I once went to visit Kibera slum in Nairobi. Walking through the streets, I passed a group of guys dragging a heavy log through the mud. One of the men turned – he looked a bit drunk – and yelled out “hey, mzungu! You think we’re giraffes? Go to a safari park!” His friends laughed, my guide nervously pulled my arm and told me to move on. I felt extremely uncomfortable. The guy pulling the log was of course right. I was a ‘slum tourist’, paying to see areas of intense poverty.
Slum tourism has come under considerable intelligent criticism, including from Kennedy Odede and Jamal Osman. These critiques are eloquently summed up by the quote above; slum tourism turns people’s lives into safari parks. Critics claim it objectifies poverty, giving rich tourists an interesting experience but nothing back to the community.
I think that picture is too simplistic. In Kibera, I was not struck by the poverty and deprivation – but by the vibrancy, quality of infrastructure, and colour. It was a world away from the sterile, sewage-ridden mess that I’d imagined. I had no idea that there were rich areas of Kibera, with expensive churches and wealthy businessmen. I had no idea that you could buy iphones, get haircuts, and set up an internet connection there. At least personally, I think my slum tourism experience improved my understanding of Kibera. Moreover, I suspect the angry man I met was the exception rather than the rule. One study found that the single most common reaction from slum residents was apathy.
More broadly, I think one of the biggest risks facing places like Kenya (and the UK) is the increasing separation of rich and poor. The rich spend more time in wealthy ghettos, and have no reason to go to the poor areas. Asserting an ethical principle that rich people shouldn’t go to poor areas just reinforces this trend. Obviously a simple slum tourism experience is unlikely to radically change anyone’s worldview, but I think it is important that people make an attempt to move outside their normal comfortable circles.
Like anything, I think slum tourism can be a positive or negative influence, depending on how it is done. So here are some tips for anyone considering it:
- Pick the organisation carefully. Go with an organisation with links to the local community. You should be taken round by someone from the slum, and at least some of the money should go back to the local community. This should happen directly as well as indirectly. For example, they should encourage you to shop locally, as well as using a percentage of your payment for community projects.
- Don’t take photos. Many negative accounts of slum tourism focus on the distance that photographs put between the tourist and the subject. As Kennedy Odede says; “They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.” If you absolutely have to take photos, then ask permission first, and don’t single out the most stereotypical ‘slum-like’ view for your photograph.
- Look for the beautiful aspects of slums. Ultimately, I think it’s your attitude that determines the impact of slum tourism. Slums aren’t one-dimensional collections of poverty and deprivation – but if that’s what you look for, that’s what you’ll find.
- Interact with residents. It’s uncomfortable to interact with people when you’re a tourist, especially for us emotionally stunted English people. However, one of the key criticisms made by slum dwellers in this study was that tourists didn’t really talk with them. If you find it hard to start a conversation with someone on the street without sounding like an idiot (“So…what do you do?”) an easy way to start conversations is to buy small things (like water, sweets, or crisps) from local shops.