When I read that travel writer Louise Linton has managed to piss off an entire country by writing her memoirs, I felt compelled to write about my own experience as a teenage volunteer in Africa. I have never really written about my time spent in Rwanda other than to praise the women of the country, because I have realised how differently I would have approached the opportunity as an adult.
In 2003 as a school girl, myself and a number of friends raised the significant amount of €32,000 for an NGO charity and I was rewarded by being selected to travel to Rwanda to see all of the good work that our money had done. I was naturally ecstatic, the adventure and the excitement of travelling to Africa was incredible and the weeks and months prior to departure was taken up with shopping for suitable clothing, getting vaccinations and nervously anticipating what it would be like. Locally, we were heralded as heroes – two 16 year old girls raise a tonne of money and head to Africa. We were in the papers and even on RTE news. I cringe at the thoughts of it now.
I am glad that I have not written about Rwanda because at 16 I too would have fallen into the trap of the white saviour complex. As a naïve teenager I did think that I would be able to save the World, or at most change the life of some of the people I met. In hindsight that is ridiculous.
Like Linton, I too was young, pale, slim and blond and I received an abundance of attention from local people. Yes, I was proposed to by local men, I was called Muzungu by the children and yes, they were happy to see me coming, but to say that I changed any of their lives would be severely self-indulgent. In fact, I doubt that any of those children would remember me, and if they do, they would probably wonder why I left and never returned. The fact is, I was a voluntourist. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a publicity stunt. A great white saviour, who was sent to meet and greet like a celebrity. How much of that €32,000 was spent of flying me to Rwanda and paying for my accommodation?
|Travelling to Rwanda, June 2003|
Of course my intentions were good, but at 16 and with very little understanding of my significance in the World, I genuinely thought that I would be saving starving children. But there were no starving children. I saw happy children going to school, with loving Mothers who did everything they could for their children.
Looking back at some of my photographs I feel embarrassed. I can hardly name the people in most of them with me. It was as if I was at a people zoo. Ok granted it was before selfies and I was using a disposable camera, but mostly it was me posing with curious people. I was not their friend and you can tell. I do think of some of the people I met there, Julienne, Eric, Cecelia and wonder how they are. I sometimes think that I would like to go back and find out what happened to these people. Thirteen years later how are they doing? I kept in contact with some, but only those privileged enough to have access to the internet at that time.
I do feel a little sorry for Linton, because she wrote with the romanticism that hindsight can sometimes bring. But the fact is that what she has written has done more damage to the people that she claims she helped. She has done nothing more than feed into the stereotype that Africa has and frame herself as a hero and a martyr. I feel it is far more productive to write about my uneventful travels in Rwanda. I was there 9 years after the genocide and the year the conflict in the Congo ended, just a short paddle across Lake Kiwu, but nothing happened. I was protected by the NGO far more than the people they were there to assist. I met friendly, happy people who looked after their communities and strong women who had rebuilt the country. I ate a dinner of goat meat with villagers and took the seat of honour under a hole in the roof where the rain dripped through. These are the stories of Africa I would like people to share.
I could easily have framed this story differently and as a teenager, I might have been tempted to. But now as a woman of almost 30 I see my place in the World. Travelling to Rwanda was a time of personal growth and something I learned a lot from, but did I make a difference to the people there? Probably not. Of course we all have Egos and we all like to exaggerate, but we have a responsibility as travel writers and bloggers to present facts and not to present ourselves as heroes in our own Walter Mitty-esque tale. Let’s hope that there are some lessons learned from the Linton Lies.