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4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

You don’t need to be scared to go on safari.  When CNN described Kenya last year as “a hotbed of terrorism” it called attention to some crazy myths that must be prevailing to prevent travellers coming to Kenya.  I want to address some of these myths to help put your mind at ease and feel confident to experience that bucket list safari you’ve always wanted.  This won’t be a marketing spiel; I live in Kenya so I know the good, the bad and the ugly and will share all of it with you.

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Myth 1: Kenya is full of terrorists

CNN’s description of Kenya was outlandish to say the least.  Kenya suffered several terrorism incidents throughout 2013 and 2014, the most notable of which was the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre.  Most of the activities were much smaller scale however – grenades thrown into bus stations, churches and nightclubs.  In April 2015 the Garissa University was attacked and since then Kenya has not had another attack (time of writing is August 2016, I hope I don’t jinx it!).  Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from Somalia, are reported to be the key offenders.

Unfortunately today, terrorism occurs everywhere and anywhere.  In the last year we have seen attacks in Paris, Sydney, Brussels and Istanbul.  But travellers still flock to these places.

Fifty million people survive every day in Kenya, so your chances are pretty good that you will come out alive.  Like saying “all Muslims are terrorists”, Kenyans want peace as much as the next person.  Moreover, the parts of Kenya you, as a traveller, would be frequenting are not terrorist targets – there have been no attacks on any national parks or game reserves to date.   There is a terrorist risk near the Somali border and in parts of Nairobi.

The current travel advisory from the Australian government is that only some areas are dangerous, not the whole country.  And the dangerous areas don’t have much of interest to the average safari-goer.

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Myth 2:  Nairobi is “Nai-robbery”

A decade ago carjackings, armed robbery, and muggings were relatively common in Nairobi, earning the city the nickname “Nai-robbery”.  But one mayor did a lot of work with the street boys and nowadays Nairobi is just as safe (or risky) as any other big city in the world.  Expatarrivals.com says that crime in Nairobi is “opportunistic, unsophisticated, comparable to other world capitals.”  The crime rate has decreased each year since 2012 according to Standard Digital.

I have lived in Nairobi for five years now and I have never been physically attacked.  One evening, my phone was snatched – but who walks in the city centre in the evening alone talking on their phone; it was totally my fault.  However, everyone who saw the thief chased him and I got my phone back!  Nairobians themselves are tired of crime in their city, especially towards foreigners because they don’t want travellers to have a bad experience of Kenya.

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Myth 3: Corruption is rife and foreigners are targeted because they are thought to have more money

I cannot say that corruption is not rife.  It is, but as a tourist you are unlikely to encounter it.  If you book a full package safari, there will be little opportunity for police or any other official to ask you for a bribe.  Tourists are rarely targeted.  Foreigners are not an easy target because we tend to ask too many questions and don’t always understand what’s really happening.  It’s not in our habit to slip some money in the door handle for the traffic policeman for example.  Expatriates who participate in corruption means crime continues unpunished and Kenya’s development remains stymied.  The phrase “When in Rome…” should not apply to bribery and corruption.

President Kenyatta says the right things about cleaning up Kenya’s corruption, but it’s going to take a huge shift.  However it’s certainly not a reason to avoid a Kenyan safari!

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Myth 4: Tour operators are dishonest and you will lose your money if you pay in advance.

Yes, there are some briefcase businesses, but in this age of the internet you can certainly do you own due diligence and avoid being scammed.  There are plenty of review sites online and many allow you to contact reviewers directly to ask about their experience.  Use Trip Advisor, do your research, check the prices.

The tourism industry has suffered greatly the past four years (due to the myths I’m writing about here!) and tour operators are getting increasingly desperate just to make a sale.  But if park fees are included in your package, check that the total price can cover those fees.  For example, it is $80 for a 24-hour ticket to the Maasai Mara.  So if you are booking a two-night safari to Maasai Mara for $200, you can do some simple maths and calculate that $160 is for park fees, leaving only $40 for transport, accommodation and food.  Park fees are public information so you can do some rough calculations.  If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is!  Either your operator is paying bribes at the park gate, or your vehicle hasn’t been maintained, or your food will be substandard.  Or you could get the trifecta!  Please, it does not help Kenya’s fight against corruption to encourage your tour operator to pay bribes at the gate so you can get into the park cheaply.

The Kenyan Association of Tour Operators and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism are also working hard to introduce measures to curb cheats.

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Sensational media is destroying Kenya’s main industry and the economy is suffering as a result.  So if an African safari is on your bucket list, look beyond the headlines and see Kenya for the amazing country it really is.

OTA’s Wildlife Wonder – East Africa’s best game parks in two weeks

OTA’s Wildlife Wonder – East Africa’s best game parks in two weeks

The Maasai Mara and Serengeti form a cross-border eco-system that supports millions of animals and is the scene for the Great Wildebeest Migration.  In January, OTA is leading a tour to these parks as well as Lake Naivasha, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, giving guests the opportunity to experience a variety of landscapes throughout their safari.

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Spectacular wildlife in Maasai Mara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater is the biggest draw-card of this safari, but the stunning birding in Lakes Naivasha and Natron is not to be dismissed.  Throughout the safari, we will travel through several different environments, each providing incredible scenery.  Guests will also have the opportunity to visit a traditional Maasai village.  Travelling in a comfortable safari vehicle fit for photography, game-viewing and touring and accompanied by an experienced driver-guide, on this trip you will stay in three-star tented camps and lodges.

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Francis Wamai, Founder and Director of OTA, says: “Lake Naivasha is the biggest of the Rift Valley lakes and Lake Natron has an alga that makes it look red; both are home to millions of flamingos.  Maasai Mara is famous for the Great Wildebeest Migration that arrives in July and returns to Serengeti in November – that’s where you’ll see the herds on this trip.  Ngorongoro Crater is the caldera of an extinct volcano and local people believe it is the Garden of Eden, especially as nearby Oldepai Gorge is where some of the earliest human remains have been found.”

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OTA’s 13-day Wildlife Wonder Tour is designed for those looking for an exceptional and unique safari experience.  The tour cost is US$3460 per person inclusive of all meals, accommodation, entry fees to Maasai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, and an English-speaking driver-guide.  There are limited seats available so contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com today to reserve yours.

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Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

Why East Africa Is the Perfect Family Destination

School holidays roll around four times a year and each time you want to keep your kids entertained and once in a while treat them to something really special.  Well here today, I’m presenting the ultimate school holiday treat for the whole family!  Often, family travel focuses on a destination suitable for children but can be a bit of a drag for the parents.  East Africa is NOT such a destination – it offers plenty for everyone from your primary-school-aged son to his grandmother.

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East Africa has so many activities for all ages.  Many people just think of a typical safari, looking at animals from a safari vehicle.  When parents are considering a holiday for their young children, spending days in a car does not sound attractive.  But there’s so much more!  At Lake Naivasha you can go cycling in Hells Gate National Park.  In the Maasai Mara and Serengeti you can go in a hot air balloon.  Many lodges have swimming pools to break up a big day of game drives.  You can head up to a beautiful viewpoint for a sundowner in most places you might be in the region.  Walking safaris are available in Central Kenya, Lake Naivasha and Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.  Or perhaps a boat ride at Lake Baringo, Lake Victoria, Lake Kivu (in Rwanda), or on the Nile River in Uganda.  At the source of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda, the teenagers can go white-water rafting downstream while the elders relax on a lunch cruise upriver!

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I mentioned earlier that parents tend to worry about their young kids spending full days in a car.  What if they get bored?  What if they need a toilet?  Oh it could just be a disaster.  Wrong!  There are ways to make game drives fun and entertaining with games or a scavenger hunt or get them to fill out a field guide if they are a bit older.  That will keep them engaged and interested in finding the next animal.  You could have prizes for the most obscure find for the day.  And anyway, the animals you are seeing are lions and elephants and giraffes!  One family took their two children aged 3 and 5 on a safari and they had prepared their guide that they may have to cut things short if the kids became ratty.  But it never happened.  The children were thrilled with seeing the animals and lasted the whole day!

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Meeting local people and learning how they live is a fantastic experience for all generations.  But in East Africa there is a lot of issues and life is really different to what we are used to in the West.  We have witnessed profound impact on teenagers especially when they have interacted with kids their own age living in the slums or in a Maasai village.  Visiting community-based organisations and seeing their projects can inspire young people to start thinking how they can make a difference in this world.  We have had family groups visit schools and donate books.  Other families have visited traditional villages and it’s so fun to see the children playing together despite a language barrier.

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So if you are starting to think that it might be OK for finding things to do, but now you start thinking about the logistics.  Where will you stay?  How will you travel?  Again, East Africa has you covered.  Many accommodation places have family rooms.  We also understand that travelling with a family can be expensive, so if you are travelling on a budget then consider a camping trip.  It is really exciting camping in the national parks listening to the sounds of the bush around you at night!  As for transport, there are a range of vehicle sizes, depending on how many you are.  A typical safari van or Land Cruiser seats 6-7 passengers but if you are looking to bring the extended family for a multi-generational trip, you might hire an overland truck.

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The biggest concern for families considering coming to East Africa is safety and security.  When you book through a reputable tour operator, you will be fully escorted the whole time by knowledgeable local guides.  By booking a full safari package and paying up front for everything, you do not have to carry so much cash on you.  And remember the national parks have never really been a target for terrorists or criminals – big cities are much more lucrative for them.  On a safari you will be spending most of your time in national parks and minimal time in cities so your risk of encountering these bad guys is reduced.

So what are you waiting for?  It’s time to build amazing memories together.  You might use it to celebrate a special occasion – for example we had a family group reunite in Kenya to celebrate the grandfather’s 70th birthday. Regardless, a family holiday to East Africa is a bucket list event no one will ever forget.

Make a Tremendous Impact and Transform a Life Through Education

Make a Tremendous Impact and Transform a Life Through Education

While I might have a few issues with the aid and development industry in countries like Kenya (who arguably does not need foreign aid, just good governance and accountability), the incredible impact of sponsoring a student’s education is something I whole-heartedly support and emphatically encourage people to do.  The cliché that there is no greater gift than education resonates as fact in developing countries and there is no shorter, sustainable way out of poverty than going to school.  If you want to assist those less fortunate, then sponsoring a student is the most effective way to ensure you make a real difference.

At Kiota Children’s Home, 20 children receive support from Dutch and Australian sponsors.  In September, we were fortunate to introduce Sheila to Ndunda, who she sponsors.  Ndunda’s story is sad, but not unusual – his parents abandoned the children and he was found with his younger brother picking through the garbage dump when he was only 5 years old.  Since arriving at Kiota, he has learnt social skills (although he is still very shy), has been able to attend school and has access to counselling.  He has a chance at a decent future now.  Moreover, when Sheila visited with her friend Christine, they “Packed For A Purpose” (www.packforapurpose.org) and were able to bring specific items needed at Kiota – pens, exercise books, coloured pencils, etc.  There is more than one way to give!

In September, we were fortunate to introduce Sheila to Ndunda, who she sponsors

In September, we were fortunate to introduce Sheila to Ndunda, who she sponsors

Jared wanted to return to university to finish a Bachelor of Public Health after his first sponsor was no longer able to support him.  Thanks to Bev, he is completing his degree this year.  Bev travelled to Uganda last year to meet Jared and spent time with his relatives, seeing his life.  From the first time I met Jared in 2012 to the time of introducing him and Bev in 2014, I saw a remarkable change in him.  He seemed to have grown, which for a man in his mid-20s was unlikely.  But he stood up straighter and had more confidence.  Regardless of any academic results, just this change in demeanour will surely take him further than the shy boy of two years previous.

Bev and Jared's relationship was cemented during Bev's travels in Uganda and Jared can continue his studies as well as take on extra-curricular activities

Bev and Jared’s relationship was cemented during Bev’s travels in Uganda and Jared can continue his studies as well as take on extra-curricular activities

Pauline travelled in Kenya in 2014 and, upon learning the plight of girls in education, wanted to sponsor a young woman.  Sylvia is a Maasai girl who achieved excellent marks in her primary school exams, but her prospects of getting to secondary school were slim to none.  The primary school she had attended had largely waived her fees in the knowledge that her parents were extremely poor but that Sylvia was very bright.  A secondary school would not make the same allowance.  Enter Pauline, and Sylvia is attending boarding school in Narok, the closest town to her family yet still 100km away.  She now has the opportunity to avoid an early marriage and a life of walking miles to fetch water and firewood.

Education is life-changing and we are committed to affording as many students the opportunity to go to school as we can.  In Melbourne, Australia we hosted a fund raising event in May 2015.  Guests were invited to sponsor individual students or make a one-off donation.  The money we collected from the donations has been given to the Titus Ngoyoni Memorial Primary School to replace the desks and chairs, which are in severe disrepair.  We intend to make the Melbourne event an annual one so we can continue to raise funds for needy schools and homes.

The money we collected from the donations has been given to the Titus Ngoyoni Memorial Primary School to replace the desks and chairs, which are in severe disrepair

The money we collected from the donations has been given to the Titus Ngoyoni Memorial Primary School to replace the desks and chairs, which are in severe disrepair

Of course there are still plenty of students who would benefit from sponsorship.  Susanna is a Maasai girl from the same area as Sylvia who is starting secondary school this year.  Winnie is a young woman in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, who has two more years of secondary school to complete.  There are children at Kiota Childen’s Home who require support for primary education.  Mara Explorers Camp in the Maasai Mara works closely with their local community to identify students in need.  And Sunrise of Africa School in Kitengela has 30% of their students attending on scholarship due to the generosity of donors.  There is even a single mother working in our local bar trying to raise money to finish her nursing degree.  In Kenya there are 91 registered nurses and 64 enrolled nurses per 100,000 people.  Compare that with Australia where there are 1195.8 nurses per 100,000 people – and Australia claims to have a health care crisis!  Sponsoring a nursing degree would not just impact the student, but all the extra people who can access her care.

Susanna is a Maasai girl from the same area as Sylvia who is starting secondary school this year

Susanna is a Maasai girl from the same area as Sylvia who is starting secondary school this year

The value of education in Kenya

Education is most needed in rural communities where schooling costs are twelve to twenty times as much as the monthly income of parents, despite the abolition of secondary school fees.  The costs are for uniforms, shoes, text books, stationery and boarding fees.  This means secondary school is out of reach for the poorest households and early marriage for their daughters is seen as a much more immediate way out of financial strife through the dowry payment.  In Kenya, one in ten young people never complete primary school and so struggle to find well-paid work.  Thus there is 60% youth (18-35 years) unemployment.  When you consider that an average wage earner supports about a dozen family members, the impact of an education that can secure a job is huge for a whole community.  Yet, one million children are still out of school in this country.  While this number is only half of what it was in 1999, it is still the ninth highest of any country in the world.

While committing to an ongoing sponsorship of a child can seem a little daunting, the relationships we have seen forming between sponsor and student are far more rewarding than anyone imagined.  Of course, it is important to be updated on the academic progress of the student, but a personal connection is also possible and can be amazing – as evidenced by Bev and Jared mentioned earlier.  If you are interested in connecting directly with a student who needs sponsorship, do contact us.  We are committed to ensuring students get the education and resources they need to succeed and also to enabling you to have the accountability and connection you are looking for.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com for more information about how you can directly transform a young Kenyan’s life today.

Tips for Going on a Solo Backpacking Trip

Tips for Going on a Solo Backpacking Trip

Travelling solo can be one of life’s most eye-opening, mind-expanding, joyful experiences.  This article will give you some suggestions to overcome the trepidation you may experience, especially as a woman, when deciding to venture forth on your own.  The best advice: Go for it!

5 Ways to Set Yourself Free and Travel Solo

  1. Make smart decisions

You make smart decisions at home everyday about what to spend money on, whether a situation feels safe, who to trust or not, etc.  Bring these smarts with you on your travels – don’t sell your brain for a plane ticket!  Even if you are on a budget, sometimes it is better to spend a little extra to stay in a more secure hotel or take a taxi at night.

  1. Meet people

Most of my travels have been solo, yet I have rarely felt lonely.  Using networks like Couch Surfing has helped me connect with fellow travellers and hosts who have been happy to hang out and show me their home town.  In backpacker hostels, the communal spaces provide opportunities to strike up a conversation and even in hotels there is usually a pool or a bar to linger at to find someone to chat with.

  1. Use a guidebook

Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Rough Guides, DK, Bradt…. there are so many guidebooks on the shelves of your local bookshop there is no excuse for not being well-informed about a place.  It’s true that not everything should be taken as gospel (indeed prices are often out of date even before the book is published) but it gives you a good idea of what to do, where to stay, where the good food is, where to find banks and most other information you want when you get off an overnight bus/train/plane.  Often they have some sample itineraries to help you get the best of a destination.

  1. Join a tour

If the thought of doing everything yourself and fumbling your way through a destination is totally off-putting, there are plenty of tours all over the world to suit any taste, style, and personality.  Depending on the type of tour you choose, you will be issued with six or sixty travel buddies to keep you from getting lonely during your travels.  Often taking a tour will put your family’s hearts and minds at rest as you embark on your solo trip … but don’t feel forced to take a tour if you really want to experience total freedom.

  1. Take time out

Travelling solo can be exhausting as you are making all the decisions yourself, you feel like your guard must always be up, and you are often putting yourself in uncomfortable situations (going to restaurants alone, striking up conversations with strangers, etc).  So it’s important to take time out to nurture yourself.  It’s supposed to be a holiday as well right?!

Twelve years ago I travelled solo for the first time and experienced incredible freedom that changed me forever.

Being quite shy, stepping out of my comfort zone to meet people was a massive challenge.  Couch Surfing has been my staple travel site since 2006 because it gives me the opportunity to connect with local people and get to know a place on a deeper level.  Through this network, I have made life-long friends who I know I can call on the next time I might be flitting through on a long layover.  Armed with a guidebook and a local, I feel like I get to see the best of a destination – both the tourist sites and the best restaurants, bars and other bits of ordinary life.  When I travel, my focus is on connecting with the culture, and so this style suits me.  Of course when meeting locals online one must be careful, but reading profiles and references thoroughly and trusting my instincts has kept me safe and provided me the most wonderful opportunities and experiences.

Have you travelled solo? Or are you considering taking a trip but have some worries?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Travelling in Kenya for People with a Physical Disability

Travelling in Kenya for People with a Physical Disability

Travelling in Africa can provide many challenges for people without a disability, but is it a complete no-go zone for people with physical impairment or other special needs?  Harun Hassan of NONDO (Northern Nomadic Disabled Persons Organisation) says definitely not and encourages travellers to “experience the excitement of getting through the hardship”.

While facilities in Kenya for people with disabilities have been slower to come to the fore, there is legislation in place to ensure that all buildings are accessible.  Moreover, there are several community-based and non-governmental organisations that advocate the rights of people with disabilities and the results of their work are becoming increasingly evident.  Shopping centres are very accessible and there are several hotels including Sarova Stanley, PanAfric and The Boma (all in Nairobi) that have excellent amenities.

The 2010 constitution has specified a certain number of people with disabilities must be elected to parliament to represent the needs of the community.  In Kenya, there is not so much discrimination against people with disabilities as a lack of awareness.  Having members of parliament with disabilities is one step to increase awareness as they speak about their impairment and how their lives have been growing up and now as a public figure.

A result of the lack of awareness is that when travellers with disabilities approach a safari operator, often their enquiry is ignored because the operator puts them in the “too hard basket”.  In Kenya, there are hardly any wheelchair-accessible vehicles – those Kenyans with physical impairments must be able to transfer themselves into taxis.  But that should not be a reason to dismiss Kenya as a holiday destination.  Rather, have a good conversation with your tour operator about your needs and find one that is prepared to work with you to plan your safari.  It will be up to you to inform the tour operator very specifically what you require, and it is probably not realistic to expect all the smooth mechanics you might be used to at home such as chair lifts, but the great thing about Kenya is that anything is possible!

If you are thinking about a Kenyan safari, you may contemplate including the Desert Wheel Race in your travel plans.  Held every August in Isiolo, the race is designed to give people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in sports and raise funds for children with disabilities to attend school.  NONDO works in partnership with the county governments from the seven counties participating in the event and willing partners and sponsors such as CBM in ensuring the event is well organized. In northern Kenya most communities are nomadic pastoralists and many people with physical impairment have never even seen a wheelchair.  Inter-tribal conflict has caused disabilities (for example one of the founding members of NONDO was stabbed in the spine with a spear as a child by a raiding tribe) resulting in the further marginalisation of people living in an already marginalised community.

Desert Wheel Race, Isiolo, Kenya Photo courtesy of the CBM database

In 2015, the Desert Wheel Race will be held on 22 August and OTA is organising a safari from Nairobi to participate in the event.  Please contact Tracey and Francis for more information: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com

Desert Wheel Race, Isiolo, Kenya Photo courtesy of the CBM database

All photos courtesy of CBM picture database

Responsible Photography

Responsible Photography

When we travel it is natural to want to capture every memorable moment.  Many times these memorable moments are the times when we are struck by something unusual or so different from our experiences back home – for example a pride of lions lounging under a tree or a family of elephants striding across the savannah – these things we don’t see in our normal lives.  But how do we deal with those moments when we see extreme poverty or simply people getting on with their everyday lives in a very different way to our own lifestyle?  Is it OK to photograph that as well?

Often travellers coming to Africa are struck by the poverty and want to take photographs of people and dwellings in slum areas.  There are two sides to the coin of whether this is OK or not and I believe it comes down to your intention.  Is it voyeuristic?  Do you simply want to post the photos on Facebook to show your friends how intrepid and benevolent you are by visiting these poor people?  Or is the purpose to raise awareness of the issues of poverty, showing friends back home how fortunate they are and potentially getting people to think about what to do to overcome the challenges?  Depicting poverty is a minefield and even your best intentions can be misinterpreted.  Showing sensitivity and respect to the community is vital both in your actions to get the photo and in how you use the photo afterwards.

On our safaris, guests often ask us if it’s OK to take photos, whether we are in an urban slum or a Maasai village.  The trouble is that it is not much use asking us – it is the people in your photograph that need to grant permission.  And then it is important to respect the answer.  Many older people in rural Kenya and also Indigenous Australians (among other groups of people around the world) believe that a photograph can have a negative effect on your soul (different people have different beliefs about exactly what happens, but “capturing the soul” seems to be the underlying theme) and so will refuse a photograph.  Or they may just be uncomfortable being the subject of so much interest.  On the other hand, many children in developing countries have swarmed me in their eagerness to have their photo taken and then to be shown the picture (the wonders of digital cameras!).

Often taking photos out of the car window is the only way to get that fleeting shot as you travel through the country.  It seems like a good compromise: you can’t possibly stop and ask permission and the person probably wouldn’t even notice they were being photographed anyway.  But we have also experienced people shouting and waving and generally showing displeasure at being photographed this way.

Overall, I think the best way to approach photography of people is to ask: how would I feel if it were me?  Can you imagine stepping out of your house when a carload of African travellers drive down your street and take photographs of you, your house and your neighbours?  That would be weird surely. www.ota-responsibletravel.com

A final note about responsible photography is to be aware of where you are.  A few years ago in Kashgar (western China), one of my guests was taking a photo of a donkey and cart, without noticing the large military trucks passing on the same road.  She was so endeared by the donkey, she failed to realise the guns and the shouts from the soldiers to put her camera away!  In many countries, bridges, border posts and transport hubs are regarded as strategic interests and photography is prohibited.  Consideration should also be given at religious sites or events.

Do you have an opinion about photography of people and poverty? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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