Joy is possible amidst poverty and material commodities are not necessary for happiness. This was the lesson that Los Angeles Dodgers baseball player Clayton Kershaw learned during his recent trip to Africa. A feature in the New York Times by Karen Crouse describes the Dodgers player and his wife, Ellen’s trip to Zambia with the child sponsorship ministry, Arise Africa.

Kershaw wanted to learn more about Ellen’s passion for helping Zambian AIDS orphans, a passion she discovered, like so many Americans, on a college trip to the country. The article describes his reluctance to spend three weeks away from the practice cages, his work ethic and the way he was able to fashion a portable catcher so he could keep practicing. But it gives no sense of the work that Kershaw or the organization were doing with the orphans in the “remote villages and compounds surrounding” Lusaka that they visited. Rather we hear about the emotional connection Kershaw made with the children whose hugs and smiles helped him overcome his first shocked encounter with their poverty. Like so many African nations, Zambia appears to be only inhabited by children, making possible his discovery that: “The people, as long as their basic needs are met — they’re not starving and they have shelter — are such a joyful culture.” Luckily for Kershaw, while these children needed his help, they were not the desperate, dying kind and so he returned to the US with a renewed sense of well being and some perspective on his own life and society, questioning his American desire for big houses and faster cars.

The ways Africa and poverty are understood by Americans is both enabled by and makes Kershaw’s all too familiar journey possible. The ‘discovery’ that many travelers make – that people living in poverty in Africa are not hopeless, discontented or nasty – makes it very easy to help them. It means you don’t have to change anything too much, just maybe give them a mosquito net or some ARVs. Such a discovery is made possible by the discovery that the ways Africans live has more to do with their ‘culture’ than with their poverty. This is a ‘culture’ that is so beyond a desire for the material commodities so ruinous to the American well being that a little bit of help (letting those joyful children watch you practice pitches for example) goes a long way.

It is a cliché that travel is about finding yourself and not really learning about the places through which you travel. But Kershaw doesn’t even really find himself in Zambia. He finds a comfortable space in which to inhabit his American privilege without having to question it. In ‘learning’ that poverty is really a good way to live; he is not straying very far from a familiar story in America about the evils of too much stuff. But while Americans feel that they are able to find some balance between this ethic and the equally American responsibility to consume, it is reassuring that Africans can have much purer commodity-free lives

When I was working with young American travelers in South Africa, I found something positive in their discovery that South Africa (which was always Africa in their lexicon) was not a place defined by hopelessness based on poverty. It seemed like a good lesson for Americans who painted the entire continent with the same brush of disaster and suffering – poverty does not create a mass of undifferentiated homogeneous people with no power or agency to change their situation. But it became a disturbing message when it increasingly led to a desire to ‘help’ Africans in simplistic ways. When ‘culture’ looks like poverty and poverty ‘looks like culture any questions about the structural and geopolitical causes of poverty are easily muted and travelers like Kershaw can bask in the smiling faces of young Zambians.

* Kathryn Mathers, a visiting scholar in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, is the author of Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa” (MacMillan, 2010).