Poverty’s Poster Child: Why slum tourism is causing more harm than good to Kibera residents

Poorism, ‘Slumming it‘, slum tourism or however you prefer to call it is a phenomenon that has rapidly emerged in the Kenyan tourism sector albeit controversially so, having sparked numerous debates – not only in Kenya but the world over – bordering on whether the tours are exploratory or plain exploitative. Prior to some high-profile obligatory visits, (U.N. Secretary General – Ban Ki-moon, Chris Rock, then-Senator Barack Obama, former United States Secretary of State – Hillary Clinton and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – Gordon Brown) itineraries to the ‘chocolate city’ (Kibera’s alias) were simply unheard of.

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b&w kibera sewer railway

Many can also argue that aside from the high-profile visits, showbiz has had a bigger hand in the promotion of slum tours whether intentional or not; with the release of big films like Kibera Kid, The Constant Gardener (brought a wave of tourists to Kibera), City of God (increased tourism in Rio) and the biggest one yet, Slumdog Millionaire (The award-winning movie recorded a phenomenal increase in the level of poverty tourism popularity in the world). The films go a long way in showcasing not only the poverty in shantytowns, but that these areas can also provide for excitement and thrill in terms of cultural vibrancy, drama, vices and lots more calling for exploration.

Constant-GardnerA scene from the Constant Gardener

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Today, the prominence of poorism has seen a number of slum tour outfits offering tailor-made tours to slum areas within the capital crop up (not without opposition off course); with the most popular slum destination being Kibera as it is the largest in the country. Those set against the entire slum-tour practice (many of whom are slum residents) and with supposed good reason, argue that it is not at all beneficial to the community and see no significance in its existence. What slum tourism does instead, as per their belief is invade the residents’ privacy and have them treated like park animals, which is insulting.

28mm_women_kiberia_trainaction_2 Many abhor the fact that slum residents, who play into the whole equation as mere commodity guaranteeing profit for the tour operators, have no say in the organization of these trips. Nobody seeks out their thoughts or perspectives when planning what activities can or cannot be carried out nor do they get to decide what areas the tourists can or cannot see. This feeling is not only restricted to Kibera though; the same is echoed in regard to the favela tours in Rio de Janeiro and Dharavi tours in India where organizers of the tours are labelled as parasites leeching off of the plight of the poor.

Nairobi-slums

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According to Cejas 2006, this sort of tourism turns poverty into entertainment more so like ‘reality television’ whereby the tour operators, like television producers, can essentially write a script for tour guides on what is said – who is hero, who is villain, and what areas should be highlighted.

“They see us like puppets, they want to come and take pictures, have a little walk, tell their friends they’ve been to the worst slum in Africa,”David Kabala – Kibera resident.

On the other end of the argument however, proprietors of these ‘pity tours’ are seemingly convinced that tourists on an adventure, snaking along narrow mud-ridden alleys fascinated by the novelty of capturing images of the newest spectacle in tourism ‘the bipedal slum wildlife’, while sampling the varied tastes that poverty and slum life has to offer; lack of sanitation, water shortages, lack of access to education, health hazards and diseases, sale of illicit alcoholic brews, HIV/AIDS amongst many others is not a mockery to the slum residents’ situation, au contraire.

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Aside from being good money off course, slum tourism from the tour operators’ view is a form of promoting social and cultural awareness; a tool that aids tourists get more accustomed to what being a slum dweller really means and to better grasp the issues and challenges that slum residents have to tackle in everyday living. The generated income from the slum tours supposedly makes its way back to the community to help support schools, children’s homes, art centres and many more but in many occasions; this is sadly not the case as much of the cash registered is pocketed by the slum-tour outfits. This very common scenario is arguably the main reason behind most of the residents’ stand in opposing slum tourism as aside from enriching the tour operators, it simply does nothing for them.

02Now granted that most of the individuals paying for these tours on a whim may genuinely want to understand how shantytown life may be, – not that it is advocated that one enthusiastically sets out on an adventure capturing images of individuals without their consent in the name of understanding poverty – a two to three-hour visit no matter how well-intentioned you may be would do nothing to help one nearly comprehend the slum situation, not in the least bit. Perhaps those that truly seek to understand slum life should dive all in and literary walk in the residents’ shoes; do away with the one-way street affair that is a few hours slum tours and say hello to home-stays within the slums areas. That way, the visitor gets to experience first-hand the situation on the ground without relying on stories and on the other hand, host families get to put food on the table by actually getting profits from the trips.

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In all honesty though, in spite of the organizers’ high expectations that the experience may lead the tourists into action, how many of these tourists actually do something about what they see during their slum tours after they get back home? it all seems to be a lip service affair Just as is the case with many of the dignitaries.

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An example of endeavors to understanding the depth of poverty associated problems that many Kenyans grapple with in the slums brings up Famous, rich and in the slums. For those who might not have watched it, Famous rich and in the slums is a two-part documentary series  that follows four British celebs – comedian Lenny Henry, TV host and journalist Angela Rippon, actress Samantha Womack, TV and radio star Reggie Yates – into the slums of Kibera away from their privileged lives, as they fully immerse themselves in slum culture for one week and undergo an emotional, life-changing encounter, forming deep bonds with people living with a range of devastating issues all too common in Kibera . Stripped of all their possessions, and with just Ksh200 to start them off, the four had to eat, breathe and work every aspect of slum life for the seven days. How did they cope in their new environment? living by themselves in the first few days and having to work tough jobs to survive, Lenny, Angela, Samantha and Reggie discover just how harsh the realities of poverty are.

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This documentary was filmed as part of the annual BBC Comic Relief charity telethon – Red nose day, an event that saw over £70 Million (£74,360,207) raised that year to help change lives of extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged people across the UK and Africa (including the ones featured in the film). Aside from being emotionally hard-hitting, the documentary unlike many others, gives a voice to the slum dwellers as they share their stories as well as homes with the four personalities. This is a side of Kibera that we rarely get to see in the media, we see resilient individuals who despite hardship and abject poverty have not stopped hoping and work extra hard for a better future. Although some may argue that this is all a ploy for ratings, one cannot deny the impact that this experience had on the lives of the residents that the four personalities engaged with, even if just in a little way. Comic relief continues to make an impact on people’s lives both by raising funds and raising awareness about just how life can be for those on the opposite end. Another similar feature from comic relief is Famous, rich and homeless a documentary that unveils the realities of living in the streets of London.

That being said, it’s about time Kibera stopped being Kenya’s poverty poster child. Despite the inescapable poverty and hard living conditions, Kibera is teaming with so much life, energy, community and promise; with so much talent yet to be harnessed. Kibera needs land/tenancy rights, housing, water, electricity, health clinics, education, employment, security plus much more; issues that are being addressed to a lesser or greater extent by many organizations including Churches, UN-Habitat, MSF, AMREF and many others, with funding coming from organizations such as Gates Foundation, Bill Clinton Foundation, and other well-known charities both local and international. The major question here though is where does the government fall in this picture? why should Kenyan citizens have to rely on outsiders to do something for them when the very people they elect sit by and watch them suffer?

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In essence though, we all should be on the forefront of alleviating the rich-poor divide in the country. The much-needed efforts of willing and compassionate people would definitely go a long way in extracting  the “me vs the poor” attitude.

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural, it is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings” Nelson Mandela.

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