The first thing Takayo Minakami did when she and her nine-year-old daughter Ghislaine got back from their trip to Ethiopia was sack the nanny. Then she told her husband there was no need to go for the fancy new wardrobe they had been eyeing up as part of a major overhaul of their Seattle home. The cheapest model would do fine.
Meanwhile, Ghislaine stopped fighting with her younger brothers and kept hugging them at random moments, for no particular reason.
“It was supposed to be a life-changing experience, but it was even better than we expected,” Takayo said.
Takayo, 41, and Ghislaine were part of a group of similar well-off housewives and their daughters and nieces aged between seven and 17 who recently flew from Seattle to Addis Ababa on a package tour organized by an aid agency.
Over a week, the group took in the sights, markets and flavors of the capital city like any other tourists. However, most of their time was spent on a dusty journey to villages two hours’ drive away, where they met some of the country’s poorest people, learned about their lives and checked out — among other things — their toilet facilities.
Water 1st is a Seattle-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in water sanitation and is one of a growing number of NGOs taking westerners on package tours to developing countries to see their work.
The “water tour” brochure for February’s Ethiopia trip promised would-be travelers a “once in a lifetime experience,” with the aid agency providing transport, translators, accommodation, food and contact with the communities and the local aid agency that Water 1st works with.
“It’s a better way of seeing real life in a country than you can see any other way,” said Kirk Anderson, one of the five staff who run Water 1st, which has raised US$4 million for projects in four countries since its launch in 2005.
“We try to make this affordable for as many people as possible while covering our costs,” he said.
The trip, excluding flights, cost US$1,600 a head.
“We don’t demand anything in return, but we make our money in donations when people get back home,” he said.
Some donors increase their donations from three figures to five figures, while others become loyal fundraisers for life.
Those who went on the Ethiopia trip said they had an “awesome,” inspiring time and learned a lot. The children were “like sponges,” one mother said, absorbing the reality of a world where children laugh and take care of each other despite having flies crawling on their faces and no shoes.
“The children were very dirty, very happy and excited and very welcoming. I played with a little girl who was really cute and super smart,” said Ghislaine, who is eager to go back.
The group is aware that critics may accuse them of poverty tourism — paying to look at the poor to assuage their guilt. However, most of those who traveled to Ethiopia talk of something more positive.
LIFE IN A BUBBLE
“We live in a little bubble — we are comfortable, we have nice houses, food on our plates, clean water,” said Susan Sercu, 39, who took her 12-year-old daughter, Giuliana, on the trip.
“What this does is give us more of a global perspective. It’s a chance to expose our children to what happens in the rest of the world. We want our children to be empathetic and informed,” she said.
“I don’t feel bad about spending the money because it was educational and now we can be a kind of spokesperson, hopefully spreading the word,” she said.