According to the media, African, Asian, and Latin American nations primarily are composed of a class monolith. Starving children, struggling slums, you name it: poverty remains the face of these locations. Last week, Amber Rose shared pictures of her trip to Ghana, but received a bit of backlash from her fans for focusing on impoverished neighborhoods. Many Ghanaians felt that she was contributing to the stereotypical face of Africa, and failed to show the burgeoning middle to upper class. But is the presence of middle to upper class citizens strong enough to challenge the popularity of poverty tourism?
In searching for the “other,” many Americans and Europeans would prefer to see the impoverished side of the “third world” for various reasons. Some are simply curious to see abject poverty first-hand in an exotic setting. Others want to “give back” and volunteer their services to ailing neighborhoods in foreign countries. But most notably, it might be ideologically confrontational for westerners to see themselves in middle to upper class locals. Who really wants to “ruin” a vacation with the “startling reality,” good and bad, of capitalism benefiting more than the just western world? Most ordinary tourists would prefer to have their stereotypes confirmed and ideologies unchallenged.
Growing up, I held similar poverty stereotypes of many foreign nations, stereotypes that were fueled by more than just the media. At an early age, I received the opportunity to visit Ghana, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, and the only wealth that was front-and-center were those of foreigners who booked lavish rooms in beautiful beach hotels and stunning resorts. It was rare to meet wealthy locals, as most tours only covered historical landmarks, royal buildings, and impoverished villages. Frankly put, poverty tourism and colonial nostalgia have proven lucrative in dealing with westerners in search of “exploring” local cultures.
In college, I was fortunate to meet numerous students from various nations across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. While some came from poverty, the majority experienced middle to upper class upbringings, sharing similar class values to most Americans. It was through these friendships and encounters that I truly learned the reality of what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the “danger of a single story.”
She says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity…when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
Indeed, it is this paradise that more western tourists should seek to gain in their travels. It’s the encounters that you experience off the beaten tourist path that allow you to see the many facets and complexities of a nation.