What is Stopping Africans from Traveling Abroad?

What is Stopping Africans from Traveling Abroad?
Photo Credit: Image Catalog @ Flickr CC0

What you need to know

It may be tempting to believe that a lack of financial resources is the sole reason why Africans don’t travel more. However, deeper cultural values play a greater role than you might think.

I am quite fond of exchanging stories with fellow travelers, especially when the other person has been to the same destinations. By asking them about their impressions, I gain new perspectives that I did not acquire during my own travels while also having another opportunity to savor the beauty and greatness of those locations.

Meeting fellow travelers, however, tends to be much easier in some places than others. Rural Africa may be the most difficult I have encountered in this regard, as perhaps only one in every 10,000 locals will ever step foot outside their native country.

Of course, given their low salaries, long-distance travel is not an option for most locals. The complicated and expensive process of getting passports and visas usually means traveling abroad is only possible for the business or political elite.

However, during my time here (editor's note: the author currently lives in Tanzania), my interactions with the locals have taught me that lack of money is not the only reason people do not travel.

Cultural background and a desire to travel

Traveling often requires a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness to foreign matters. But it can be a tiresome matter sometimes, with long transit times and meticulous planning. Without a strong desire, trips simply will not happen.

A person's cultural background also plays a role, regardless of income. In Chinese culture, for instance, traveling is seen as an integral part of a person's holistic learning — thousands of years ago sages like Confucius traveled to observe and perfect their philosophy. Travel is theefore not merely a matter of going to see exciting things; in a society where education is so heavily emphasized, it is a display of one's desire to learn.

Hence, even decades ago when China was still a desperately poor country, people were rewarded with (and happily received) travel packages. As the country became wealthier, the number of people traveling abroad simply exploded.

The point is clear: people who are socially disposed to travel will try their best to do so no matter how poor they are.

But here in rural Africa, the very concept of traveling as a form of self-improvement and learning, or even just a type of recreation and entertainment, is a rather foreign concept.

In the local culture there does not appear to be a tradition of exploring other geographies as a method of self-betterment. Indeed, the idea of spending your own money to go to a place without family members or friends just seems ridiculous. If money is available, more ought to be spent on material goods for yourself and family members in ways that improve their lives, rather than trips that leave no physical returns on expenditure. As a result, travel is seen more as a weird habit of foreigners.

When telling locals about one of my own travel episodes, I will often hear something like, "Ah, so you went to (Place A); your pictures look great! I will visit there someday." There will be no additional questions on the subject, and the person shows little curiosity about what that particular destination is like.

The response to visit a place “someday” should not be misunderstood as "seeing another’s travels motivating them to save up and plan their own trip." Instead, it is much more likely to imply something along the lines of, "I am glad you were able to achieve your goal of traveling to those destinations. Although I do not understand the point of that goal, I feel happy for you and will try my best to relate to your happiness." The tone is a detached politeness that displays no interest in the subject matter.

Of course, the fact that local incomes are low and transport costs (such as airfares) prohibitively high, even for short distances, only serves to confirm to many rural Africans that “traveling is not part of the African culture.”

Reinforcing local mindsets

When locals see a large number of tourists talking about the beauty of local destinations, they get the idea that Africa is an appealing location everyone wants to visit. Going abroad is therefore not an attractive option. Locals interpret this as, “we are blessed to live on this most beautiful continent that everyone wants to visit. As long as we are not starving, we should remain here forever.” Given such thought, the idea of traveling abroad becomes even less of an urgent matter.

The desire to stay put in beautiful Africa is further justified by foreigners who reside in rural Africa. Foreign residents here, the overwhelming majority of whom work with NGOs, do travel, but the financial limits of an NGO salary (not to mention above-average work responsibilities) make it much more difficult to have longer adventures in more remote and exciting places. The result is that people who stay in the same town for years only take vacations in nearby African locations.

“See, even the foreigners who live in Africa do not want to leave,” the locals say. “Why should we, with deeper knowledge and social ties to Africa, want to get out unless it is absolutely necessary?”

It will be interesting to see whether this local mentality changes as more Africans return from trips and living abroad. Perhaps over time, the yearning to travel abroad will become the norm in Africa, even in the most remote areas, where such a culture has not yet been established.

First Editor: Olivia Yang

This piece was revised and submitted to The News Lens by the author. The first version was published on the author’s blog here.