Eliye: Ethics of a Traveller

The German girl tells the guy ‘I wanted Kenyan tea…Kenya tea is…’ I hope I do not do such things. I don’t think my Kenyan friends mind as much as I do. But these kinds of things make me wince. ‘The eggs are coming’, the German man tells my friendly waiter. ‘You see on the menu it says…’.

The thing is, African service is not the same as European service. Some of this is to do with differences between the continents: many waiters here are paid even worse than those in the UK, and tips are more scarce. Often they’re working away from home and living in staff quarters, visiting family only every few months. Society is more hierarchical too, so often they’re very subservient and shy until you get them chatting. I find myself saying ‘thank-you’, and ‘that was really good’ more than in the UK. I also find myself saying it’s ok, and smiling, as they try and walk with me, beer and glass on a tray, back from the bar to my table. ‘You don’t have to do that,’ I say with a smile, making it into a bad joke. ‘If I’m this lazy my arms will grow thin … I’m happy to carry it’.

Some of this, of course, has no difference but is simply about factors such as a language barrier. I’m frequently given food and drink that aren’t quite what I ordered. In the UK, I’d send it back. But here I find myself just eating and drinking it. Quite often I’m pleasantly surprised. Who’d have thought white tea with ginger would be tasty? One thing I never ordered until it turned up by accident, and then ordered all the time.

In any case, as the trip draws to a close I begin to think about my ethics, especially in relation to public blogging:

1. I’ve not photographed many people. Where I have done this, I’ve rarely included visible faces unless I’ve got permission. On the one hand, this is a shame, for people, especially the Turkana, are vibrant and colourful representations of culture (their clothing and adornments) that modernity may soon alter. On the other hand, I remember stepping onto a bus in Oxford, dressed in exam uniform on one of the most stressful days of my life, to be snapped by a foreign tourist. It felt like an unwelcome intrusion. I was furious. No matter how interesting my clothing.

2. Partly to be fair to people (for standing in the middle of a town taking photographs of it seems invasive, unless I simply lack the confidence to do this), I’ve hardly photographed usual town, village, or city life. This means in some ways I’ve photographed only beautiful landscapes, sanitised of their poverty, dirt, or suffering. On the one hand, I am unhappy with this – I have been unrepresentative and unbalanced in terms of the places I have visited. On the other hand, I am unperturbed by this: There are plenty of adverts on TV showing starving children covered in flies in need of food and clean water. There are, indeed, plenty of documentaries showing a more positive side to the continent. But many who do not have a special interest in Africa will not tune into iPlayer or BBC4 to find them. So part of my mission in blogging (even if very few people read it) is to bring that other side to some of the people close to me who do not know the continent. To my mum, for example, who imagined a dry and dusty place and was surprised by the pictures of forests.

3. Following on from the above, there is the problem from combining work as a healthcare assistant, being a student nurse, having an MA in Anthropology, and a BA in English lit. Not to mention that I’ve enjoyed photographing stuff since I was five. From the English point of view, I just want to tell a decent story, even where this includes some unfounded assumptions, for this is sometimes how we make sense of the world and how we construct understandings in our heads. From the Anthropology point of view, I absolutely shouldn’t be making assumptions or essentialism (over-simplifications of places and people). The kid photographer in me just wants to snap whatever looks nice, itself an over-simplistic ideal. From a nursing/HCA point of view, I’m careful not to make comparisons to work or identify workplaces or people, as breaches of confidentiality can be serious. I hope I’ve balanced these, and I hope I’ve been fair to the people and places I’ve described. Ultimately, I don’t see the point in writing an academic/anthropological blog as my aim is to get anyone who might be interested intrigued by the countries I have visited.

4. I’ve travelled in an area of great suffering: the Turkanans, for example, are dying of famine and drought. I hope my tourist trip hasn’t been seen by them as crass in this context, and I hope that I’ve not effaced that reality from my writing. I did not feel it reasonable to photograph these elements. The beauty of combining photography and writing is that they can emphasise different aspects in different ways, offering different meaning to events and treating them with varying degrees of appropriate sensitivity in a given context.

5. Finally, I want to write about the ethics of risk assessment. The FCO and various other websites paint a dark picture of Africa. For the whole of Northern Kenya, they suggest driving in convoy and that kidnapping risk is high, with a helpful reminder that the FCO’s position is never to negotiate with terrorists. In terms of health, their posts talk of ‘endemic’ malaria risk, and ‘limited’ health facilities. These things are all true, but only to an extent: locals on the ground advise me I don’t need to travel in convoy, and they’re probably right – they know the area and they’re not going to hire me a LandCruiser and driver if they think they wont get it back. Malaria is indeed a risk. Yet describing these things in such strong anti-litigation terms is unhelpful. Some, like me, interpret the advice carefully, sifting the sensible from the over-cautious. But I meet others who do not. I think of a Dutch traveller (a charismatic guy and qualified psychologist in his thirties) I overheard in a hostel in Kigali telling a group of late teenage university students that ‘malaria is no big deal’ and someone told him ‘don’t take precautions, the treatment is simple’. I stood up, walked across them room, and quite defiantly said ‘Nonsense: I spent ten days in hospital on multiple drip feeds. Treatment has improved, and people shouldn’t panic about getting malaria, but it’s a serious illness. Out of the prevention strategies (nets, long clothes, prophylaxis, bug spray), choose as many as you’re comfortable with / that work for you.’ My point is that, the Dutch man’s rhetoric, though reckless, seems a knee-jerk reaction influenced by the over-cautious nature of the advice. We cannot abandon risk assessment simply because we feel constrained by inappropriate over-assessment of risk.

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