Tourism makes an invaluable contribution to the development of schools and educational programmes across Africa. But perhaps the impact Africa has on visiting children is just as important.
From time to time I speak at a secondary school, and youth events across the UK and I always ask the same question: who knows about the UN Global Goals?
And each time I have been met by silence. These are young people about to leave school and head out to university or careers and not one has heard of these key goals, which are supposed to apply to us all, to mean something to everyone, and to be accessible to the global community. They are intended so that we all take responsibility for the inequalities in the world and our ever-changing environment.
I move on to show a slide outlining all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and speak about how the objective for each goal influences our work in Malawi.
I show photographs of maize fields dormant from drought and of mud houses flattened by floods and play a film of young children learning in cramped classrooms with mud floors and no electricity.
The group re-engages, and there are tutters amongst the students as they begin to understand how each goal can affect the people in these pictures.
I bring the conversation back to them and ask: “Do we all have a responsibility to engage with these goals or are they aimed at the poorest in society, just the neediest, the countries and communities that are struggling the most?
“When you leave school and take your place as a member of the wider community, find a course of further study, a company to work for, choose a house to live in and a car to drive, what is your responsibility to engage with the world as a Global Citizen?”
I used to be a learning support teacher in an inner-city London school. Informed by a Master’s degree in International Development and Education, and fed by a passion for Africa gained through two years working and travelling from Nairobi to Cape Town, my husband and I set up a small expedition company in Malawi in 2008, aiming to connect young people with the world.
Living in Malawi and running a business there, you can’t escape the direct impact of key global challenges: the dangers of over-population; the increasing occurrence of drought and adverse weather; the degradation of land due to deforestation; the loss of cultural heritage, and the devastating effects of a lack of basic healthcare, clean water and education.
Days with no electricity, frequent water cuts, the disarray of public services and the disparity of wealth can be seen both in the cities and the rural communities we try to link with.
However, there are always heartening pockets of incredible adaptability: people we meet who are determined to find a way out of poverty, who are not going to sit back and watch another crop fail, who are determined to try new methods of farming, to teach the young people in their community about planting trees, and to come up with business initiatives that mean they can educate their children without waiting for the next aid wagon to roll by.
It is these people we want to connect with, to showcase as examples of the keys skills needed to be an active, evolving, educated global citizen: adaptability, determination and understanding.
Our dream was to give young people from overseas the opportunity to be part of an expedition to Malawi that showcased Global Citizenship; that connected them with people whose lives were totally different but who shared a determination to survive, do well and leave the world a better place for the next generation.
We wanted to give them a chance to pound the maize for a school feeding programme, till the soil for a village garden, walk the trails through forests degraded by deforestation, work with a local youth group planting trees and mulching for a permaculture garden initiative.
We have always believed that taking young people out of a classroom and into the real world is a key part of their education. Certainly, those were the moments that I remember most from my school days: I learnt more from seeing the cliffs eroding on the north Norfolk coast than drawing a diagram of it in my classroom. But was a day trip enough to get me to engage fully with what this erosion meant to the local community, to understand how it affected property prices, or why it was occurring at a faster rate than ever before?
The human element is perhaps key to instilling a lasting understanding, encouraging a change of behaviour.
I am always encouraged by the comments young people make after they return home from their expeditions. It is not the sighting of a herd of elephants crossing the Shire River that they comment on; it is usually the fisherman they saw being caught for poaching in a wildlife area, or the young child walking along the road with bare feet and a bag of charcoal on her head.
They connect with the experiences they didn’t expect, the things they have never read about and the images that make them question the clear differences between them and the people they meet in Malawi.
Without question, tourism helps to feed economic development across Africa, which benefits the provision of healthcare, education and other such services. But the engagement between young people from such different backgrounds can have a very personal, long-lasting effect. And we believe that is as equally important for the visiting child as it is for the local youngster.
Regardless of whether they travel on an organised expedition like those we offer, or within a more traditional safari with their family, I believe it can be a life-changing opportunity for them to have some exposure to these enriching engagements with local people.
Through this, perhaps they will learn what it means to be a Global Citizen? Maybe they will better appreciate how we all need to take responsibility for our changing world and see how we all have our roles to play? May it even influence their choice of career or the course they apply for at university?
The experience may even shape their own future parenting so that their own children would grow up knowing about the Sustainable Development Goals?
Written by: Kate Webb