When most people think of stereotypes, they tend to think of people’s personalities and various race stereotypes in the United States. Although most people don’t realize it, stereotypes can go much farther than this. They can have a resounding impact when stereotyping an entire continent such as Africa, or even dozens of countries across the world, labeling them with common known phrase: “third world”.
The concept of “third world countries” originated during the Cold War, but its meaning back then was very different than the meaning we know today. The term was coined in 1952, and was used to describe countries which did not align with either NATO or the Communist Bloc. Those which were aligned with the United States and NATO were considered first world countries. Those which aligned with the Soviet Union were known as second world countries. Those which did not associate with either were considered to be “third world”. For some reason, this definition has shifted overtime to refer more towards the developmental status of a country. All countries which people consider to be “inferior” at an industrial level label it as third world. People often stereotype these countries to be full of suffering and starvation, and generally think that it is up to people in more well off countries to give them aid and help them progress as a country.
Little do people realize, these concepts are horribly generalized stereotypes, which have actually caused a lot of damage in various countries. So in this post, I would like to point out some common stereotypes people in the United States perpetuate about “third world countries”, and the damages these are causing. Although I cannot vouch for all people and all countries, I will try to use my experiences here in Tanzania to give you perspective on how these viewpoints impact this country.
1. “There are starving children in Africa”
If I’m being honest, I have used this phrase before. Most people I know have said this phrase before. It’s common, and after being here and seeing what damage this little joking phrase has caused, it sickens me to think how many times I’ve heard this throughout my lifetime.
First of all, Africa is a continent, not a country. It is filled with 54 recognized countries, all with their own cultures, traditions, and languages. The continent itself has over 1.5 billion people, so of course some of the children are starving. There are starving children in the United States, yet you don’t ever hear that phrase tossed around. This phrase has created this idea that all children living in Africa are starving and desperately need food. From my experience in Tanzania, I can tell that this is not the case. Sure, there are people that go without food, as are there people in the USA which go without food. But these children are mostly fed. They have parents who work and grow food in their gardens, and the food I’ve eaten with my homestay family here was some of the freshest and healthiest food I’ve ever eaten. Our rice came from a local rice farm, and we had bananas which were picked from in their own yard.
Although most wouldn’t think this stereotype would directly impact the people here in Tanzania, it has had the impact I see most often in my daily interactions with the children here. You see, kids here have begun to realize that foreigners think that they are all starving, and have realized that as foreigners they feel they can “help” these kids by giving them things when they ask for it. Because of this, kids have gotten into the habit of begging any white visitors for food, candy, money, or anything else they think they can get out of these tourists. Tourists, thinking these children need it, will hand it over, doing their duty to help these “starving children in Africa”. Little do they know, they are building a precedence that all white people will hand kids free things, ingraining terrible manners in these children. It has even gotten to the point where these kids are so unused to being told no when asking for candy, that when my peers and myself told them no, they began to throw rocks at us.
It’s not these kids faults. They have simply realized a way in which they can benefit from our western stereotypes. What kid in the United States wouldn’t ask for free candy or money if they knew they could get it? But it is a problem that is growing to a point where it may be irreversible. And unfortunately all of this has stemmed from a stereotype we toss around in casual conversation, without realizing the impact it can actually have on people.
2. Volunteer tourism and the white savior complex
Mission trips, volunteer orgs, high school travelling community service, you name it. They’re all meant to make a difference in these “deprived” countries, right? They’re full of people want to make a difference in the world, and are spending their own time (and often money) to do so. What could be bad about that? Well, there’s two main issues I’ve observed in the practice of traveling to an area for a limited amount of time, doing volunteer work, and then leaving.
The first of these has to do with the white savior complex. In the United States, a handful of high school students would not be allowed to construct a house, or complete any sort of serious building reconstruction without any previous experience. Yet it is common for those with no construction experience to build and work on buildings and homes in countries that are considered to be developing countries. It is understood that this phenomenon stems from the white savior complex, or the idea that we was white westerners can help and save these people because – whether or not we recognize it – we internally believe we are better and can better these countries because of our influence. So these people come in and build these houses, or complete these projects with little or no experience. This means that when they leave, they leave behind buildings which aren’t structurally sound, and fields tilled improperly. In many cases, these projects have to be completely redone by locals, or they simply accept the damage done. When trying to “better” these countries by shaping them to our image, we are really generating more issues and more damage.
The other issue is one that doesn’t necessarily directly cause damage to communities, but one that is still extremely important. When traveling to these countries for volunteer work, people tend to perpetuate these stereotypes to the utmost extent upon their return. They travel to a country such as Tanzania, take tons of pictures of people living their lives differently than we’re used, and travel back the United States talking about how you were able to “experience Africa” and spouting stereotypes because you never did “experience” the country. I do not claim to have even really been able to experience the life as the locals do here, as that would take years of living with the local community, but I have come to learn that the pictures and recounts given by short-term volunteers in Tanzania fail to recognize that people can live differently than you without being deprived. One week of volunteering in country does not give you context in the local’s lives, and talking to people as if it did can spread more of the stereotypes that you should learn to stop when traveling to countries such as Tanzania.
3. Cultural tourism – the human zoos
Cultural tourism has become a huge thing in Tanzania, and in tourist-focused countries across Africa. People want to travel to Africa and get the “real African experience”, which typically means they actually just want to see interesting cultural practices they aren’t used to, and then spend their evenings in fancy westernized lodges. The hypocrisy of this aside, this concept of paying for people to show off some of their cultural practices and traditions is actually starting to cause some serious issues for different tribes.
One example of this is the Hadzabe tribe here in Tanzania. The Hadzabe tribe is one of the last hunter and gatherer tribes left on Earth, and unfortunately, it may not remain as such in the near future, most of which is due to cultural tourism. You see, cultural tourism has given the Hadza people a disposable income they previously had not had. This has caused them to discover resources that they have not been able to acquire through hunting or gathering, such as alcohol. With this discovery of the bliss of alcohol has also come the development of alcoholism, and with this alcoholism has come the fallout of hunting and gathering. The Hadza could now spend all day drinking with their new income, purchase food from stores instead of hunting, and then just present the hunter and gatherer lifestyle to foreigners when they visit in order to make more money.
Instead of the men being out hunting for food, they will be at their camp showing foreigners how they would hunt. Instead of doing their traditional celebratory dance once they bring back fresh game, they will do it any time they have visitors at the camp. Instead of the women gathering fruits, veggies and medicine, they will be trying to make as many bracelets and necklaces as possible to sell to tourists. This just shows that the very culture you are paying to experience, you are also paying to kill off. It may not be directly the fault of tourists participating in cultural tourism, but we cannot claim that we are innocent parties when these cultures are falling apart at our fingers.
4. Unresearched donations and the white savior complex
I know what you’re thinking. AGAIN with the white savior complex? Well yes, again with the white savior complex. It was never really something I thought about or recognized before traveling to Tanzania, but after spending nearly 3 months here now, it is something I see all the time. So here goes round two on this issue.
From my experience in the United States, Americans love to donate to causes. We love being able to use money to make ourselves feel as if we are good people. Now, this is often great, as in the United States there are so many wonderful nonprofit organizations to donate to in order to help as variety of causes. In Tanzania, however, this may not be the case. Tanzanians know that foreigners are known to donate to causes as long as they seem worthy enough, so they have generated scams of sorts. One of the biggest ones is creating orphanages in order to siphon money out of visitors. In some of these orphanages, the children there don’t even actually live there, and are simply sent to the orphanage for a couple of hours each day to pose as orphans for visiting foreigners. In others, children are taken from their families to live in these orphanages with poor conditions, when they would normally be taken care of by uncles or other extended family members.
Now I get it. People don’t think about how donating money can actually be a bad thing, but unfortunately there are a lot of these cases across Tanzania. I am not saying that you shouldn’t donate to any local causes here, and I am not saying that all donations are bad. But thinking that any donations you make and any money you give to organizations will help to make this country “better” in any way is not true. Do research and know where you’re donating before you do.
**If any of you would like to donate to an amazing local organization, I can personally attest to the validity of the Tanzania Education Corps. I have visited their Tumaini Primary School in Karatu, and spent nearly two hours playing netball with a handful of kids. Their school is one of the top private schools in the area, and donating to the Tanzania Education Corps goes towards sponsoring children who would otherwise not be able to afford their education. You can visit their website here: http://www.tanzania-schools.org/**
5. “Wild Africa”
Everyone has this image in their mind when they think of the continent of Africa. Endless plains, lions, elephants, wildlife and nature. But the entire continent isn’t just this wild land filled with wildlife and uninhabited forests, and this idea we spread of a “Lion King” image of Africa is one that erases all of the people here.
There are people that live here. In Tanzania, people’s main source of income is agriculture and livestock. My normal views are not the views of endless plains and herds of gazelle. My views are cornfields and cattle. My views are passing by Ignis the tailor on my way to the local market, the local shopkeeps at the duka, and the kids that pass by us on their way home from school. My views are of drinking beer and eating pizza at local bars, and chatting with Rafiki Daniel on my free days in Mtu wa Mbo. My views are walking past families dressed up nice on their way to church on Sundays, and avoiding obnoxious drunk guys on our walks back to camp.
There are people here, and they live their lives in ways very similar to how you live yours. They cook food, do their work, spend time with families, and socialize with friends at one of their favorite local restaurant spots. Their backdrop may look different than yours, and they may have struggles which are much different than you are used to, but in the end we are all people. We all live our lives, and theirs are no more “wild” or “primitive” than you make them out to be.