Orphan Tourism in South Africa

In an upcoming episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta the cast members visit an orphanage. I have a lot to say on this issue and none of it is good. What could be wrong with visiting an orphanage, hugging some socio-economically deprived kids and maybe bringing them a candy or twelve? Well lots of things. This isn’t your average RHOA post and may not be for everyone. On the other hand, it could be enlightening for some of y’all. It provides a bit of background on South African orphan tourism and its effects. We will have to tune in tomorrow to see how Marlo responds to the orphanage. As someone who has struggled with the effects of foster care, I am sure we will see generous donations to the South African children and lots of personal interaction.

Celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie who adopt children internationally have unintentionally spread the idea that dropping by an orphanage when in a country with residential care centers for poor and orphaned children is a noble act of kindness that benefits the children. This led to well- intentioned travelers seeking out orphanages while vacationing as a way of “giving back” on a global level. While these intentions are honorable, it tends to call to mind the old saying , “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Click through the jump to see why.

There are three major problems with “orphan tourism”.  The first and most obvious problem is that orphans are not tourist attractions. At least they didn’t used to be. Yet today, I often hear comments from travelers who return from sub-Saharan African vacations talking about visiting the local orphanages the same way they mention they visited a wild game reserve. In addition, there are the volunteer workers who go for a few weeks, or a few months giving their time to become caregivers for orphans, or children from low income families who have had to make the choice to place them in group residences. In both situations, despite the best of intentions, the children fall victim to either being treated as a sideshow for tourists, or experiencing a series of short-lived, broken attachments. Imagine, first losing your parents either to premature death from AIDS or other catastrophes, and then losing every other person who comes to care for you over and over and over. None of this is my opinion, it is documented in numerous articles including this one  by the Human Sciences Research Council that suggests,

“The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children. Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk for psychosocial problems that could affect their long-term well-being.”

Secondly, voluntourism often keeps local youth from having the opportunity to work long-term at many of these orphanages. According to Tshikululu, A South African group devoted to social causes,

“In such scenarios, voluntourists may unwittingly displace or disrupt local work opportunities because individuals are willing to pay for the privilege to volunteer. Given the level of unemployment and poverty among young people in many parts of sub Saharan Africa, such opportunities would arguably be better suited to local youth, many of whom who would be grateful for regular meals, basic training and a testimonial to their work experience.”

Essentially, the payments made by the tourism company that sponsors the volunteers discourage some types of orphanages from feeding and training the local youth and providing them with employment experience.

In South Africa, some orphanages, the ones who allow tourists to drop in free from any background check (which means violent felons could be allowed to interact with the children without question)  to spend time with the children, are a booming business. The children are often asked to put on a show for for the guests who are then guilted into making donations. This results in parents who are struggling to feed their children sending them to live in orphanages to essentially “sing for their supper”. This was the situation when Madonna wanted to adopt a child from a Malawi orphanage despite the fact that the child did have parents who lived nearby.  In short, orphanages who allow tourists to drop in and interact with the children expose them to both psychological and health risks. They clearly do not have the best interest of the children in mind.
Still when you watch the real housewives of Atlanta visit the orphanage on the outskirts of Cape Town, you probably don’t need to worry about the children forming attachments to the cast or vice versa. But you might want to wonder if all of the hoopla the women will surely bring is in the best interest of the kids. I wonder if these “very rich” tourists from Atlanta will take out their checkbooks, or if their contribution was simply to allow the children to see some Louboutins up close and personal. Do you suppose they dropped more change at the Louis Vuitton shop on the V & A waterfront, or the orphanage?


Filed under Atlanta, Bravo, Cynthia Bailey, Kandi Burruss, Marlo Hampton, NeNe Leakes, Phaedra Parks, RHOA, Sheree Whitfield

26 responses to “Orphan Tourism in South Africa

  1. Interesting perspective. Never really considered some of your points. I always considered it an opportunity for orphanages to advertise their need for money i.e. how can I donate to you if I don't know you exist?However, back to RHOA, my bet would be not a single one of them donated one red cent. Nor will any of them ever think of their visit as anything more than a filming opp.Sad, since this would be an excellent opp for them to use their 'celebrity' to do some good for someone besides themselves.WD

  2. vp

    I usually agree with you but I'm not sure I do here. Of course I haven't seen the episode but the RHOA cast are not your every day tourists. They come with a camera crew and are at an advantage if they want to spread the word on the conditions and issues that lead to the children's situation or even (and more likely) tug at our heart strings enough to pick up our wallets and donate what we can to help improve the conditions. Again I haven't seen the episode but I give them a pass. How do we know that they are there for the temporary experience of your everyday part-time humanitarian and not to drive the dialogue toward a permanent solution to an audience that might still thing Africa is a country not a continent? It is an interesting discussion at any rate…

  3. You know I love you, VP and your endearing positive attitude. I have yet to see a Bravo show attempt to "drive the dialogue toward a permanent solution" to a social issue yet, but bless your heart I love your optimism!

  4. I have been wondering why the trend was to visit orphanages. They even had it opn TAR. I like your pov.I feel like there are so many children and families here that could use the volunteers and help, I guess it makes me angry celebs and tourists don't think of helping them first.bnk

  5. If these types of tourists want to make themselves feel good ( as opposed to LOOK good) , volunteer at the YMCA After-school Program or at the Boys and Girls Club in your own hometown. On a regular basis. Long-term. But DO NOT use these innocent and pitiful orphaned children as a tool for your own ego.SHAME on Bravo and SHAME on the housewives for agreeing to it.

  6. Building off the comments in your post, Tamara, there is also the greater issue of the continued commercialization of what we in the west perceive the "African image" to be. So they're going to South Africa and they visit the poor starving children? Are they also going to go see a few dirt floored huts and maybe pay homage to the stately animals of the savanna? Is this just a glorified photo op inviting the wives to feel better about themselves by mingling with the chronically "less than?"Can I place money on how little of the rest of South Africa we'll see? They probably won't be spending time on camera in any of the gorgeous–and very much modern–cities like Johannasburg, Cape Town, or Durban.

  7. I believe that the inclusion of visiting the orphange was probably intended by Bravo to be humanitarian gesture. I do no believe that most people, and that includes Bravo know that these sorts of visits in general do more harm than good. The only reason I know is that I am into travel and spend lots of time on travel sites like Trip Advisor. (That's also how I figured out where the RHOA were staying.The purpose of this article is not to give "my opinion" but share facts with you about the increasing problems with orphan tourism. More and more people are volunteering to work in orphanages and as the numbers got larger and larger the results were more apparent and the concerns began.People who visit orphanages mean well. They are not doing it for an "ego stroke" or for selfish reasons. I made sure to include links to the current research because on the surface these visits seems like a great idea. It's hard to explain to people that they generally do more harm than good.That said, I am sure that Bravo and TAR and other shows that use the for a filming location likely donate a considerable amount to the orphanages. It's not one group visiting that causes the problem. It's the constant flow of visitors and volunteers. Again, I don't think it is anyone's intent to do harm. It's just an unfortunate reality caused by the popularity of the visits in the past decade or so.

  8. I've never heard of "orphan tourism" before. Thank-you Tamara for pointing this out. No doubt they are exploiting some poor person's children. I guess the children don't have royalty-rights, and they won't be getting a "bravo-check".At least I hope that they are protecting the kids from WORSE-types of child-abuse involving tourists.I know that Madonna didn't adopt for the tax-credits, but I was really surprized to hear that in the US, depending-on the yearly tax-rules, people can receive over ten-grand, (in a tax-credit bonus), when they adopt. My own little tax-deductions are growing-up and have their own jobs, (thank-God!). I have to admit that I've looked-into the financial rewards for fostering or adopting children, and unfortunately, orphans and foster-children, (in THIS country!), have a LOT of money attached to them. Having a child labeled as damaged somehow, and keeping them on mind-altering drugs brings-in an extra two-thousand a month. People finally started to notice that something was wrong when they audited the money that the drug-companies are getting for children in the system. Personally, I'd like to see the money going-towards helping families stay-together. I see your point Tammara about volunteers taking jobs away from locals. The thing to do would be to attach each volunteer to a local even-if only as an extra fee? The sad thing is that this kind-of market creates a need for someone's children, and the children and families don't get anything but heartaches.

  9. thanks tamara for another insightful post. not sure how i feel about the issue, though, as i am a former social worker and teacher, with a large number of past foster care clients in both. i am glad that we seem to have gotten past the adopted child as the latest fashion accessory mentality, but i am still bothered by the flavor of the month aspect to this industry. what happens to these orphans once this trend is replaced by green tourism, or seals, or whatever? then where will these children be?ideally, stable local personnel should be providing child care, and the volunteers should be providing manual labor, building, gardening, repairing, cleaning etc. this is not sexy, however, so i doubt that it will ever happen. this would minimize risk to the children, allow the children to form appropriate attachment to their caregivers, and improve conditions and standard of living at the facilities. i know any publicity is considered good publicity, but some of these photo ops with celebrities just leave a bad taste in my mouth. and lets be honest, as time goes on, many of the countries that once welcomed adoption of their orphans, have now closed the door to the u.s., so there is some acknowledgement that wholesale export of children is not the best idea.i don't know what the answer is either, but as a fairly frequent traveler, the image abroad of the ugly american, is in many respects, justified. the howives, in their designer clothes, shoes, jewelry, etc., visiting some of the poorest nations in the world, earn our disdain. i guess we will have to wait to see how this all plays out, but if past behavior is any indicator of future behavior, we all know this will not turn out well.chitown shelley

  10. This is disturbing information. I hope local groups & NGOs are working towards more sustainable solutions that benefit the region(s) as a whole.

  11. Ut oh, i noticed an editing booboo.when the ladies were getting on the bus on the way to the boat, the pink in the pink dress had a long curly wig and once on the bus only cynthia had on pink and her hair was braided

  12. Marlo forgot to remove her tag from her clothes, ut oh

  13. Very enlightening. Something to certainly ponder. Thank you, Tamara.-January

  14. eg

    Tonites episode was disturbing (thats the nicest word I can think of right now) The way these "grown" women behaved in C.Town was just embarrassing, and I tried not to watch…..Is the $$ from Bravo THAT good that you would sell your soul like that??? And it's not just ATL it's all of them.And I realize nobody makes me watch…but still…

  15. Did Sheree fly coach to Africa?

  16. Pam

    Interesting blog, Tamara. Like someone above mentioned, I had never heard of voluntourism in orphanages. Hopefully, a least a large donation was made by Bravo and the housewives. Seems like I know more about the continent of Africa than the Housewives. Everybody knows that Africa is a continent not a country and that Ghana is no where near South Africa. Or do they?

  17. vp

    @TamaraI'll see when the episode airs how they act, but I haven't given up hope on these people!But you wouldn't be the first to call me naive. Especially about housewives stuff.

  18. I've already seen a clip. Nene freaks because some of the kids have AIDS. Phaedra cries when the kids do their performance for donations. (she probably wrote a check) Kandi immediately goes down on their level and loves them… I am not sure if they let Marlo go. I wasn't looking for her.

  19. I imagine that Kandi, Phaedra, and Cynthia would donate money without telling the world they have done so. Marlo, NeNe, and Sheree will promise to donate money and then Tweet all over that they volunteered and it was such a moving experience, meanwhile they never gave a cent and will never be back.

  20. I really enjoyed reading this article. Sometimes I feel like not watching the show because the women act sooo stupid it makes me angry. But I'm glad to see that their foolishness can be a platform to discuss other issues. This not only happens in Africa. It happens right here in the US. I live in Boston. A city full of undergrads, graduate students, Med students PhDs.. you name it. And they are all looking for some thing to do to make them look good. So they go to Roxbury to find some poor black child to help. I think the help is needed. But like you said, young adults in the area are an untapped resource and they should be allowed to help out as well.

  21. Thank you, Tamara. My parents run an AIDS orphanage for the unwanted children of sex workers in Thailand. They have about 65-80 kids whom they care for the majority of their lives (they cannot afford medication without my parents help). Many of my friends and friends of friends ask to "drop by" and bring gifts or visit my parent's orphanage, and my parents and the children decline. Some want to go volunteer there for 6-12 months after a break-up or epiphany. That does nothing for the kids- as they DO get attached. If you want to help, research and send a check… no photo op needed.

  22. Very interesting. As a South African now living in the US ( a very recent African-American , if you will) I have to say I find all the SA episodes somewhat insulting. First, the whole "motherland " idea. Africa is a big continent, and none of those ladies look remotely South African, and ,given African-American history, it's extremely unlikely that any of them ever descended from any South African tribe. It would be like a Canadian claiming that Mexico was the motherland. It just goes from bad to worse, -watch the horrified expressions on the South African's faces as the ladies carry on, ignoring all their efforts to show their country. I keep imagining their disappointment. They were probably thinking what a great opportunity this show was to showcase how far South Africa has come. And all the cameras show is the same old thing. A couple of animals in a game park (totally ignored), Table Mountain, a fleeting view of Robyn Island and the obligatory "look-at-how-saintly-i-am-posing-with-these-wretched-children" Which probably completely disrupted the orphanage and humiliated the children and staff. They were probably really proud of the work they were doing to address the truly massive problem of children without parents in South Africa. For the record, children are considered one's wealth and blessing in South Africa, and a child without any family to take care of them is unthinkable and a reflection of just how much the community has suffered from the violence and Aids. As a side note, -the problem of entertaining foreign "do-gooders" in third world countries and providing sufficient edifying experiences parading their misfortune often takes up so much time and resources that some organisations are resorting to hiring professional seminar attenders just so they can get some work done! At the very lesst the ladies could have taken the trouble to read up about the many different cultures in South Africa and showing some common good manners and sensitivity .

  23. I do not know if it was bad acting or not, but I think these women do not really show genuine concern for the orphans. They are more like putting up a good face for the sake of the show. Visiting orphanages and treating them like tourist spots is very insensitive.

  24. This sounds like a good trip. You enjoyed yourselves while helping the local children. Definitely an experience of a lifetime.

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