit a community to experience village life, then take the time to get to know them.  Spend a few nights, share stories, try walking in their shoes for a few days.  The time that you put in will determine the fulfillment that you (and your hosts) will get out of the experience.

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3 Comments

  • Nick Singer said

    I spent a few monthes helping start a zip line company in the country of St. Kitts and Nevis. The owner of the company owned Skyline in Cougar Mountain in Whistler, and partenered with a comapny called Delisle and Walwyn from St. Kitts to open Sky Safaris. He paid all the peole who helped me build, labor no one could be trained for, 80 ec a day, and one day, he tried to rip them off. The guide staff were paid the same. I quit, when it was obvious the efforts werent there to make a safe sustainable product. In less then 2 years ziplines with earth anchors not drilled deep enough into the earth have ripped out of the ground, with people from out of the country on them. The country was a half billion dollars in debt when I got there and when I left it doubled. Delisle and Walwyn, for less then a dollar an hour had the best school teachers and role models for a sinking country sell out there own people and become zip line guides for less then one yankee dollar an hour, leaving there schools with inferior teachers, or none at all. Check it out in Old Road, St. Kitts if your ever in the area, $5 yankee dollars to any cabbie will take there instead of anywheres else on the 3rd world island.

  • Heidi K said

    I'm pretty skeptical of visiting local communities in developing countries, and have often made a point of not to do so. Several years ago, to my chagrin, I was accidentally taken to visit a hilltribe village in northern Thailand that was not on our original trekking agenda that day. Most of the village men were away, but the hilltribe women present besieged us with huge garbage bags full of handicrafts, trying to get us to buy things. We were invited in to see their huts and take pictures, which I refused to do. It was an awkward experience to say the least, and I left feeling very exploitative. <br><br>Does Ted really think that a few days would suffice to "build trust"? I'm not convinced a few days visit is much better. Perhaps a couple of weeks, with return visits over a span of time (even years, if necessary), would be more beneficial if one truly wants to build a connection with a local community.

  • Ron Mader said

    Wow! You have articulated the need for slow travel, just how slow is a matter for local discussion. When I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico I had long talks with artisans who were frustrated that big tour buses would come to their village and visit one or two pre-selected workshops for a 40-minute visit. Of course, these homes were then asked for up to a 40% kickback meaning that visitors paid more than they should, artisans received less than they should and those who benefited were those who had the tour buses.<br><br>One of the solutions has been to organize weaver-guided walks in which we ask visitors to spend 3-6 hours in the community with the knowledge that 100% of purchases go to locals. <br><br>My friend Anders is Sweden likes the concept of 'slow travel' so much that he has set up the 'Slow Adventures' group on Facebook. <br><br>Let's look into this more during the online unconference 'Responsible Tourism Week' February 14-18 http://planeta.wikispaces.com/rtweek2011

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