Confronting My Privilege When Traveling in the Developing World

I was proposed to on our first day in Ghana.

Walking single-file through the crowded urban market, a stranger grabbed my arm, telling me how beautiful I was and how he wanted to marry me. Well-accustomed to catcalls from before my breasts even budded, I learned to ignore the whistles and crude advances. But only rarely would I be physically touched with such persistence. My arm still clutched in this stranger's hand, I said no. No, I said more loudly. No!, yet again, as I kept walking.

I shook off my arm angrily, not taking it as a compliment that my body was considered literally up for grabs. No, I proclaimed a final time as I walked swiftly over the foot-wide sewage grates to the main street. Someone in my group laughed, trying to lighten the heavy air laden with fish, body odor, and rotting garbage. It wasn't funny, I said.

I was raised with a keen sense fairness. Growing up in a home with an Atticus Finch-like lawyer dad and rule-loving teacher mom, telling the truth was of utmost importance. We were to be honest above all. Half-truths were considered just as bad as lies because the intent was to distort the true story.

But sometimes fairness and the truth aren't so black and white. 

Sometimes fairness and truth seem relative because there's context beyond what one can see. This isn’t to promote cultural relativism. It isn’t about individual interpretation of truth. It’s about tasting the seasoning from culture to culture in how truth is communicated and valued.

This is what makes traveling so complicated.

One of the most complicated and my least favorite aspects of traveling, especially to less developed countries, is the sense of always being taken advantage of because you stand out as a non-native. Even during my time in Russia, a place I more easily assimilated than Ghana, I struggled to reconcile differing conceptions of fairness. For instance, when trying to buy more staple, non-touristy items, the sellers would vastly overinflate the price, assuming that since I wasn't "one of them," I had unlimited funds and could (and would) pay exorbitant prices compared to what they would charge to their fellow country people.

In Ghana, this feeling of being taken advantage of was all the more prevalent. Through resisting their persistence and pleas to pay their initial offer -- again, a wildly inflated price -- we fought to simply walk through public space without being spectacles. But we stood out like sore, pale thumbs in the sea of darker hands.

But why should I consider this unfair? Shouldn't we be charged more? As a white, educated woman from the United States, I'm extremely privileged. I don't live on less than $1.25 a day, unlike a quarter of the population in Ghana. And even though the calculation turns a knot in my stomach, the round trip plane ticket cost to the West African country cost more than the average annual income in the country.

In this interplay between my privilege and my travel, there's more than meets the eye when discerning truth and fairness.

The truth is that much of the Ghanaian cocoa cultivated and manufactured into chocolate is sold at rock-bottom prices to people like me in the U.S. because companies like Mars and Hershey’s refuse to pay living wages to their producers. Is it fair for me to save a couple dollars at the expense of these workers' livelihoods? Or would it be more fair to simultaneously switch to certified fair trade like Divine Chocolate while pressuring companies to clean up their supply chains?

The truth is that much of the gold from Ghana is mined in tiny, makeshift mines often using child labor because people like me in the Western world think discounted earrings and rings at Costco or Macy’s or Target is a “good deal.” Is it fair for me to pay artificially low prices at the expense of children working in unsafe, even exploitative conditions? Or would it be more fair to reward fair trade, ethically-sourced and produced gold companies like Brilliant Earth while demanding that jewelers stop putting profit over people?

The truth is that much of the seafood from Ghana caught in the vast Lake Volta is caught by young children. Their would-be kindergarten-age hands untying ropes deep beneath the wavy surface are prized for their nimbleness. Their small stature signifies that the lead fishermen don’t need to pay much, if anything at all. Is it fair for me to justify slavery as “cultural” or “just the way the world works”? Or would it be more fair to support organizations like Made In A Free World, the creators of the Slavery Footprint app, in helping children reach freedom in Ghana?

I’ve found that there is more than one kind of cost. 

Sometimes cheap means poor quality. But sometimes cheap means that the value of human life is discounted, treated as a commodity for sale, rather than for what is truly is: priceless.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons