Dec. 26, 2014
There is no doubt that a lack of cultural connection in tourism creates economic disparity for most high-growth travel regions. This often exploitive dependence on tourists, creates a relationship filled with un-equality that leaves both the traveler and the local dissatisfied with the exchange.
So as travelers, how can we ensure that we are building healthy bridges that positively effect future generations? How can we learn from and build relationships from the cultural exchange of tourism?
Keeping Cultural Tourism "Real": A Deeper Look
By Dr Ken Firestone
I have had experiences spending quality time with various traditional tribal-based peoples living in remote areas of the East African bush. I do this for both personal & professional reasons. Just as I have grown personally by better understanding myself, my values and society through meeting pre-modern peoples, I would like to assist other culturally curious Westerners’ grow in their own self-understandings, self-discovery and self-awareness through encounters with them.
The Question of Identity
In our contemporary Western society, a major focus is on individual identity. Our questions are: Who am I? What do I think and feel? What do I believe? What differentiates me from others? We want to choose who we are and what we want to become. Identity is, in a sense, self manufactured.
In traditional collectivistic societies, the focus is on group identity. The questions asked are: Who are we? What do we think and believe? How will we survive? In isolated communities, identity is not formed in relation to others, but rather by accepting the oral traditions passed down from ancestors and elders. For less isolated traditional communities that have contact with neighboring communities, they ask: How are we different from them? With the indigenous peoples I meet, individual identity is not easily differentiated from group identity. The “ I “ is submerged within the “we.” Identity is determined by what has been inherited from the past.
Transformative Experiences are Destabilizing
Cross-cultural experiences can become transformative moments. An example of how encounters with cultural "others" prompts this, I no longer use the term "illiterate" referring to a person who can neither read nor write. When using this term, it usually suggests a pejorative reference about the intelligence of the person. If it implies a lack of intelligence, I would be viewed as extremely "illiterate" to the bush peoples I meet. Whereas they have an encyclopedic knowledge about their natural environment and how to survive in it, I do not. I am only "literate" in a culture that requires proficient reading and writing skills to survive. Some of the deepest wisdom I have learned has been the result of what I have learned from peoples who neither read nor write.
When an even playing field is established in which "power" is evenly distributed between guests and hosts, everyone can become both a teacher and a learner. Deep respect for the other is prerequisite for mutuality to occur. When I am with rural tribal peoples living in their natural environment, it is a humbling experience to realize things thought and believed to be true without question are, in fact, merely cultural assumptions. When my preconceived notions about the cultural “other” are wrong, it forces me to self-reflect to reconfigure who I thought I was, who I am and what it is I believe and value.
Flashback to the 60’s
I confess, in retrospect my initial attraction to bush peoples had a romantic quality that was driving me. I thought, "Wow, what a beautiful and peaceful simple life uncluttered by modern technologies." Some of this was probably a throwback to the 60's that idealized the primal and pristine natural life. It was a rejection of the "modern" that was sterile, artificial and "contaminated" by impersonal bureaucracies and a mechanistic society grounded in the physical sciences that disconnects "man from land."
Tales of Woe
I listen to the stories of the Hadzabe bushmen hunter-gathers in Tanzania's Rift Valley about their young children dying at a young age from malaria because their malnourished bodies cannot fight off the disease and medical care is inaccessible. Maasai pastoralists tell me how their population of 6,000 were relocated to a relatively small area within their historic Serengeti grazing lands in the 1960's, but their population has now grown to 60,000, causing their land to be overgrazed and unable to support their large families. I hear the Samburu and Turkana pastoralist tribes living on Kenya's northern frontier share how global warming has forced them to graze their cattle far from their boma's (family compounds) in search of water sources.
The Batwa Pygmies (Twa) who used to live as hunter-gatherers in the Ituri Forest in the Congo rainforest had to flee due to political unrest and now live in western Uganda. They tell me they have no skills outside of hunting and gathering and have no rights to enter Uganda's Semliki Forest nearby to hunt or even cut down trees for firewood or build homes. They must live off of crafts and trinkets they sell to tourists. They have lost their culture and their pride.
All these land dependent indigenous peoples living in the East African bush are suffering. Though I am personally enriched meeting these peoples, my romantic enchantment about their lives has tempered over time. The closer one gets to a people, the more you sense the pain underlying their lives. I have sobered up. When I bring guests to meet these peoples, we contribute money to our tribal hosts to thank them for their hospitality and purchase their handmade crafts. This helps supplement their material needs, and enables them to survive physically and preserve their ways of life. Somehow, this never seems to be enough.
A Balancing Act
When I bring outsiders to rural bush communities, I want the indigenous peoples we meet to share what they enjoy living in the bush and experience some of this joy with them. I want to dance, chant, hunt, hear their myths and how they adapt to their natural environment as we sit around their communal camp fires.But I also want our hosts to open up and share their hardships, sorrows and the harsh realities they face. I want to discover universal experiences we share in common.
I once joined a group of tribal hunters sitting on the ground, but accidentally sat in a lit but ash covered fire. As I jumping up and out of the fire, the hunters roared in laughter. They weren’t laughing at me, but at the hilarity of someone unwittingly sitting in an open fire pit. When I realized what I had done, I laughed right along with them. This was “universal humor,” like when a coconut falls on someone’s head, it’s funny no matter when or where it happens
By Keeping Cultural Tourism “Real”
I want to keep cross-cultural encounters real and not shield visitors’ from our ancient hosts’ pains and sorrows. Delving below the surface of the "exotic native," my romance with their lives began to fade. As their lives became more real, I began to identify with my ancient hosts’ on a deeper human level. Realizing the human experiences we shared in common, my ancient hosts didn’t seem as different from me as I had originally imagined.
Through the interactive spontaneity that occurs during cultural visits, universal aspects of the human experience are uncovered and discovered. When people are brought together who view the world through radically different cultural lenses and sets of assumptions, what takes place is unpredictable. It is not a smooth process bridging the gap between post-modern and pre-modern peoples. It can't be, if it’s real. Meaningful symbols of connection are hard to locate. Locating these connections is what makes cultural encounters exciting and meaningful growth experiences. It is this unpredictability and the unanticipated realizations that emerge from them that makes cultural immersion tourism rewarding.