Article Swap: Poverty Tourism In Kenyan Slums

SHOFCO-Oberlin, Oberlin’s chapter of Shining Hope for Communities, is facilitating an exchange of opinions pieces on current events between The Oberlin Review and The Ghetto Mirror. This exchange, in which the Review will publish one of the Mirror’s articles and vice versa, will hopefully bring awareness to both communities and allow people the same age across the world to connect in some way. Shining Hope for Communities’s central program is the Kibera School for Girls, the first tuition-free school for girls in the slum of Kibera, located in Nairobi, Kenya. SHOFCO extends its services to the families of students and the surrounding community. SHOFCO raises the overall health of the community by providing quality primary and maternal and child health care through a free clinic and by providing residents with clean water and toilet facilities. SHOFCO provides Kibera with valuable resources such as a computer lab and a well-stocked library, a community garden, adult education and legal services. Finally, SHOFCO empowers the community through theater, soccer teams, youth programs and women’s empowerment groups. By linking community services with a school for girls, SHOFCO is showing that benefiting women benefits the whole community and is helping to make women valued members of society. One of the services that SHOFCO offers is a youth-run newspaper called The Ghetto Mirror. Every month the Mirror publishes articles about life in Kibera, the Kenyan election and other current events.

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From The Ghetto Mirror
October 11, 2012

“Experience a part of Kenya unseen by most tourists,” reads a tagline on “A visit to Kibera takes you to the friendliest slum in the world,” reads a tagline on another tour website, African Spice Safaris. The website’s catalogue prides the company for connecting tourists to renowned destinations like Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mombasa and The Maasai Mara. According to the website, for 6,800 shillings an international visitor would be given a half-day tour of the largest slum in Africa.

Though not officially recognized, slum tourism is picking up in Kenya’s informal settlements, attracting mixed views with claims that it benefits only a few scrupulous people. Critics say it is a way of dehumanizing human beings by equating them to animals watched by tourists, as if they do not have a conscience. Just like the national parks, the number of visitors is determined by the popularity of the slum; thus Kibera, being the largest, also receives the highest number of tourists.

“How are you?” young children from Kibera shout every time they see a white person. It doesn’t matter whether they have attended school or not but their psychologies have been corrupted by the high number of tourists who flock the slum all year round. Here there is nothing such as a high tourist season.

When and how did it start? Kibera has long been obligatory for Hollywood movie crews who want to portray how the urban poor survive in Africa, with movies like The Constant Gardener being a hit. However, the slum located five kilometers south of Nairobi City got international attention after high-profile personalities like U.S. President Barack Obama visited it in 2007 when he was still a senator. Others such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon soon followed, raising the profile of the slum in the world.

Although the people have not come out openly against it, some residents think it is exploitative. “These people are reaping from us; we are like animals in the park,” said Patrick Mueke, a resident of Laini Saba village in the slum.

“We get nothing from these visits, and even the government does not tax them. They should be stopped,” he added.

Mueke blames the tour guides and cartels for promoting the trade.

“I usually see them walking here, taking our photographs — that is what I do not like,” said Judith Awuor, a vegetable vendor.

Even though slum tourism has been practiced for almost five years, some residents still do not know about the trade.

“I do not know about slum tourism but all I do know is that these wazungus come from various non-governmental organizations that have projects within the slum,” said Rebecca Atieno, a resident of Darajani village.

Some tourists, like Collin Fitzlberge from the Netherlands, whom we found on tour, do not see anything wrong with the trade but agree to pay money to the tour firms.

His fellow tourist Michelle Smith said he saw nothing wrong with slum tourism at all, although he refused to say why he was touring the slum.

Though the government admits that slum tourism exists, there have been no attempts to regulate the trade or proper structures for governing it.

In an interview with The Ghetto Mirror, Angela Boki, the public relations officer at the Ministry of Tourism said, “We know that slum tourism exists, but we cannot regulate it. It is up to the residents to come up with initiatives to regulate the trade. Otherwise we cannot say that it is exploitative because in the first place there are no laws.”

The principal tourism officer at the ministry, Keziah Odemba, said, “The people who are being exploited here are the tourists because they do not know where the money they give out goes to.”

However, she said the government is trying to transform how the trade is conducted through slum upgrading, which it hopes will make the tourists visit outstanding projects in the slums, instead of the way it is now where they visit to see how people are suffering. She said the same thing is happening at Soweto in South Africa.

Popular sites that the tourists are taken to include Kibera Primary School — which was founded by Queen Elizabeth — biogas centers, the Kenya Uganda railway, Makina mosque and Toi Market. In fact, tour firms use creative brochure–type literature to attract their clients. One says, “The biogas centre: a fantastic view over Kibera and picture-point. You can see that also human waste is not wasted here and much more…”

Tours firms claim they reinvest 100 percent of their profit in the community through supporting some of the projects tourists are shown. African Spice Safaris says, “By joining us you will support the people of Kibera. The tour provides local employment and the profits will be used directly for projects to improve the lives of the people of Kibera.”

Mama Tunza Children Centre, a popular destination centre for tourists, disagrees that any of the tour firms that bring tourists to their center give back to it.

“Tourists are brought here and the same people who bring them here come back to claim a part of the donations given after the tourists have gone,” said Hudson Kahi, who is in charge of the Mama Tunza Children Centre.

Fredrick Omondi, a tour guide at Kibera Slum Tours, refuted this, saying that no one claims anything from the centers visited. “No one claims part of the donations given. What happens is, it is matters of the heart, if you feel what you have been given is worth sharing you can, but we do not take anything,” he said.

Omondi denied that slum tourism is exploitative to the community. He said, “We just want to show the world what life is really like in Kibera.”

Critics, however, say that unlike township tours in Soweto, South Africa, which help tell the story of the apartheid struggle, Kibera’s sole attraction is its open-sewer poverty — with residents on parade like animals in a zoo.

At Soweto, tourists are taken to places like where black students were gunned down by police 34 years ago for protesting the enforced teaching of Afrikaans. The area now has a museum. The tourists also get a chance to visit where the first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, lived and the home of Desmond Tutu, an apartheid struggle hero. In fact the government of South Africa has tried to upgrade the slum, which covers over 90 square miles.