We’ve put together a list of 7 general tips to keep in mind while traveling overseas, especially to countries in the southern hemisphere. This is by no means an exhaustive list. We think this is a good place to start as we all reflect on the ways in which our presence while traveling can cause harm, often unintentionally.
- What picture are you painting?
When you snap a photo or video, ask yourself if you are contributing to harmful stereotypes about the country and culture you are visiting OR are your photos and videos challenging the narrative? We don’t need you to come take photos of our poverty any more than you need us to go into your country and take pictures of your rural or urban poverty. Try to stick to pictures of landscapes, food, cultural experiences. DO NOT under any circumstances photograph people without their permission.
2. Would you want someone doing it to your family or in your community?
If you must photograph people in the country you’re visiting, make sure you are honoring the basic dignity and worth they deserve. Do not photograph ‘dirty’ children with torn clothing. We know you didn’t ask to take that picture because no parent or caregiver would want their child photographed in such a way. ALWAYS ASK PERMISSION and do not photograph people you have not even bothered to have a conversation with. People are people, not tourist attractions. Be very careful with the images of children. It should go without saying…but NO NUDITY (We’ve seen many tourists, volunteers and missionaries post naked photos of other people’s children!!!).
3. Be aware of power dynamics.
Many of the “developing countries” you visit have been colonized and are still very much influenced by the legacy colonialism has left. This means certain skin colors, religions and/or passports are regarded more highly, with far more privilege. Some may be ignored or even rejected while others will be honored as a guest or celebrated more than you should be. Don’t let this go to your head.
4. Watch your language.
How are you speaking about the countries and cultures you are visiting? Remember that language is powerful. When you go home and tell people about your travels, are you sharing stories that confirm or challenge the stereotypes they may hold of that country? If you met people, rather than focusing on communicating what they were lacking, try talking about all of the things they did have — culture, customs, spirituality, dance, music, resourcefulness… switching up language from “third world” to “over exploited” can make room for important dialogue.
5. You are a guest.
Whether you are traveling for a few days, weeks, months or years, you are a guest in the culture you are spending time in. It is common to hear from local people how rude and entitled foreign nationals come across. Most of us will not tell you this because we aren’t used to being invited to open up and share such things… but I promise you, these experiences are real and unending. Please remember you’re not more entitled to our country and culture than we are to yours.
6. Support the local economy.
Often times you will have the option of supporting businesses run by people from all backgrounds and nationalities. Prioritize supporting businesses run by people native to the country you are visiting. For example, if you have the option of staying at a guest house run by a Dutch guy or a Ugandan woman, a direct way to support the economy is supporting businesses run by national business women and men (*not saying don’t support other business — just reminding you this is a great way to help contribute to the local economy)
7. Think before volunteering.
What is the long term impact of painting that classroom, handing out food for an afternoon or holding babies in an orphanage for 2 days? Ask yourself if you have a specific skill-set or expertise that is highly valuable to the community you are traveling to. If you are unsure at all, we highly suggest spending time learning those working in the community long term. It’s impossible to be a good volunteer without actually understanding the needs of the community.