Scenes of foreign camera and soundmen strolling through filthy alleyways, chatting with locals, buying trinkets and pretending not to mind the garbage and open sewers are common in Nairobi, Cairo and other African cities.
It looks like Africa-bound tourists have had enough of the typical fare of resorts and game parks. Seeing how the world’s downtrodden live is the new tourism.
A two-sided argument has been raging between proponents and opponents of this controversial forex earner known as
poverty tourism – or poorism.
While tour operators maintain that poorism demystifies poverty and improves the lives of slum dwellers through the generated income, its opponents have branded it unethical and intrusive. Critics say it sacrifices human dignity on the altar of capitalism.
Although there are reports of tourists’ philanthropic soft-spirit being touched by what they see after which they go on to build schools or health centres in the slums, the way the concept is being marketed says more about slum tourism motives than its promoters would readily admit.
Nose against glass
“Where can the wealthy world traveller go when she’s tired of the ski slopes, beaches, spas and wildlife watching? Where can you ride around in air-conditioned comfort, pressing your nose against the glass while sipping your bottled water, and see how the financially destitute live? Did you know that the very worst slums of Africa are becoming a tourist destination for those who’ve done it all?” reads a posting on www.associatedcontent.com.
Goaded by such literature, tourists are frequently finding a few hours off their routine itineraries to “slum it out” whenever they are in a major African city.
This is an opportunity for the free-spending rubbernecks to gawk at ‘third’ world urban poverty first hand.
Besides snapping enough shots to grace their travel albums, already laden with photos of migrating wildebeest and mating lions, the slum misery confirms the picture of Africa reinforced in the visitors’ minds by the Western media.
Movie makers are also behind the rapid growth of poverty tourism. Movies like Kibera Kid and City of God, shot respectively
in Kenyan and Brazilian slums, glamourise shanty towns by portraying them as easy-go-lucky societies bubbling with drama, vice, despondency and cultural vibrancy all begging for exploration – what with the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire lifting poverty tourism to unprecedented levels of popularity in the world.
Tour operators in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums, where the award winning movie was shot, recorded a 25 per cent increase in business after the film’s release. The flipside is that a section of the local cast continues to wallow in poverty.
Whenever poverty tourism is mentioned, Kenya’s Kibera slum comes to mind. Harbouring an estimated 800,000 people in a three- kilometre long valley on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kibera holds the unenviable title of being the biggest slum in Africa.
Overcrowding stretches sanitation and other facilities to unimaginable limits. With each pit latrine said to cater for almost 100 souls and few able to afford the community toilets that charge per usage, excrement-filled plastic bags usually hurled on rooftops or on the streets is an option for many.
Extensive media focus on such seemingly bizarre issues have turned this shanty neighbourhood into an icon of poverty and one of the most popular spots for slum tourism in Africa.
Tour-operating companies have popped up to cater for the rapidly growing poorism. Branding Kibera “the city of hope” and “the world’s friendliest slum” their web brochures are full of vivid praise for slum trips. In www.nicheafricaholidays. com a firm called Niche Africa Holidays says it has ventured into what it calls “pro-poor tourism” as “a means of creating awareness of the plight of the poor in Kenya with an intention of wiping out the slums in Africa and reducing poverty by engaging the poor to participate more effectively in tourism development in Kenya."
Foreigners are charged a minimum of $30 (Sh2,250) per head to tour and visit a few families to whom they might donate cash, pens, clothes... name it, while rapidly clicking their digital Nikons. Although the tour operators claim they plough back a significant percentage of their earnings into local schools, orphanages, individual households and other projects, Kibera residents tells a different story.
“They take pictures, have a little walk, tell their friends they’ve been to the worst slum in Africa,” says car washer David
Kabala, “but nothing changes for us. If they really want to know how we think and feel, let them spend a night or walk around when it’s raining.”
But the tour operators are not the only enterprises accused of glorifying poverty in the slums. The informal settlements are bristling with NGOs some of which residents claim are being used as fronts to tap into donor money.
“Our slums are the worst places to live but they have probably the most expensive toilets in the world, not because they are the best but because on average, credit for each toilet built in Kibera is claimed by many NGOs. It’s possible to have as many as 10 organisations claiming to have built the same sub-standard toilet in Kibera, at a cost of millions of shillings,” says a member of the People’s Parliament, an interest group.
Slum tourism is no longer a preserve of backpackers in khaki shorts and colourful rubber flip-flops if the number of high profile individuals that frequents Kibera is anything to go by.
Almost every foreign dignitary visiting Kenya finds time to visit this famous slum.
From Ban Ki Moon, Magdalene Albright and Gordon Brown, to Kofi Annan and Chris Rock, the list reads like a roll call of world celebrities.
“What is this fascination with Kibera among people who do not know what real poverty means?” asked a Daily Nation
editorial. “More to the point, how do Kenyans themselves feel about this backhanded compliment as the custodians of backwardness, filth, misery and absolute deprivation?”
Although a joint UN-Habitat and government-funded upgrading project is going on with 100 families already moved into new units a few months ago, the drive to replace the entire slum with decent low-cost housing is a Herculean task due to the myriad forces at play.
For obvious reasons, slum landlords resist its improvement while the Nubian community claims communal rights over the land, having been settled there at the onset of British colonialism in Kenya.
South African townships – some have degenerated into slums – were established by the apartheid regime to house people of colour who could not be allowed to reside in the “white suburbs”. Located on the outskirts of major cities and housing huge populations, townships were hotbeds of resistance against the apartheid hence they have an important historical significance.
With the majority of black urban South Africans still living in these ghettos 16 years after the end of apartheid, townships have developed their own culture.
There is a new influence on music, dance, dress and speech.
Unlike the slum trips in Nairobi, Mumbai or Rio where tourists hurriedly walk through the shanty town and leave before dusk, in South Africa’s township tours the visitors mingle with the residents on a more personal level.
Besides eating out and spending nights in special inns, there are other moments that make a township visit a uniquely emotional and sensory experience, like having drinks with locals in the shebeens (informal pubs) and seeking remedies from the sangoma (mystics) who sell muti or cure for every ailment.
Just outside Johannesburg and housing more than 3.5 million people is the Soweto Township. A conglomerate of 12 informal settlements, Soweto, is one of the most popular spots for tourists because of its anti-apartheid landmarks and authentic township ambience.
In this neighbourhood visitors can see the Hector Pieterson Memorial that commemorates the 1976 student uprising where more than 500 people were killed, and the Nelson Mandela Museum – the house where Madiba lived before his famous arrest.
Other major “squatter camps” are Khayelitsha, Crossroads, Gugulethu and Alexandra. Unlike Kibera and other slums in the world whose main attraction is poverty, South African townships have been hailed as cultural centres that tell the story of the struggle against the apartheid rule. However, due to poverty and unemployment crime is high the townships and tourists have to be escorted.
A word of caution though: A big part of Soweto doesn’t deserve the slum tag and is as well-appointed as Nairobi’s Buru
Buru middle-class neighbourhood.
Although poorism is inspired by the spirit of adventure and curiosity, scholars say that a slum experience prompts demands for social justice, motivates philanthropic tendencies and helps eliminate stereotypes.