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Kidnapped in Rwanda

How to Be a Responsible Travel Activist

When I was in Rwanda in 1992, just prior to the genocide, van driver Oswaldo Rugembage told me a heartbreaking story about his youngest sister. She died in their small village about 50 kilometers from Kigali, the capital, and Oswaldo knew exactly what killed her.

The well that serves the village was continuously fouled by animals. The family realized the danger of drinking contaminated water but firewood for boiling water was scarce, and they had no money to buy wood from the peddler’s cart. Even when they carried water in heavy urns from a source miles away, there was no guarantee it was clean.

Within three months after her birth, his sister developed chronic diarrhea. She couldn’t keep anything down; couldn’t gain weight. Her eyes became unnaturally deep-set. Tendons looked like twine holding her knee joints together. Six months later, toward the end, she didn’t have enough energy to raise her head from the cot.

After hearing that story, I was kidnapped—emotionally. I simply couldn’t walk away and do nothing.

This leads me to say a few words about "responsible travel." The most conservative view is that we ought to stay home because visiting other cultures inevitably corrupts them. In a few places, that may be true. Others say, "Okay, go, but leave only footprints behind." That is, minimize your impact. That makes sense.

Responsible Travel: An Activist’s View

However, I propose a more activist view of responsible travel. My definition includes having a positive impact. This is trickier than it appears. As a traveler, it takes a good deal of thought to be sure that what you perceive or interpret is reality. Having said this, there are certainly areas in which a traveler can take responsible action with little fear of ambiguities. One of these is health.

With Oswaldo’s story on my mind, I talked with several other local people, an elderly doctor, and two NGO workers on an AIDS project. I learned that one major reason there are no economic "tigers" (a la Malaysia, Singapore, etc.) in Africa is that so many people are chronically sick. Water-born diseases are a major cause, including persistent diarrhea that kills millions and leaves tens of millions malnourished and with barely enough energy to work at a subsistence level and not enough to progress in school. As I later criss-crossed the African continent I paid close attention to health conditions. They were, and are, appalling.

No One Said It’s Easy

I returned to the U.S. and spent two years researching ways to remove pathogens from contaminated water. Finally, I was satisfied we had developed a system that is effective, durable, transportable, and cheap. Our small non-profit donates these units, each one of which serves about 400 people, in underdeveloped countries.

I began this undertaking with no background in engineering and no expertise in achieving good water quality. However, input from the Pan American Health Organization, various NGOs, and the private sector overcame my shortcomings. The lesson is that, no matter what your project, there’s plenty of help available.

Other Ways of Helping

Paola Gianturco took an approach different from mine. Seeing various serious needs during her travels to remote places motivated her to use photography and vivid descriptions to bring them to the attention of the wider world. After considerable research, she made return visits to each place to be included in her first book, In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World. Her book illustrates the efforts of scores of craftswomen to use their skills to improve their lives and those of their extended families. On the book’s web site there’s a section entitled "You Can Help" where Gianturco lists useful actions one can take and effective organizations to support.

Yet another tactic, one taken by many responsible travelers, is that of importing goods from less-developed countries. I’ve imported seafood from Chile, soccer balls from India, and rugby jerseys from New Zealand (okay, hardly a third world country). And when time permits, there are wonderful textiles in Bolivia and Uzbekistan, teak and stone carvings in Zambia, and…well, the list is long. The point is that any importer who pays fair prices benefits the local economy. That’s responsible.

The Old Fashioned Way: Money

Sometimes a trip is just a trip and a traveler is not shirking a duty by simply enjoying the ride. But if you feel even a little bit "kidnapped" by what you experience, consider making donations to organizations whose committed staffs toil day after day in tough conditions. Rather than just sending money to some outfit whose van you saw driving around the place you visited, do some research. Non-profits are rated on the Internet in terms of effectiveness, percentage of revenues spent on overhead, and so on. I routinely support Doctors Without Borders and the American Friends Service Committee.

To me, part of the definition of responsible travel includes recognizing and acting on opportunities.

(Note: Oswaldo Rugembage was later killed in the conflict. His surviving family members were forced to flee.)

Activist Responsible Travel

By Clay Hubbs

Many of us have stories similar to Rob’s about how direct exposure to human suffering led us to contribute in some way to its alleviation.

Two years ago my wife and I visited Ethiopia to investigate opportunities for volunteerism. We found that another human resource is perhaps the last thing people need. Families need food, schools, and a few dollars to buy the uniforms required to attend schools.

After several days of visiting hospitals, orphanages, schools, and the homes of students, we decided that the best contribution we could make was a monthly wire transfer directly to one of the local institution’s directors, Father Abraham. In the northern town of Gondar we discovered a library in one of its ancient castles that had just reopened after more than 100 years. We send them regular shipments of books that we no longer need and have persuaded others to do the same.

The current editors would like to hear from readers with other examples of ways to give back to the people in the countries where we travel.

CLAY HUBBS was founding editor and publisher of Transitions Abroad.