When out on our travels to far flung places it has become an age-old tradition to bring small gifts for local kids and people in need. Despite our best intentions, not everything we give is suitable and some things can be harmful or even offensive to local customs, traditions and religions. Living circumstances in many developing countries are very different from our own, so often it’s the simple things will bring the most joy.
Here are some dos and don’ts of what to give and not to give.
Manual or solar powered torches: These are great items to bring with you. In many developing countries there are frequent power cuts. In Nepal they can last up to 12 hours a day. Some houses do not have electricity at all, and in some cases toilet facilities are a long way from the house. Just try finding it at night and you will realise a cheap, hand-powered torch can be a lifesaver!
Candles: You can buy candles in most developing countries, but ours tend to be better quality and last much longer. Candles give light and warmth and make a great gift.
Exercise books, pencils and crayons: Many children do not have the opportunity or funds to attend school regularly or at all. With exercise books and a little help from a literate neighbour they can start learning and getting creative too.
Toothbrushes: Dental hygiene awareness is quite low in some developing countries. Giving out toothbrushes as presents and educating about dental hygiene is a good idea. You can buy them in the country instead of bringing them from home, so they won’t take up space in your luggage. Bright colourful ones for the youngsters are a good idea, and hopefully will encourage them to brush!
Clothing: Whatever clothing you don’t need or don’t want to take back home can make a welcome gift. Good quality shoes, particularly black children’s shoes are always appreciated, as well as school uniforms, winter clothing, sunglasses and hats. Flip-flops also make a great gift, and you can buy them cheaply in the country. Note that in some countries western clothes are less appreciated, for example in Bhutan, Tibet and parts of northern India people prefer where to wear their traditional clothes.
Games and jigsaws: Games always make great gifts, especially educational games like Scrabble. You can teach them how to play and that brings joy to both parties. Balloons are a tricky one. They are small and lightweight so do not take up much space. On the other hand they burst within minutes, leaving waste behind, not to mention children’s tears! How about taking some Frisbees instead? Again you can teach the kids how to play.
Pictures, calendars and posters: It’s always exciting visiting new countries and learning about new things. Calendars, pictures or posters showing famous sights from the UK or other places are extremely popular, particularly in India.
Hygiene products: In some cases shampoos, lotions and other hygiene products can be a good idea. They can be bought cheaply in the country, but some women might enjoy trying western products. You can just leave your leftovers instead of taking them back home. However, before you give think about waste – plastic bottles are not always easy to get rid of particularly in remote rural areas. Better to give these kind of gifts in urban regions.
Buy local: Whenever possible it is better to buy presents from the local market to strengthen the domestic economy. Buying presents where you visit, you will not only uncover some great presents, but also generate much needed income to the local vendor and his family.
Your friendship! The greatest gift you can give anyone. Share your stories, teach songs and games.
Sweets and soft drinks: Refrain from buying sweets or soft drinks for children. Because of the lack of good dental hygiene, insufficient medical care and often poor nutrition you are not doing them a favour by giving them sweets. Better buy fruit from the local market. This will provide the children with a nutritional treat full of vitamins and goodness.
Cut waste: Think of the waste your gifts will generate so do not donate plastic toys and chose pencils and crayons over pens. In more remote regions there are no waste disposal facilities, so your presents will be around for much longer than you think.
Alcohol: Many beliefs forbid drinking alcohol, so it is a tricky question whether to give alcoholic beverages or not. Often poorer communities have to fight drinking problems, so to be on the safe side and to not offend or cause trouble its best to refrain from giving alcohol. It is ok, however, to buy a guide a drink in the evening if you’re out together.
Make-up: Many people in developing countries don’t have the opportunity or money ‘go out’ to fancy clubs or bars as we do in the west so make-up will be useless to them.
Open clothing: No need to donate open clothing like short skirts and scanty tops. No one would wear them. Also women usually prefer wearing their traditional skirts instead of jeans or trousers. Don’t bother bringing old socks or underwear with holes in. In very poor areas, however, good and clean underwear may be appreciated.
Give with the right hand: In South Asia it is very important to give presents with your right hand, usually with the left hand closed around your right ankle. In many other countries you give presents with both hands. Generally, giving with the left hand is considered disrespectful.
Don’t give to everyone: It’s not good practice to hand out gifts to just every kid, as this will encourage begging. Try to only give presents to children you have spent some time with and got to know. That makes the whole experience more meaningful.
Ask the parents first: Do not undermine parents’ authority. If possible, it’s often better to give the presents to the children’s parents or teachers, so they can hand them over at an appropriate time and distribute them fairly.
Take pictures, keep promises! If you take pictures of people on your journey do not promise to send them copies unless you really mean it. By all means write down the address and send them when you get back, but try not to forget because they certainly won’t!
Ulrike works for Himalayan Footsteps, www.himalayanfootsteps.com. Contact 0131 5100 522 or