INTERNATIONAL SERVAS DAY 1999


In Zambia

Dear Servas friends,

Hosts in Livingstone, Zambia, shared a meal on October 10th, and were joined by Misha, a Servas Traveller from British Columbia, Canada. We discussed many of the issues raised in the recent correspondence on the future of Servas.

1. Ought Servas to be more active in practical "peace-making" by running work camps for youth, building something? For instance, in Zambia we have approaching 1/2 million AIDS orphans. Most are looked after by grandparents or other relatives, but these often have no employment or other source of income. They can't afford enough food, or to send the children to school. Ought we to build orphanages, or special schools for these children?

We agreed that activities like this might be possible for very large Servas branches, in America or Europe. But for us, with less than 20 members, scattered over a huge country, it is not a practical idea. We don't have the number of people to organise or administer something like this, nor the expertise needed, nor any financial resources. But there are in our country very many NGOs, many funded by overseas donors, and employing qualified full time staff, which are capable of doing this and a great many other works needed in Zambia. It is better to leave it to them and not try to do something of which we are quite incapable. If we have the time and interest, we can as individuals belong to any of these other NGOs.

2. Travellers come from Europe, America and Australasia and get free hospitality from poor hosts in developing countries, who cannot themselves afford to travel anywhere. Is this right? We concluded that this at present is a fact of life, which we have to live with. Ideally, rich countries would share their affluence with poor countries. But it seems unlikely to happen. Holidays, and money enough to travel, is part of the life style and culture of affluent countries. It is not part of the life style and culture in Africa. Nobody here would travel to the seaside (two days drive by car at its closest) to sit on a beach. We have lovely lakes and rivers and game parks and hundreds of tourist firms organising visits. Nearly a million people a year visit the Victoria Falls. But the people are nearly all foreigners. We have to spend our little money on food, clothing, rent, schooling, and medicines. If we travel, (which we do a lot) it is to visit a sick relative, or attend a funeral, to visit the old folks back in the village, or perhaps to buy goods to trade with, to try to add to our small incomes. To travel just to see new places and new people and other countries - well, it would be nice, but who has time and money for that?

We will have to accept that the affluent world and the developing world are different and will long remain so. Servas can't do a lot to change that. If affluent Servas travellers are able and willing to visit us, well this is exciting and we're glad to meet these exotic people in our own homes and learn from them about their countries and show them ours. Hospitality to visitors is an important part of our culture. If there's no spare room or spare bed, the whole family will happily sleep on the kitchen floor if a foreign visitor comes, and even if we're short of food, the visitor will get the best we've got.

3. Is hosting Travellers really a contribution to world peace? We suspect that in countries where peace has broken down, Servas can't work. What Servas Travellers are now visiting Angola, the DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Sudan, Rwanda, Eritrea? Or for that matter, Kosovo or Chechnya. Probably none. Many Servas travellers carefully avoid such places. As National Secretary, I often get questions asking, "Is it safe?" "But what about the war in the Congo?" Very few Travellers actually set out to visit a war torn country to try to help make peace. In other words Servas doesn't make peace where there is no peace. Open Doors are often not open in those parts. We have to accept that. Probably the most we can do is to learn at first hand about countries or people with a different culture, language, political system, religion and standard of living. The reality is usually very different from our preconceptions, gained from school, newspapers, TV. And we gain understanding of how life really is far from home, and spread this to all our friends at home to whom we are now "authorities". And we make new friends, often for life, whom we would never have known had we stayed at home.

As a Host who's hosted around 100 travellers over 15 years, I can testify that Servas Travellers are very different from the million tourists a year who visit the Victoria Falls, some of whom even visit Livingstone City, the "Tourist Capital of Zambia". Few are affluent in their own country, and many are "doing Africa on a shoestring". And they are very interested in the country and the people, and they do learn a great deal. Yes, I think it is all worth it, and is in some way a form of peacemaking, understood in the Hebrew sense of "Shalom" (or the Arab one of "Salaam"), prosperity, healing and wholeness.

I've used personal examples, but I think I'm expressing "the sense of the meeting" held at 29 Airport Road, Livingstone, Zambia, on October 10th 1999.

Denys Whitehead (1923 - 2005)