Refugee camp tourism is tasteless and must be condemned

New Dawn Associates (NDA) should be Public Enemy Number One. And if you don’t have a beef with them, by the end of this article I certainly hope you shall. NDA is a tourism company which, in its own words, provides activities that are “life-enriching for the participating visitors as well as their Rwandan hosts”. But, in my humble opinion, instead of creating “culturally engaging, intellectually challenging and very intimate high-value experiences that offer unique insights, educate and provoke” (as its brochure promises) NDA is engaging in practices that are honestly disgusting and morally questionable.

On Sunday, I visited the Union Trade Center Bourbon Café for breakfast. I didn’t think that I would leave the café with a bad taste in my mouth, but after reading a NDA brochure, which I found on the table, titled ‘Humure: a visit to a refugee community near Akagera National Park’ managed to do just. With a photo of a young girl carrying a pot of rwagwa (local beer) on her head on the cover, children in rags doing Intore dances next to grass-thatched hovels and, of course, an attractive white woman taking in the ‘ethnic atmosphere’, the brochure cleverly ticked all the boxes of a real ‘African experience’ (smiling piss-poor people, dancing, moonshine and adventure).

The brochure introduces the people of Humure thus:  “When they were thrown out of Tanzania from one day to another [sic] in late 2006, the Rwandan government offered several communities of Rwandan returnees to settle [sic] in inhospitable [emphasis mine] areas south of Akagera National Park.

Talking about NDA’s role, the brochure continues: “We are working with the villages of Humure and Ramiro in Ndego Sector to offer unique insights into the harsh [emphasis mine] lives of refugees whose only choice is to start anew in one of the driest parts of the country where very few things grow and regular invasions of game animals pose a threat to fields, houses and even lives [emphasis mine].

While NDA promises that the tourism empowers the people of Humure and Ramiro, socially and economically, I completely disagree. The NDA is hoodwinking both tourists and the community by pretending to act altruistically, for example, it says that according to its benefit sharing mechanism, the percentage of the profit sharing is seventy percent. The only issue is that the brochure doesn’t explain who receives the seventy percent and who receives the thirty. I am willing to bet almost everything I have that it isnt the good people of Ndego Sector.  With prices per person going as high as eighty dollars per person, there should be enough money going around but obviously there isnt. The returnees are not the only people being taken for a ride, so are the tourists. They naively think that they will improve peoples’ livelihoods, but the only people whose lives they are improving are the NDA’s owners.

I have nothing against community tourism. In fact, I think that it is a great way to help people earn some money. What I am against is treating people like victims and basket-cases. The attitudes that the people at NDA have are both predatory and inaccurate. In one breath they say that the area the returnees live can barely support agriculture, and then in the very same breath, talk about milk and honey production cooperatives.  And to insinuate that the returnees were offered inhospitable land, almost deliberately, by the Government is plain wrong. Sure, the area is quite arid, but so is almost the entire Eastern Province. Was the Government supposed to have offered the returnees choice real estate in Nyarutarama? Rwanda is the most densely populated nation in Africa, and land is at a premium.

I understand that it’s tough for tour companies to get customers, but good taste should not be sacrificed at the altar of the mighty dollar. We mustn’t exploit our fellow Rwandans and their misery for money. These are human beings we are dealing with, we must diminish their humanity.

I certainly hope that Rica Rwigamba, the head of RDB-Tourism, looks into the activities of NDA. Plus, I bet that NDA isnt the only fishy tour company. Mrs. Rwigamba has a lot of work cut out for her.

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