Poverty as entertainment: Please put to an end Kibera slum tours

Sunday March 20 2011

By RASNA WARAH

Apparently, a reality show-cum-documentary called Famous, Rich and in the Slums, which has been shot in Kibera, has been airing on a British TV in the last few days.

The film is being promoted as a fund-raiser for the residents of Nairobi’s most notorious slum.

A British journalist, who told me about the film, and who has lived in Kenya for several years, said that she was “shocked and appalled” at the way Kenya was being portrayed to the British public, and wondered why “Kibera has become as iconic as the leaping Maasai warrior used to be’’.

The two-part documentary shows four British celebrities, including the actor and stand-up comedian, Lenny Henry, leaving their privileged lives behind to spend a week with residents of what the producers of the film describe as “one of the most impoverished places on earth”.

The film by Red Nose Day, a charity whose slogan is “Do Something Funny for Money”, shows the celebrities mingling, sleeping, eating and defecating with the locals.

“It’s like being in hell,” Henry is quoted as saying, minutes after relieving himself at a pit latrine that he shared with hundreds of Kibera residents.

For many Kenyans, the film is the worst form of slum tourism because it turns poverty into entertainment in the name of charity.

Kennedy Odede, a former Kibera resident who is currently a student at Wesleyan University in the United States, says that while he understands the need among foreigners to witness poverty, he believes that slum tourism is largely a one-way street: “They get the photos; we lose a piece of our dignity”.

Slum tourism is one of the fastest growing trends in Kenya, particularly since the films, The Constant Gardener (partially shot in Kibera), and Slumdog Millionaire won Oscars.

Odede says that, like the Hollywood films, slum tourism has become another source of recreation for people who think they can understand poverty just by hanging around poor people for a few hours.

In an opinion article titled “Slumdog Tourism” published in the New York Times in August 2010, Odede recalls his first experience of a slum tour when he was 16.

“I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly, a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”

In another incident, a documentary film-maker who was interviewing him started to video a man defecating. “For a moment,” he says, “I saw my home through her eyes: faeces, rats, starvation, houses so close no one could breathe.”

What has this kind of tourism done to the residents of Kibera, except erode their self-respect further and make them objects of foreigners’ pity?

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of charities operating in Kibera and other slums like it, with few significant results to show for their efforts.

There may be slightly more sanitation facilities in the slums now, but the living conditions have become only slightly less appalling – they have not improved dramatically. And the slum continues to grow.

What’s worse, rather than addressing the bigger issues of social justice and human rights (which slum residents are denied daily by virtue of their dehumanising living conditions), charities and other do-gooders believe that provision of toilets, water and other amenities is the solution to slum-dwellers’ problems.

For instance, a product called Peepoo is being promoted in Kibera as an environmentally safer alternative to the notorious “flying toilet” plastic bags used by slum residents.

The product (which is patented by its Swedish inventor) is a biodegradable bag that “sanitises the human excreta shortly after defecation”.

Critics say that the bag may be environmentally friendly, but it is hardly a sustainable or permanent solution to the lack of sanitation facilities in slums. Its well-intentioned promoters also gloss over the fact that defecating in a bag is hardly an edifying experience.

But then why blame foreigners when our own government, and the MP for Kibera, Raila Odinga, don’t give a s*** about where Kibera residents defecate?

They should be explaining to Kenyans why so many of the country’s citizens have no choice but to pee and poo in a bag.

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