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Ethical Tourism

The adventurous visitors who make it this far up into our mountains arrive at the Malealea Lodge’s complex of 90 beds with their backpacks and their good intentions. In this small village, a flow of visitors of this magnitude has a significant impact on our community. We warmly welcome each and every one of them, and we want to help them channel their curiosity and good intentions in the most effective manner possible. We want them to understand that they do have the ability to leave behind real good, or real harm. The key to ensuring that it’s the former is to have an understanding of the community that they have entered.

There are several natural hindrances to Lesotho’s economic development. Our small consumer base makes it difficult to profit from domestic entrepreneurship. Our land generally lacks reserves of natural, exportable primary resources, and our unique geographic situation (surrounded completely as we are by a much larger economy capable of manufacturing at significantly lower prices) makes it difficult to compete on the international manufactured goods market. The most promising sectors for our development, therefore, are tourism and the services industry.

The primary economic impact of tourism is fairly direct. Tourists spend money on lodging, food, assistance, and souvenirs. This foreign money circulates throughout the area. People are employed taking care of the guests and showing them around. Food vendors lucky enough to be on a visitor’s path draw a higher margin, and the same goes for artists and artisans. The effects of tourism do not stop there, however.

The services industry is part of what economists refer to as the “tertiary economy,” which essentially means trading in non-physical goods: Consulting; Remote customer service; Financial services; Legal services. If Lesotho is to join the ranks of the world’s other newly developing economies in the coming decades, it will be primarily on the back of this sophisticated sector for which knowledge and innovation are the primary resources. This process is happening in the lowlands and in our capital city of Maseru, but up here in the highlands, we have several hurdles to clear before this transition will be possible. We need our people to be fed, so we must broadly improve our agricultural practices and restore our eroding land. We need our people to be healthy, so we must grapple with our disastrously high incidence of HIV. We need our children to be educated for today’s world, so we need to keep them in school, and we need our schools to be equipped with adequate resources: books, electricity and running water, yes, but also, crucially, computers and internet access. Each of these needs is equally urgent and vital for the economic advancement of Malealea and of Lesotho at large.

If you are a believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it may seem counterintuitive that in this community it would be more beneficial for every home to have a laptop tomorrow than for every home to have running water. If you are a scholar of developmental economics, or simply someone who understands the geography of this rocky, mountainous country, it shouldn’t. We won’t get running water until we have enough money. We won’t get enough money until we have the right technology and a broad base that understands how to use it.

This complexity brings us to the secondary effects of tourism. What can appear to be the obvious needs of a place to a casual visitor may very likely not be what that place truly needs. A place’s true needs are best understood by the people who have been living and working there and trying to make it better for a very long time. A well-intentioned visitor’s most sure path to understanding is to listen to those people. Through potential language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, persevere and listen, listen, listen with an open heart. Leave behind any notions that you know best.

The Malealea Lodge and the MDT have teamed up to create responsible and educational village immersion tours for our visitors. On this tour we will show you how we live. You will see our homes. You will see the communal tap from which we collect our water. You will see how local women brew beer and sell if out of their huts. You will meet someone you will call the chief but who we call the Herd Man. You will see us working our fields, perhaps with a tractor, but most likely with our cows. You will see our horses, many of whom are sturdy and robust, while others appear more drawn. Fragile. You will see our schools, and hear about the fees all secondary school students must find the means to cover. Our preschool children may dance for you. It is not because they have to, but because it is fun. It is not to endear your sympathy or to coax open your pockets. It is simply because they are children.

You will meet our craftsmen who turn the aloe that shoots out of our dry soil into healing balms. They can do this because of a microloan from the MDT in 2006 that they repaid within a year. They now stand on their own two feet, selling a range of products to tourists. They use the money they make to send their children to school where the MDT is teaching them how to use computers.

Along your tour, you may be asked for money. When faced with requests like these, visitors must wrestle with a difficult dichotomy: the innate human understanding that each individual and their needs, hopes, and worries matters, and the complex recognition that in a world of scarce resources, handing 100 rand to that one individual does not actually help them. And it does not help Malealea.

We at the Malealea Development Trust channel money into our community every single day, but it is planned, purposeful, and informed by experience. The money we give goes beyond the initial impact of a helicopter drop of cash: it has second, third, fourth, and fifth-degree effects, ad infinitum. Our money keeps our kids in school. It improves the education they receive while in school. It ensures that the members of our community who are HIV-positive have enough food to take their medication, helping them to produce more, take care of their children, and advance our community while getting more personally out of their extended life. It teaches the elderly and physically disadvantaged members of our community how to grow enough food to support themselves using efficient gardening techniques that reduce strain and energy. It goes to combatting sexual assault, reducing emotional trauma within our village.

We have dedicated our lives to analyzing Malealea’s problems. It is our job each and every day to root out systemic causes and fundamental solutions. We are not in the business of giving people fish. We are in the business of teaching our village how to fish, while also providing the tools they need to ensure a successful yield.

We ask that when you are on your tours, when you are listening and learning, when your good intentions urge you to give, you give to us. We assure you that any individual who may ask you for a donation along the way benefits from our work, as does the entire village.

This village is our home. We know it. We love it. We understand what needs to be done and we put in the work every day.

We thank you for visiting and taking an interest in our home. We hope you enjoy yourselves. We hope you learn something. We hope you come again.

Some source material:

“In the Shadow of South Africa: Lesotho’s Economic Future” by Mats Lundahl, Colin L. McCarthy, and Lennart Petersson. Ashgate Pub Ltd, September 2003.

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