African Tribe

The ethical aspect of travelling

Irene de Groot

Travelling has become a very visible phenomenon in our new digital world. To travel the world, wanderlust, is something that we can see all over the Internet.

People share their experiences when they travel online. Usually they do this in the shape of travel blogs. In these blogs they share advice, cool places to visit, pictures and their experiences. Helen in Wonderlust is one of these blogs. Helen, the owner of the blog, visits many places all around the world. However, she writes the most about Africa and also organizes African tours.

Going to Africa and visiting one of the many African tribes is something that many people dream of. You want to get familiar with their culture and get to know their practices and way of life. This is what Helen does as well. She has visited lots of African tribes and has written about her experiences on her travel blog.

‘Tribal visits are common on the tourist trail now, both in Africa and elsewhere and are ‘activities’ offered by many hotels and tour operators’ (Helen, 2014). This is a very true and yet interesting statement. If African tribes are open to tourism and tribal visits are actual ‘activities’, how many aspects of the culture they show to tourists is still authentic?

This is an issue that is also addressed in Lévi-Strauss’ book Tristes Tropiques (1955). A Brazilian tribe is central in the book by Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss visits this tribe, he is on a quest to find ‘the strange’.  The strange is something that one completely does not know, something so authentic and never touched before. A tribe would be the perfect example of this. A tribe that has never been visited has never been influenced by the outside world before, so a tribe would qualify as ‘the strange’. However, this is also the main issue according to Lévi-Strauss. Once you start to get familiar with the tribe’s culture and daily doings, they are not strange anymore (Lévi-Strauss, 1955). By visiting a tribe like that, one has an influence on the tribe as well. In a way, when you visit a tribe, you contribute in ruining their authenticity and unaffectedness from the outside world (Lévi-Strauss, 1955).

To take this back to Helen, she sees this as well. She realizes that by opening tribes to tourism, they lose aspects of their traditional culture (Helen, 2014). It becomes a money economy. The tribes will try to act as ‘tribal’ as possible in order to gain more money from tourists. They become dependent on tourism and thus step up their ‘tribal’ game. With that I mean that tribes will put in more effort in order to fulfill the Western expectations of what a tribe should look like. This includes putting extra paint on their faces, extravagant dressing styles and dances that were not originally part of their culture. This way, it is difficult to determine what is truly part of the culture of the tribe and what is not.

The tribes will try to act as ‘tribal’ as possible in order to gain more money from tourists.

Is it morally responsible to visit African tribes? ‘It may not be ideal, but perhaps in some ways, tourism is helping to preserve traditional cultures, by allowing people to earn money when they might not otherwise be able to do so. And one thing to remember, is that the people have not been forced against their will to open their villages to tourists’ (Helen, 2014). In this quote from Helen’s travel blog we can see that in some ways she thinks visiting tribes is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows people to earn money and they can choose themselves whether they will open their village to tourists. If you look at it from this angle, it indeed does not seem that wrong to bring tourism to tribes. However, exploitation is a major issue in this moral debate. Tour operators often exploit the African tribes. One of the things to consider when you are going to visit a tribe, is that the tribe is treated in a fair way and gets a large share of the money (Helen, 2014).

So, it turns out there are many things to keep in mind when you are a tourist interested in African tribes. Not just whether the tribe is being exploited for the purpose of money earning by travel companies, but also the influence tourism can have on the traditional culture of the tribe. Tourism takes away the authenticity of tribes (Lévi-Strauss, 1955), because the strange is no longer strange anymore. Tribes often adjust their practices to tourism and thus lose what truly made them special; namely the fact that they are not influenced by the outside world. This is something to always consider when reading or writing travel blogs and when visiting places all over the world. This is the ethical aspect of travelling.



Helen. (2014). Visiting an African Tribe: What You Need To Know. Helen in Wonderlust.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1955). Tristes Tropiques. France: Librairie Plon.