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Let's Go Security Policies Worry Writers

By Alex B. Ginsberg, Crimson Staff Writer

"Travel to South Africa can place your safety at risk--travelers should exercise very careful judgement at all times to avoid becoming a statistic themselves," reads a warning near the beginning of "Let's Go: South Africa," a guide which also covers Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

The guide advises travelers to carry themselves with confidence and observe routine precautions. And, it advises in bold type, "never admit it if you're traveling alone."

As one of the bestselling budget travel guides in the world, Let's Go offers some of the most glamorous student jobs around, giving dozens of undergraduates the opportunity to visit far-off destinations and have their work sold in bookstores nationwide.

But some Let's Go writers say students should also be aware of the dangers involved in their jobs. Two researchers resigned from their jobs working for "Let's Go: South Africa" this summer, saying the guide's policies did not insure the safety of its employees.

In the wake of the incident, writers and editors at the publication agree: writing for Let's Go can be a dangerous job, not intended for everyone.

Safe Journeys?

While hundreds of undergraduates apply to be Let's Go writers each year, Alicia E. Johnson '01 and Fana Gebeyehu-Houston '01 were among the lucky few selected.

Both were hired in April for the South Africa book team. Johnson was slated to travel through Namibia and Gebeyehu-Houston was chosen for Botswana.

According to Gebeyehu-Houston, the book's editor, Sobi Hossain '00, was particularly happy to have hired the pair because Hussein felt that as black women, they would add a new voice to the book.

"Sobi's goal was to transform the South Africa book so that it had a more diverse group of reporters," Gebeyehu-Houston says. "She wanted it from the perspective of the African American student."

But as Gebeyehu-Houston and Johnson prepared for their trips, they began to worry that it would be dangerous to travel alone as black women.

Generally, researchers travel alone for a number of weeks, keeping in contact with their editors via telephone alone. Researchers visit sites throughout their assigned regions and send their work back to Let's Go editors in Cambridge.

Gebeyehu-Houston and Johnson began to worry that it wouldn't be safe for them to travel alone as black women in the nations to which they were assigned.

"Fana and I were worried because we had both been to Africa and seen a difference in treatment between black and white women," Johnson says. Gebeyehu-Houston agreed.

"White people are not at the same risk in those countries," she says. "Anyone that looks like the general population is more susceptible to crime."

Johnson says she also became concerned for her safety after hearing reports of other Let's Go reporters who faced safety problems while abroad.

"My concerns were not unfounded," Johnson says.

At that point, Johnson and Gebeyehu-Houston consulted with each other and decided that the only way they would travel was as a team.

Hossain initially told the writers she would try to accommodate their request, but called back later to say it wouldn't be possible, Johnson says.

Faced with the sole option of travelling by themselves in separate countries, the women say they resigned in mid-May, only weeks before their scheduled trip.

Let's Go editors referred all questions about the incident to Hossain, who was out of the country and could not be reached for this story.

Safety Steps

Last week, almost four months after she resigned, Johnson said she is not angry with Let's Go, but sees her experience as a sign that the company can improve its safety policies.

"Let's Go is a great organization-- one of the best on campus," Johnson says. "But it needs to be more socially responsible to its students."

Gebeyehu-Houston says she agrees with this point.

"Diversity among reporters is important," she says. "But if Let's Go wants that, then they've got to explore issues with women and black women in those countries."

"Sending two people together reduces the risk so much," Gebyehu-Houston says.

Johnson and Gebeyehu-Houston also urge the organization to establish more extensive contacts abroad to provide writers with people to talk to in case something goes wrong.

"Let's Go should have an established contact in a country to which they send a reporter," Gebeyehu-Houston says.

Kaya Stone '00, last year's publishing director, and Kate McCarthy'00, last year's editor-in-chief stress that many precautions are already in place.

They include a screening process for potential researchers and self-defense courses for those who are selected, McCarthy says.

Let's Go's editors also perform extensive research before writers go abroad to make sure the routes they travel have "no danger," she says.

But she says it is difficult for Let's Go to provide its writers with the security of a contact within their travel regions.

"You can't assume the editor will know people in the country," she says.

McCarthy says expense is one consideration behind Let's Go's policy of sending one research writer along each route.

"Cost is always an issue," McCarthy says. "If one person can do the job as adequately as two, then why send two superfluously?"

"Time, effort and money are all issues," McCarthy says.

She adds that while Let's Go won't pay for two students to travel to the same region, some past researchers have chosen to bring along a companion anyway. But she said this arrangement usually leads to much less productive work on the part of the reporter.

"It's hard to work as a team because of the hectic schedule," McCarthy says. "So we discourage it."

Some other travel guides offer additional safety precautions.

Unlike Let's Go, Lonely Planet Publications urges female writers to "find companions to travel with" if they feel uncomfortable, according to Cindy Cohen, publicity manager of the guide.

Fodor's Travel Publications tries to insure its writers' safety by hiring writers who live in the countries they write about--not an option for Let's Go, which hires only undergraduates.

"The majority of our 600 writers and researchers actually live in the countries they write about," Fodor's Vice President Kris Kliemann writes in an e-mail message. "They're hired as contributors not only because they posses strong travel writing skills, but also because they have tremendous knowledge of the area's customs and culture. We hope that this knowledge and experience will help them stay safe in the event of an unforeseen danger."

Despite Gebeyehu-Houston and Johnson's concerns about safety, McCarthy says there has only been one case of violence involving a Let's Go writer in recent memory, to the best of her knowledge. A female writer traveling to Tunisia was assaulted, but escaped from her attacker.

But Stone says Gebeyehu-Houston and Johnson--and other writers who share their concerns--might be right to leave their posts.

Let's Go jobs might be more exciting than interning for a senator or researching a thesis--but they can also be riskier.

"Fana is my friend," Stone says. "I'm glad she didn't do it if she didn't feel comfortable going."

"Let's Go researching is very demanding and not for but a small number of Harvard students," he said.

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