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Poor but Happy: Volunteer Tourists’ Encounters with Poverty

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This article explores how young volunteer tourists encounter and negotiate poverty in rural Kenya. Using a longitudinal psychosocial methodology, I demonstrate how poverty can be conceptualized as a threatening ‘object’ to volunteer tourists, inducing unconscious anxiety by challenging Western materialistic lifestyles and identities. Volunteer tourists negotiate this anxiety in three ways: by transforming poverty into a source of moral redemption; by allowing poverty to become subsumed into a seductive, exotic landscape so that it can be admired and consumed; and by constructing impoverished communities as ‘poor but happy’. It is argued that these neutralizing constructions act as barriers, preventing the intimate engagement with communities that volunteer tourism promises and lessening the potential of poverty to shock, move and even change those who come into contact with it.

Keywords: Kenya; Poverty; authenticity; defences; investment; psychosocial; subjectivity; volunteer tourism

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

Publication date: May 1, 2012

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