Rescued voluntourist Silvia Romano: The voluntourism trap behind the kidnapping

Silvia Romano (25), who was kidnapped while being on a voluntourism holiday in Kenya, was freed on Saturday 9th May 2020, in Somalia. Although this is considered excellent news, we would like to use this opportunity to draw attention to the (Western) media coverage of the incident, which has been a typical example of perpetuating the stereotype of the Western saviour, of the “Africans” that need to be saved and of the dark and dangerous African continent.

Silvia Romano in the voluntourism trap

In July 2018, Silvia Romano visited Kenya. It was there where she met the italian founder and manager of the Dreams ONLUS Centre orphanage at a charity event and ended up spontaneously taking part in a one-month orphanage voluntourism visit – in an orphanage where, as it appears, every tourist is welcome at. Once she finished the month, she went back to Italy, but returned to Kenya after fundraising for the orphanage. Then, she started volunteering in another placement with the Africa Milele Onlus charity. This child care institution was based in the village Chakama near the southeast coast of Kenya[1].

Both, Dreams ONLUS and Africa Milele Onlus are managed and/or run by Europeans. According to NEWS 1, African-Express and the parents of Silvia Romano, the organizations run unorganized, careless voluntourism programs, that left Silvia Romano deal all alone with her problems at all times. The organizations were not able to guarantee Silvia’s safety[2]. Silvia Romano was not able to cope with donation and transparency issues, child abuse accusations she reported and harassment problems[3].

Shortly after her arrival in the Chakama village, she was kidnapped by Al-Shabaab, a Somalian Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. During the kidnapping, some villagers, including children, were shot. Some villagers and people that Silvia Romano was in contact with during her time in the village helped the group prepare the kidnapping in order to earn some extra money.

The Media and their role in creating misinformation and stereotypes

Our news media analysis about this case has shown the typical structural bias towards “Africa”.  World media has reported about Silvia Romano helping Africans in need. Even so she was an unexperienced short-term voluntourist, she has been described by the media as an aid-, NGO- and development worker. On the other hand, Kenya has been presented as a dark and dangerous place. Locals were portrayed in a negative light and accusations were made against the Kenyan police as well as the court system, border police, military and the Kenyan society as a whole. The majority of the media came to the quick conclusion, that it must have been the lack of development of Kenya’s society, that was responsible for the abduction of a young “aid worker“, who came to help.

The white saviour complex and the medias role

What was almost never reflected upon was the role of the Western actors in the incident who were responsible for the poorly run voluntourism placements of Silvia Romano.

Silvia observed transparency issues at the orphanage she volunteered in during her first trip . Moreover, the village of Silvia’s second placement was unsafe to be by herself, plus the fact she went there unprepared and unsupported, might have contributed to the disaster. She was even left all alone, when she reported an issue of child abuse to the manager of her organization Africa Milele Onlus. The manager encouraged her to file a report to the police, but did not actually support the process, neither by joining her at the police station nor helping her to file the report.

Why is it contributing to unsustainible development cooperation to portray volunteers as “aid workers”?

The media reporting in the Silvia Romano case promoted once again the image of the “helpless Africans” and development cooperation of being a field of work in which it is enough to have good intentions. Many (or even most) of the photos in the news about Silvia’s kidnapping were taken from Facebook showing Silvia Romano playing and being in amongst Kenyan children. In connection to these images, Silvia Romano has been described as an aid worker that has worked in Kenya to help “Africans”. Silvia`s selfies from Facebook showing simple fun activities with happy Kenyan children being widely used by well-known news platforms in connection with the terms “aid worker” and “development worker” is reinforcing once again the impression, that having white people around, makes African life’s better.

This is a very common representation and shows, that young voluntourists bringing development to “Africa” have become very visible and has become a widely accepted form of “development”, that has legitimized “the validity of young unskilled international labour as a development ‘solution’ “(Simpson 2004). As a result, young white voluntourists have become a role model for doing good and are in the public mindset an accepted form of bringing “development” to Africa.

This accepted stereotype of the “helpless Africans”, that are in need of young white volunteers to help them, is partly responsible for the popularity of voluntourism in former colonialized countries in which european voluntourists “have the ability, and right, to [bring development]“ (Simpson 2004).

Furthermore, Silvia Romano was portrayed as a victim of an unstable, dangerous Kenyan society which left the impression that Kenya is a dark and dangerous place that cannot ensure the protection of young and good willing “aid workers“. On the other hand, the wrongdoing of the european acteurs has been widely ignored.

The Danger of poorly run voluntourism programs

The Silvia Romano case has shown again, how poorly managed volunteer programs handle young, unexperienced voluntourists, the misconception of development, the traps behind voluntourism as well as on how biased the media reports.

What we should learn from this is how important it is to ensure that voluntourism is not causing any harm, but is making a difference instead through well run voluntourism programs that include a selection processes, a proper preparation, as well as onsite guidance. All of that Silvia Romano did not receive.

Volunteers are vulnerable as they are often in an unfamiliar environment with different kinds of risks. Through a proper preparation process, certain rules must be addressed, such as how to behave in certain situations, what situations to avoid and how to respect the values of local communities. Volunteering organizations need to explain risks of the local environment to alert volunteers. It is the responsibility of the people who run voluntourism programs to ensure the safety onsite, the sustainibility of the program and to make sure their volunteers have a travel insurance (i.e. Silvia Romano had according to News1 none).

The discussion whether to take the organizations Silvia Romano volunteered in/through ( Africa Milele Onlus and Dreams ONLUS) responsible is now starting and might be able to shed light on the issues behind voluntourism and the harm it can create.

Our video about the story





Simpson, Kate (2004): ‘Doing development’: the gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development; Journal of International Development Volume 16(5): 681–692