If you have ever gone on a tour, whether private, small or large, for a few hours or a few days, it’s probable you’ve experienced a “cultural visit”. This type of activity seems particularly common in Africa, but I’m sure it exists in other places, too. Sometimes these visits take you to a staged location, for demonstrations of traditional activities. Other times these visits take you to a private home or compound for a visit and a local beverage, where you talk to the owner(s) and family. Or you may just visit a village to look around and interact with the people. These days, you can even pay to take a tour of a slum.
But sometimes reality blurs: the differentiation between “staged” and “authentic” isn’t so clear. For example, the people really do live there, but they are demonstrating activities they don’t do on a regular basis (either traditional activities, or maybe those they think visitors find most fascinating). Or perhaps the entire hut compound is staged, though the people live nearby with similar accommodations.
Many cultural experiences in a guide or tour type of situation are manufactured in some way. Obviously, the best solution here is to spend enough time in a place to make local connections and build relationships so these type of visits–in most places–just aren’t really necessary and cultural experiences can occur organically (ack! I sound like a hippie, which I am very much not). But let’s be honest, particularly for us part-time travelers: that’s just not always realistic or possible. So I present to you: my nerd-friendly continuum from “authentic” to “staged”, when it comes to cultural experiences and interactions.
So if given a choice between visiting a house or a small village (not staged, though money is exchanged) versus a completely staged experience, what would you choose? Here’s my internal monologue…
Pro of a Staged Visit: You don’t disturb or intrude upon an actual family or village, you may see demonstrations or learn things you wouldn’t in a home.
Pro of a Staged Visit: You may be helping/supporting a larger segment of the community through organized cultural experiences.
Pro of a Staged Visit: A staged visit or experience may be more sustainable in the long-term; potentially less erosion of traditional cultures to entertain visitors and make a buck.
Con of a Staged Visit: It’s not “real”, interactions are totally meant for edutainment (and more entertainment than education, in many cases). Hard to judge if things are really still done this way. Less personal.
Con of a Staged Visit: You don’t know where the money is really going (though when it goes directly to a family, you probably don’t really know where it’s being used, either).
Con of a Staged Visit: Families or individuals may really benefit (i.e. send their kids to school) by being entrepreneurial; lifestyles, habits, and cultures will evolve over-time anyway.
Clearly I’m still on the fence. I’m not totally against staged visits, and I’m not totally against visiting homes for payment, either. But I will also say, I’ve learned just as much from friendly conversations with guides, drivers, and staff at lodges as I have from some of these visits…in a much more enjoyable manner!I honestly haven’t decided how comfortable I am paying someone for an intrusion of their privacy, just to have a “cultural experience”. Sure, it’s entrepreneurial to strike such a deal ($20 and I’ll let you look around/show you my life), but is it the right thing to do? I wouldn’t want someone in my house, analyzing my stuff and nosing around. Moreover, I think it can be sort of a Sophie’s choice/lesser of two evils in situations where people are really living from day-to-day (e.g., slum tourism). But no, I don’t expect people to let strangers into their home just for fun, for free. But yes, I do wonder if these type of interactions or exchanges are beneficial over the long-haul.
At the very least, I do not want to be deceived. I strongly believe tour companies and guides need to be completely upfront about what you are going to experience. Don’t take me somewhere and tell me it’s real, when it’s so clearly not. Despite my nationality and blond hair, I’m not usually a clueless lemming. Chances are (unlike a crazy lady we met on one of our trips
who stormed off in an absolute furry when taken to a staged village…don’t be that person…) I won’t be upset or annoyed if I’m not lied to.
What I can do (and what we can all do), though, is be informed and thoughtful about my choices, reflect on the potential short term and longer term consequences, and try to choose companies and models that I believe support communities (and promote visitor education) in equitable and sustainable ways.
Here are a series of photos from cultural visits. Can you guess which are staged and which are not (at least as far as I am aware…fool me once…)? Answers at the bottom. Virtual gold stars if you can guess location!
1. Completely staged (near Skeleton Coast, Namibia); 2. Authentic (Battambang, Cambodia) 3. Completely staged (near Skeleton Coast, Namibia); 4. I have no bloody idea what this place was (Tunisia) besides superawkward; 5. Authentic (Zimbabwe/Botswana border) 6. Halfsies–real village and real baby, but routinely staged activities for visitors (Tanzania, near Ngorongoro Crater).