Lending a Hand

23 10 2008

Maasai children                                              (Lake Natron, Tanzania)

I used to love visiting the shops with my grandmother on pension day. I was extraordinarily adept at tugging on her coat, lovingly gazing up at her, batting my big eyes and with gut-wrenching sincerity and heart-tugging earnestness pronouncing my life-long dream to own a particular toy car, book or model aircraft. Quicker than you can say “emotional blackmail”, the target of my efforts would be in a small bag in my hand and life would be great…until I reached home, my parents scolded me for my calculating manipulation and my new acquisition would be confiscated. Until the next pension cheque.


Sadly, for millions of children throughout the world, their lives are consumed not with a longing for toys or games, but for food and the basic essentials of life. Even more sadly, many of these children live in developing countries visited each year by millions of tourists who stay in unimaginable luxury just minutes from terrible poverty and in many cases the only time the two meet is when the children approach the tourists with hands outstretched begging for money or gifts.


Not so many years ago, tourists were often encouraged to take pens, balloons or sweets to developing countries to give to the children encountered along the way. It was not unusual to pack a plastic bag full of gifts and treats to give to the children who invariably crowd around tourist buses or shops looking for a hand-out. Most tourists did this out of the goodness of their hearts, but unfortunately these good intentions created a sometimes hostile environment and a culture of begging that is in no one’s best interest.


I know I am incredibly lucky and I am constantly grateful for everything I have and everything I have seen and done. I am painfully aware of the suffering of others less fortunate and do what I can to assist their terrible plight. However, whereas once I would indeed enthusiastically give to these children and feel good about it, I now see the problem that this causes and the dehumanising affect it has on the children themselves.


That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t interract and contribute along the way, however.


Many tour operators partner with local communities so that donations of clothes, pens or other items can be given to a school or a village elder for distribution. This not only ensures that visitors are still able to help, but it also eliminates the less palatable encounters between travellers and locals.  If travelling independently, check with NGOs and other charitable organisations like UNICEF before you travel and ask their opinions.


It can be hard saying no to a small child wearing rags when you know that your pockets are stuffed with more money than their family earns in a year. But if handled correctly you can not only assist them infinitely more by better distributing your gifts but you can also help restore their childhood innocence by instead sharing a high-five, a silly dance or even just a genuine smile and laugh.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan