1. THE DISGUSTING STATISTICS OF ORPHANAGE TOURISM
Let’s kick off with some handy numbers that can somewhat outline the context of orphanage tourism. Nobody knows exactly how many orphanages there are in East Africa, because many are not registered. What we do know is that in 1992 in Uganda alone, 2900 children were camped in orphanages. What we also know is that there were 50,000 in 2015. After this peak, the Ugandan government has published a list of nearly 600 orphanages they are trying to close. This seems like a hard and merciless decision when you consider how many children suddenly have no roof over their heads. It is better to ask yourself: should these children have been in these orphanages in the first place?
Or, an even better question: are these children orphans at all? Unicef shows that 80% of children in orphanages still have one or both parents. And of all these mini-humans, at least half come from an environment that was good enough to grow up in. Are you starting to smell it already? That nasty odor associated with this oh-so-holy childcare system?
2. WHY THERE SHOULDN'T BE SO MANY ORPHANAGES
It is strange and a bit suspicious that there are so many children in orphanages who are in reality not orphans at all. But what if I told you that it is actually strange at all that there are many children, orphans or not, in homes in East Africa? This is because in East Africa you grow up with close family and community ties. Nephews and nieces are often referred to as brothers or sisters, and aunts and uncles tend to act as mother and father figures. It doesn’t seem to really matter how exactly you are related to whom. Children grow up as a family or community responsibility. It happens quite regularly that parents die of, for example, AIDS and children are left behind as orphans. But luckily as a child you still have quite a handful of friendly aunts, uncles or neighbors who will take care and educate you with all the love. A study shows that financing one orphanage is ten times more expensive than if the child is taken care of by the family or community… If you now scratch your head and think: ‘Why on earth are there so many orphanages?’ you are on the right track.
3. HOW DO THOSE CHILDREN END UP IN ORPHANAGES?
An orphanage is therefore a Western invention, an idea that was rooted and blossomed in Western culture and society, and then transported to Africa – and other parts of the world. But why are there so many children in orphanages? Before I give the redeeming answer to that question, I will first tell you how those children actually end up in an orphanage from their village. Without batting an eyelid: this happens through child trafficking. Children are recruited in all sorts of creative ways to then park them in an orphanage, and even send them to America through international adoption. Usually children are bought from parents who are not very well off: parents get some money, and children get a good education. Win-win right? Or…
But it’s also common for newborn babies to be stolen from cribs and incubators in hospitals, or just randomly picked off the street and kidnapped. For example, many children are gathered together to fill orphanages. Children can grow up in traumatic circumstances, without parents or family. But why all this misery?
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4. ORPHANAGE TOURISM AND WHITE SAVIORS
The answer is simple: by the heroic, white, good Samaritan who comes to save Africa. Doing good in developing countries is very popular these days. Due to the great demand from the West to volunteer, to help or to donate, and the big piggy bank that people are willing to empty for this, a brand new gap is created in the market. Orphanage tourism. If you jokingly scour the internet for fun volunteering trips (yes, it’s a thing) to Africa, you’ll see that you can easily spend 3000 euros for a few weeks. This is driven by the ‘White Savior Complex’, in which white western people are eager to play the hero in the story where Africa is saved from itself. Obviously, an intrinsic motivation of many people is to do something good from your privileged position.bullet points or likes on social media are often deliberately overlooked. In this article you can read more about this ‘White Savior Syndrome’.
And: the more appalling the circumstances and the more pathetic the children, the more there is for the White Savior to save. And the more rich white people post photos of emaciated toddlers on Instagram (so this is called poverty porn!), the more stereotypical ideas about Africa are encouraged and the more red-headed white people hand out money, candy and group hugs.
For example, volunteering in orphanages is becoming an industry that involves a lot of money and where many children and families are the victims. Demand from the rich West creates business opportunities, so orphanages are sprouting like weeds. And yes, they have to be filled with children! And so orphanage tourism is born.
Do you want to get a better picture of Voluntourism and the White Savior Syndrome? Watch the satirical videos ‘ Who wants to be a volunteer ‘ (the header of this blog is a still from this Youtube video) and ‘ How to get more likes on social media ‘.
5. THE PROBLEM OF ORPHANAGE TOURISM IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN
So the orphanages are there, and those children live there. But that’s not the end of the hat. Most volunteers often stay for a few weeks, with a few peaks to a few months. There is an enormous flow of – often young – Westerners who like to combine their volunteer work with a beautiful trip to Africa. And of course the children have a big smile on their face when you come and play with them. They are happy to see you and you have that warm, fulfilling feeling in your heart that nothing materialistic can replace: nothing beats happy-faced children!
Unfortunately, this smile is soon wiped from the faces. Because what happens after you get on with your life after a few weeks? Research shows that children in orphanages often develop attachment problems. In the development of children, a solid foundation on which you can build – parents, family – is a necessity. But instead, children in orphanages say goodbye all the time. As a result, children gain less and less trust in adults and it is also much more difficult to form relationships with adults. Another annoying side effect: children build up low self-esteem and are therefore easily victims of people with bad intentions.
Problem number two: normalization of access to vulnerable children . Unskilled, unqualified volunteers usually have a profound lack of knowledge, experience and understanding of how to deal with traumatized children. Something that would never be allowed in the Netherlands! In addition, the constant flow of visitors and volunteers creates a lack of routine – something that is quite important in a child’s development – and can also lead to confusion about cultural identity.
Problem number three: in short, many orphanages behind the scenes are a veritable hell on earth. Want to read more about horror scenes that take place in children’s homes? Charlie’s Angel Charlotte was once a voluntourist herself in a Ugandan orphanage and witnessed many malpractice. Malpractice caused by western money wolves in sheep’s clothing – aka a flamboyant superhero suit. Read here how Charlotte brings this problem to light, and be warned: the details are not pretty!
6. WHEN LITTLE KIDS GROW UP…
The problem of orphanages does not only rage within the walls between which the children grow up. Because when the children are 18 and “adult”, there must be made room for new kids and they are often unceremoniously marbled in the street with little more than a package of clothes. There you are: all alone, no family or supporters, a lot of attachment problems and no good education or knowledge about the world. For example, I know a girl who was given a sewing machine to make ends meet. After a week she was back on the doorstep of the orphanage to ask for a new sewing machine: she had wanted to buy calling credit and had sold her sewing machine for a few cents. A man cannot survive long on a sack of grain unless he learns how to grow grain. And then you wonder:
7. WHAT IS OKAY THEN?
There are many institutions that care about troubled children, and they are certainly not all bad. For example, there are a lot of homeless street children, lost in the big city and easily tempted into crime and drug use. For these kinds of children there are organizations – often run by people who have once climbed out of this situation themselves – that provide children with temporary shelter and school fees while looking for a long-term solution. And these kinds of solutions are more likely to be sought within our own communities than in the West. So first ask yourself: which organization do I want to help, and how do I do that efficiently and sustainably? Is it really necessary to go there yourself and take pictures? The same applies to travelers who ask their travel consultant before or during their trip to Africa if they can visit an orphanage. Ask yourself: why do I want to visit this orphanage? Try to answer honestly, and remember: children are cute, but also vulnerable.