The Question of Why
December 18, 2017

As founder of Justice Travel, there’s a question I get a lot:  “Why are you doing this?”

A question with many answers.

A few months ago I was pressed to answer the ‘Why’ question in 500 words, and here’s what I wrote:

My passion for this project is born of deep frustration and eternal optimism. Recognition that inspiring and tireless local activists were the driving force behind every victory I had ever seen – and yet their names, their contributions, were often only recognized if they were killed in the course of their work. Disappointment with an international ‘community’ increasingly unwilling or unable to tackle human rights abusers, including governments and multinational corporations. Yet more importantly: elation on meeting people who come back from travel changed – eyes open, Facebook chats open, newly celebrating the common humanity that stretches over politics, over skin color, gender, and sexuality, that stretches far beyond borders. The more I thought about this concept, the deeper down the rabbit hole I went, the more my passion and commitment grew.

These things are all true, and my passion and commitment have only continued to grow since I wrote those words. But these ideas did not emerge spontaneously, nor have they grown from seed in just six months. Reflecting on where Justice Travel truly began, I have to go back to a small shanty in the Kroo Bay neighborhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

I had never seen a place so poor, so overrun with disease and hunger and filth. Pictures can convey the visual but not the smell – the stench – that launched itself full force through your nostrils and grabbed hold of your stomach. There was a waterway which divided the neighborhood in two, stained dark brown with runoff pollution and garbage of all kinds and literal pig shit. And this was eight months before the 2014 Ebola outbreak which would kill four thousand and decimate all public services and economic activities in the country. On that day in Kroo Bay I was meant to conduct a small group discussion, on behalf of the international NGO Oxfam, with some local activists about the provision of water and sanitation services. I was prepared for the worst. 

One of the activists had found a home we could use, a dusty wooden structure near the high edge of the neighborhood. To have some privacy we closed all the doors, which meant the only light coming in was through the slender cracks between wooden planks. A group of mostly women filed in without saying a word, and we all sat in a circle, some on the floor and some on assorted plastic chairs and crates. Most of the women had brought their children with them, the older ones playing quietly in the dust near the back of the room. We started to talk and at first they seemed timid, perhaps – understandably – unsure about how much to share with an unknown foreigner. Awkward silences punctuated by quiet comments from the few men in attendance. 

And then I asked a question about the city government. A groan from one of the women, and from another what I assume was a Krio curse. The floodgates opened. They had been petitioning the city for years to improve sanitation. They had self-organized the entire neighborhood, collecting signatures on a series of petitions from nearly every household. One woman quoted back municipal codes and national laws, demonstrated point by point where the government had let them down. And the kicker – now the government, with support from the European Union, was trying to get the whole neighborhood declared ‘unsafe’, and force the residents into shanty villages far from the city, far from the small shops and street markets where all the residents earned their livelihoods. The government had a ‘development plan’ to upgrade the coastal zones, building housing far too expensive for the current Kroo Bay residents. These quiet women won no prizes, received no recognition. In their quest to improve their community – for even the most basic of services – they were completely alone. And yet they persevered, studying the laws, organizing their neighborhood, meeting with any politician or NGO would who hear them. After we finished, one of the more vocal woman pulled me aside and told me that they knew I couldn’t change all this – that all they asked is that I told the story of Kroo Bay in their words, tried to see it through their eyes.

I finished my report for Oxfam and on my last weekend in the country drove to a beach two hours south of the city. One of the most spectacularly beautiful beaches I have ever seen in my life. A colleague started talking about how wonderful a vacation destination this would be, an unspoiled paradise. I had visions of luxury lodges and infinity pools. It seemed unfathomable that these two worlds were only a short drive apart. And then I remembered one of the Kroo Bay women talking about how beautiful her birthplace was, further down the coast. This wasn’t a different world, just one that I felt like I needed different eyes to see.

Kroo Bay is desperately poor and its poverty inspires sympathy, and it is much more comfortable to live in a world where the Kroo Bay women are subjects of both poverty and sympathy. We are able to look at their plight – and we should look – and find it “in our hearts” to donate some money to them. And this makes us feel good. But there is a wicked question at the heart of that formulation: why do we need there to be an ‘us’ and a ‘them’? And if we can agree that there should not be a division, how can we engage with poverty, with violence, with injustice in a world where everyone is an actor and not a subject? I cannot claim to have a very good answer, but I left Sierra Leone sure that this question needed to be asked. And I thought about that beautiful beach and my promise to the woman in Kroo Bay. When tourism comes to Sierra Leone, can it be a version of tourism which engages with the women of Kroo Bay as actors, not as subjects? What would it mean to see the country – the tepid slum and the sandy paradise – through their eyes? 

And there the seed was planted which became Justice Travel. 

Gabriel Tobias is the founder of Justice Travel. 

Follow him on twitter @ghgtobias