Monday, August 01, 2011

Simon Cumbers column - May 2009

Sat 05 May 2009 Tourism as self-help

MAGAN'S WORLD: Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

LAST MAY I found myself visiting a local community project in Zambia run by a safari lodge. Two open-topped safari jeeps full of tourists pulled up outside the community school to see the results of the funding provided by the guests and the lodge. It was impressive to see how the school had been able to employ extra teachers, add classes and buy equipment. We handed over the crayons, paints, books and balls that we had been encouraged to bring from home and by way of thanks the teachers and children launched into an hour-long display of ebullient singing, dancing and storytelling for us.It was a moving experience.

As our jeeps roared out of the school grounds again, I asked the armed wildlife ranger who had accompanied us whether such tourist visits were frequent. ‘Just a few times a week,’ he replied. I was dumbstruck. He told me that the children got a chance to study in the morning, then went home for lunch and in the afternoon they made the long journey back again to perform for their white donors.

It was worth it, he claimed, for the abundance of books, balls and donations the school received. Meanwhile, just down the road the next school was in penury, as were schools right across Zambia. The initiative was definitely well-meaning, but these things always become so much more complicated in Africa.

It got me thinking about community tourism, and whether there was anywhere local communities were equitably and tangibly benefiting from tourism, or if communities were running their own development-focused tourism projects. After some research, it became apparent that white investors had cornered the market in the prime locations of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and my only hope of finding authentic grassroots initiatives was in poorer, more forgotten countries.

I needed to do some fieldwork, but right away I faced the issue of how to fund it. That was when I heard about a man from Navan named Simon Cumbers. He had had a passion for documenting the world, and had filmed all over the planet from the Amazon to Indonesia, to India and Africa, until 2004, when he was murdered by terrorist gunmen while filming a report for BBC News in Saudi Arabia. He was only 36 years of age. A little over a year after his death, the Department of Foreign Affairs established the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund in his memory. It’s a grant scheme aimed at assisting and promoting more and better quality media coverage of development issues in the Irish media. Already it has paid for Irish Times journalists and photographers to report and research stories in Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Mauritania, East Timor, Angola and Zambia.

I applied and received a grant from the fund and as a result was able to travel to Uganda and Ethiopia earlier this year. I came across some truly inspiring community tourism projects which left me brimming with enthusiasm about their potential: lodges, camps, hiking trails, tribal ceremony tours, swamp walks, craft initiatives - all run directly by communities for the benefit of the locality. Together they make up an impressive range of tourism opportunities that are accessible, affordable and enable one to get deeper into a culture than any white-run project could ever hope for.

Unfortunately, we rarely get to hear about these projects because they are small-scale and lack international promotion. Over the next few months it’s my intention to sing about them from the highest tree tops – primarily here in the pages of Go, but also on RTE Radio and in Foinse and anywhere else that’ll have me. Getting a grant from the Simon Cumbers Fund invariably brings with it the legacy of the passion, resolve and ambition of the man who inspired it. There’s an onus to live up to the conviction and curiosity that he displayed in his own short life.