In her work as a researcher, writer, and public intellectual, Dr. Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu explores grassroots approaches to the sustainable advancement of African people by way of local traditions and philosophies. Born in Nigeria, she’s now based in Los Angeles, but she often returns to the continent to teach at the University of Rwanda. Fresh from publishing Indigenous Knowledge and Education in Africa (Springer, 2020), and having launched African Child Press, a social enterprise that publishes children’s books in African languages, Ezeanya-Esiobu took some time to speak with AFAR.
When it comes to indigenous tourism in sub-Saharan Africa, what works, what doesn’t, and why?
I don’t see indigenous communities as some esoteric kind of people who should be housed in enclosures for travelers to come and see. They should live in their normal environment, and if someone wants to visit, it should be like going to New York or Paris.
There is also a tendency to say, “Oh, they are poor.” In many instances, indigenous people do not see themselves as poor. For these communities, life is not about having things—it’s about who you are. They have respect for themselves, they have dignity. Even if they have to trek an hour to fetch water, they don’t feel deprived.
So how can travelers interact with them in a meaningful way?
Come from a place of wanting to learn. I believe indigenous tourism holds the key to rebalancing the world. You get to see people living with so much knowledge and reverence for the environment. You don’t find plastic cast away after one use, going straight to the ocean; you find banana leaves used to wrap and cook food and then to grow more plants.
You also see people living long, full lives, not because they have so much money, but because of the social relationships they build. The Ubuntu philosophy says, “I am because we are.”
As more outfitters claim to provide “authentic” travel experiences, we’re seeing the indigenous tourism equivalent of greenwashing. What’s the best way to approach this?
There are existing traditions that can be respectfully packaged—not to attract money, but to grow and develop what is authentically African.
In Rwanda, there’s the Umuganura, the annual harvest where people come together to eat and dance and celebrate. And among the Igbo in Nigeria, there’s the New Yam Festival, which is now a tourist attraction; it’s even held across the diaspora.
How can travelers ensure that tours aren’t exploitative?
It’s a big challenge. If you don’t speak the language, you can’t ask locals how much they’re being paid to weave baskets from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. so tourists can watch. I place the burden on African governments and enlightened Africans to advocate for indigenous communities. But if you notice exploitation, call it out on social media.
What about the concern that vulnerable communities will become even more reliant on tourism?
I really want Westerners to travel to an indigenous community like it’s Tokyo or London and not worry about giving aid. For years people have gone on safari in Africa with money, clothes, and books [to give]. It has not brought much development. It doesn’t leave the community members with much dignity. The idea of advancement is the idea of dignity—people projecting who they are in the way they want to be seen.
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