I was shocked by the story of Katie Gee and KirstieTrup,two 18 year old girls who had acid thrown in their faces last week, as they were coming to the end of a month-long stint of voluntary work in Zanzibar. Shocked but not overly surprised.
The last time I wrote a blog it was from Zanzibar where I spent six months volunteering with VSO. It was a steep learning curve. The culture of the island is heavily imbued with its predominantly Muslim faith; with its history as a hub of the Arab slave trade; and with its post-colonial socialist history. I came to understand that the tourist trade is effectively less than 20 years old – until then there was only one hotel on the entire island, and it was run by the government. It’s a stunningly beautiful island with enormous tourist potential. However the local people are understandably cautious about some of the implications of tourism. In 2010, the highest proportion of tourist jobs went to people from Kenya, or mainland Tanzania; yet youth unemployment on the island stood at over 50%.
I was working in a project that aimed to equip local unemployed young people with the starter skills and knowledge they need for working in the tourist industry. As well as the usual range of subjects (customer service, English language, etc) we also had to address the values issues, such as attitudes to women, gay people, alcohol and states of undress. At that time, homosexuality was illegal and in the neighbouring country of Uganda it was a capital offence. Girls in Zanzibar theoretically had the same rights to education as boys; but something like 75% of them had to leave school each year to have their first baby. You can’t change a culture just by a short training course and the hope of a job; it’s a long game, and meantime the behaviour of some tourists continues to challenge and antagonise the local people.
I wonder which organisation was behind Gee and Trup’s volunteer placement? Were they given a proper understanding of what to expect, and how they would need to moderate their behaviour to keep themselves safe? We for instance were advised to keep our shoulders and knees covered in public, at all times. Don’t hang your underwear out to dry where men can see it. If you want to go swimming, go to a private beach run by a hotel (which we generally couldn’t afford) because it’s not acceptable for women to use the public beaches, unless fully clothed.
All of this took a bit of getting used to. Six months wasn’t long enough, and one month certainly wouldn’t be. I do wonder at the wisdom of organisations that set up such short placements – it leaves volunteers very vulnerable. Everywhere we went we were hassled by men wanting to speak to us. In my case I didn’t feel this was a sexual threat, more often it was about money. But it was unwelcome and unpleasant.
My brief experience of Zanzibar leaves me feeling it’s a bit of a tinder-keg in terms of potential violence. In 2010 there were general elections for the whole of Tanzania, and VSO evacuated all their volunteers for a whole month around election time – because three people had been killed at the previous election. Maybe Ramadan was an especially tense time for volunteers to be present. I never witnessed any religious extremism while I was there but obviously there are risks. I hope Gee and Trup are able to come to terms in due course with their trauma; but especially I hope that agencies which send youngsters out to dangerous places look to their policies and procedures and consider ways of keeping people safe.