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Happy smiling African children: why school tourism in Zimbabwe shouldn’t be encouraged

A large, air-conditioned bus draws up outside a school. Tourists, most from Europe and the US, disembark, cameras at the ready. Some have brought gifts: packages of pens and pencils. They distribute these to the children, who spontaneously begin singing and dancing.

This scene and others like it play out in schools around the world. It’s called school tourism. It’s similar to orphanage tourism and so-called “slum” tourism, in which tourists visit orphanages or “slums” in poor countries to witness poverty and suffering. These sorts of tourism come with several ethical problems: photography of unconsenting children and adults, intrusions on people’s private lives, daily interruptions to children’s routines and issues of child protection.

Tourists visit a school for between two and three hours. They usually enter classrooms, photograph children and sometimes watch cultural displays like singing and dancing. These tours are generally part of an arrangement with a tourism company but exist in a multitude of forms globally. As an example, a school tour often sits within the itinerary of a tour of southern Africa, or alongside wildlife tourism ventures.

In Zimbabwe, schools have arrangements with tourism companies that enable funding for infrastructure and sponsorship of children. In Matabeleland North, close to Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) and Hwange National Park, for example, 19 out of 20 companies interviewed by researchers in 2012 provided some sort of support, sponsorship or infrastructure to schools in nearby areas.

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These partnerships are often in conjunction with an exchange of philanthropic funding for access to their school. This phenomenon has also been reported in Fiji, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

Zimbabwe’s economic troubles, including severe hyperinflation, are well documented. Schools are poorly resourced and, in government schools, teachers are often unpaid or earn below the poverty line.

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I am a Zimbabwean-born Australian woman and a trained secondary school teacher. In 2015, I was working with a school in Zimbabwe as part of my university degree and witnessed this tourism myself. In 2019, as part of my doctoral research, I spent one term at a school in Matabeleland North. It received 129 visits from tourist groups that year alone.

During my time there I talked with teachers, tourism workers and NGO staff. I also asked students to draw pictures of their experiences of tourism.

In a recently published article, I contribute to the growing field of research about how schools funded by tourism operate. I offer a critique of how an image of “Africa” is reproduced for the tourist gaze and the fact that images shared by tourists after their visits further inculcate damaging tropes of the African continent as a place only of extreme poverty and neediness. Schools funded by tourism become a mirror of the tourism industry.

The study

My research identified the sorts of images involved in the marketing of tourism that portray a static and cliched image of “Africa”. This includes landscapes filled with animals, extreme poverty, white women and men dressed for safari and images of Maasai men herding cattle. Smiling, happy children are another part of the image.

The tourism workers I interviewed tried to prevent the continuation of these images by presenting counter-narratives of how Zimbabweans live. But they were not always successful. This is partly due to the structured nature of mass tourism initiatives: tourists are sold an itinerary and this must be followed. Since the school tours are part of broader tours of southern Africa, the school and tourism workers felt a need to conform to a particular image – and this involved interactions with happy children. When teachers and schools feel a need to conform to a particular image, their actions and choices are constrained.

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The school I worked with had different arrangements with three tourism companies. One donated US$200 in cash on every visit. Another had promised to build one classroom block. The third company actually founded the school, providing teachers’ salaries and significant infrastructure development. Some tourists had also donated larger pieces of infrastructure, such as the materials for a borehole and electrical connections to the main grid.

The findings

The school tours are disruptive to students and staff. They are a diversion from the usual routines of the school. One teacher said:

Sometimes you may be called, maybe you did not know that there are visitors coming and they just want to come in at that particular time … Then you are called off the lesson and the time does not wait for you. It goes and that subject is being interrupted. Then you are no longer going to be able to move onto the next subject now. Since you had already introduced the previous lesson, you will not leave it in the air, you have to finish it, so the next subject now is being disturbed.

The school in my study found it difficult to balance the perceived needs of the tourists and the institution’s needs. As one of the school leaders put it:

We have to look at it in the sense that, yes, it is taking time: it is probably asking the kids to do something that they would not just usually do when meeting someone. But you have to look at the guest side of things, and also think, these are the people who are helping us. Potential helpers, some are already helping, what are (the tourists) taking away?

The children were highly aware of the need to please the tourists, whom they saw as fulfilling a particular need. Tawanda, aged 10, said:

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I would prefer to come to school which has visitors because they will be helping us. When there are no books, they will be paying, they will be giving us some money, and we buy some books.

Teachers worried that some groups would donate less if they weren’t able to interact with children.

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What should be done

Ideally, school tours should not occur at all. However, due to Zimbabwe’s economic instability, schools are becoming increasingly resourceful to find avenues for additional funding. Although they are not a perfect solution, philanthropic partnerships need to exist.

My research does not suggest that people should avoid visiting Zimbabwe as a whole and I do not want to suggest that philanthropic funding of schools is necessarily bad. Rather, it is important to seek out tourism experiences that do not homogenise culture and cultural experiences. Tourists should also consider the itinerary of any tours they book and aim to avoid companies that offer school tours.

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By KATHLEEN SMITHERS

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