The Blessing of (Home) Staying
By Sydney Vander Waerdt
While in Africa we stayed in hostels, research facilities, village homestays, community run nature reserves, and even a luxurious safari lodge. What was so interesting about experiencing all of these places were the extreme differences between their management, their missions, and their purposes. Every reserve had at least one of the same goals which was to conserve the land and its animals. But even so, every place had its own unique approach to the management of their staff and tourism. After experiencing so many different styles of tourism throughout the 3 weeks we spent in South Africa I developed strong opinions about every place and the way that they were run.
The change that struck me the most was the transition from the village homestays in Damboni, Humakuya, to a luxurious safari lodge know as Ndzuti. After a couple weeks of being driven around by locals of Hoedspruit, experiencing a stereotypical “jeep jockey” for the first time was shocking. The artificial customer service was strongly felt within the first couple minutes of being there. Don’t get me wrong, the luxury was greatly appreciated and fun to experience, but after a couple weeks of experiencing the authenticity of Africa, staying at the safari lodge felt like a lie. And to think that the majority of tourists that come to South Africa just to experience that luxury was very saddening. What is the point of coming to Africa if you are not going to truly see what life is like for both the animals and the people? Why would people come to Africa just to continue their luxurious lifestyles? Why can’t they step out of their comfort zone for a few weeks? It made me realize how the existence of affluence can blind people from so many ugly truths. So many people are blinded from the complex water problems happening right across the street and from the hard work that others do to pick themselves up from a life of hardship. These realizations about the lack of authenticity in the traditional tourist experience were incredibly frustrating to me, especially after our genuine experiences staying with the local people. After leaving Ndzuti, it took me a couple of days to shake off the feeling of doing wrong. The first thing I wanted to do was go back to the homestay to bless each others lives once more.
Being immersed into the culture and becoming so close with our drivers by hearing about their lives and listening to their perspectives was so interesting. They would tell us the truth about our surroundings and weren’t just trying to get tips by cracking jokes and over-exaggerating animals’ behavior. I think about how genuine and heart-touching those experiences were. These emotions became even stronger after comparing them to the ones I felt at Ndzuti.
We then went to a community-run nature reserve called Lekgalameetse; a complete change in management and purpose. It was much easier on my heart and soul to contribute to that reserve. It was so hopeful to see land that was given back to a displaced community. The people in this community took so much pride in conserving their land and teaching others about it. It was a breath of fresh air comparing it to Ndzuti because I directly saw how it was helping the community rather than just seeing a few locals in the background while the white people ran the house. The land that they lived on was providing them with jobs and community resilience- exactly what South Africa needs.
Every kind of conservation work should be appreciated, no matter how it is done. However, understanding the different forms of tourism is very important when traveling. When becoming a part of a community, even if it is for just a short while, it’s important to understand how you might be contributing to their problems, or to the conservation of the earth and its inhabitants. Having all of these experiences helped me realize how important it is to pay attention to what might be going on behind the scenes and what my presence may be contributing to. When I travel in the future I will be sure to pay attention to what type of tourism and conservation I am contributing to