For slum promoters, a thin line between reality and distortion

Wednesday February 18 2015

Slum promoters (left to right) Godwin Oyindo, Washingtone Jadivera and Chrispine Omondi were born and raised in Kibera, and have been friends for many years. Each has his an independent tourism and fixing business, operated on referrals and word of mouth. The job doesn't pay all that well, they say, but the joys of the work make it worth the scorn of other Kibera residents.

Slum promoters (left to right) Godwin Oyindo, Washingtone Jadivera and Chrispine Omondi were born and raised in Kibera, and have been friends for many years. PHOTO| LISA MUGUNDA 

ELIZABETH McSHEFFREY
By ELIZABETH McSHEFFREY
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I  need to eat,” says Washingtone Jadivera, a 26-year-old tour guide working in Kibera. There is no shame or guilt in his expression as he talks about his controversial business in Kenya’s famous slum. “I have bills to pay,” he continues. “It was harsh for me to finish my diploma — I wasn’t financially stable and I only have one parent.”

We are sitting in a crumbling retail building on the outskirts of Kibera, joined for the conversation by Godwin Oyindo and Chrispine Omondi.

They nod their heads in agreement; they too know the financial trials of “the hustle”.

The three young men have been friends since childhood and grew up exploring the decrepit, muddy streets of the slum. Now they make their living taking foreigners through them.

Washingtone, Godwin and Chrispine refer to themselves as “slum promoters”, or, in other words, freelance tour guides and fixers working for journalists writing about Kibera. They translate interviews, spot locations and connect reporters with tough-to-find sources.

“So many people get mad,” says Godwin, shaking his head. “They say we are helping the foreigners to take their pictures and then send them abroad to make money.”

The young men are very aware of the ethical concerns surrounding their work, but ultimately have no qualms about inviting outsiders into Kibera. There is simply a right way and a wrong way do it, they tell me as I interrogate them on the hardest parts of what it means to work in “slum promotion”.

Problems with pictures

In 2013, the International Journal of Arts and Commerce published a study on slum tourism in Nairobi and found that photography was the number one attraction for tourists visiting Kibera.

According to a survey of nearly 500 Kibera residents and employees in the industry, the practice surpasses viewing local houses, sampling food and entertainment, and experiencing the day-to-day activities of people in the slum.

This is one of the trickiest parts of being a tour guide, says the trio. Despite their best efforts to explain that photos are not permitted in certain areas, a good number of clients will take them anyway.

The men are then stuck with the difficult task of pacifying those who have been captured in the picture and feel exploited or degraded as a result.

“Sometimes (the tourists) are ignorant, they don’t know,” says Washingtone, adjusting a green bandana that holds dreadlocks away from his face. “It’s upon you to make sure he or she is safe.”

The young filmmaker has been working as a tour guide since 2004 and escorted more than 200 tourists in 2014 alone. To try and minimise issues with photography, he gives all of his clients a cultural sensitivity talk before they begin their tour in Kibera.

“First you talk to them,” he explains. “You ask them what they know about Kibera and then what they want to know. I won’t just show them (poor) children and say, ‘Take a picture,’ until we talk about it.”

Washingtone insists that his clients understand the historical context behind every photo, and uses “The View Point” as an example.

The rooftop scene of Kibera is located along the “Lunatic Line”, he explains, where post-election violence flared in 2007 when the railway tracks were overturned.

But, what happens when tourists want photos of people but can’t get permission to take them? Do the promoters have any “photo safe zones” where Kibera residents have already given consent?

The answer is no, says Godwin, a bright 26-year-old who has worked as a tour guide and fixer since 2011. He deals with the issue on a case-by-case basis and often finds himself explaining to residents that no one is profiting off of their photo. 

“If you know that is what will make them happy, you have to get them there,” he says. “But not all (tourists) want to do that, some of them just want to see Kibera, how people live.”

I ask the young men whether they ever say “no” to pictures or projects they feel are unethical or misrepresent life in the slum. Each has a different experience with foreigners and a different answer to my question.

Refusing the work

“I will take because I need the money,” says Chrispine, 27. With only three years of experience as a fixer and tour guide, he is the most junior promoter among the group.

Chrispine is the eldest son in a large family and his single mother cannot afford all of her children’s school fees. He dropped out of his own studies at Nairobi Technical Training Institute to offer his younger brothers a chance to pursue their own education. The income he earns supports his family and he can’t afford to turn down a job.

Godwin and Washingtone consider the issue carefully — everything is complicated when their bread and butter depend on the satisfaction of their foreign clients. If they say “no” they risk losing their income, but if they say “yes” they risk tarnishing the reputation of Kibera.

For every empowering article or image published about the world-famous slum, they say, there are probably a dozen online that illustrate classic stereotypes of poverty, misery and illness in Africa.

A quick online search of Kibera gives credence to their estimate; the Internet is crawling with stories and pictures of crime, destitution and corruption in the slum.

As fixers and tour guides, the men use whatever influence they have to stop visitors from misrepresenting the place where they grew up, but every now and then they hit a brick wall.

Much to his dismay, says Godwin, some of his clients are pretty persistent.

“Sometimes I will do it, yes,” he says, shrugging. “There are no jobs in Kenya, you have to make your own hustles. Sometimes an opportunity like that comes when you don’t have something to depend on your own, so you cannot just throw it away for the sake of being a good person.”

Money is tempting

Godwin earns roughly Sh2,000 per story as a fixer, and can rake in up to Sh3,000 as a tour guide for large groups. Over the years, he has worked with reputable clients, including Radio France and BBC. 

The money is tempting indeed, says Washingtone, but ultimately not worth compromising the name of Kibera. He turns down roughly 20 per cent of fixing job offers because he disagrees with their fundamental premise.

“All in all, I don’t just go and shoot or write articles about Kibera if I know it’s bad,” he explains. “I did a documentary once and the concept those people brought to me, it was kind of not good (so) I changed the script to what I felt was right. They didn’t agree and they didn’t pay me.”

It is always tough to turn down business, they say, but the ethical waters surrounding this kind of work are murky at the best of times. Washingtone, Godwin and Chrispine do their best to mitigate the ignorance they are sometimes faced with by providing as much of an “educational experience” for their clients as possible.

“I don’t know what is in your mind about Kibera, but I will tell you a story about Kibera,” says Chrispine, firing off an opening line he uses with brand new clients. He is confronted by ill-informed visitors on a regular basis and believes in broadening their minds by sharing his experience. 

The young men know the Kibera community inside and out. They are well-positioned to tackle any preconceived notions of poverty and slum life, and replace them with fresh images of the bustling businesses, activities and initiatives that take place there.

In fact, they view this kind of education as a duty in their line of work, and go out of their way to take visitors to local craft shops, charity projects and restaurants. As much as the visitors have come to see one of the poorest places in Nairobi, the promoters want them to see why Kibera is also one of the richest. This is the right way go about slum promotion, they say.

“In Kibera, we have talent, we have good material,” Washingtone explains. “We have a life that, if told well, could be exposed to the world. There are some places I must make sure I take (tourists), and even if they don’t buy the material there, at the end of the day they will come out with some strong, strong message.”

The 26-year-old does not mind showing ignorant people around the slum because, in his opinion, “there is room for change” in every person.

So far, the promoters have brought their message to hundreds of visitors from all over the world, including Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, Poland, the United Kingdom, and France.

They truly enjoy the work that they do and despite popular belief, they don’t work in slum promotion just because it earns them a quick buck.

“Most people who join in fixing or tour guiding don’t do it because they have a passion for it, or because they love it,” says Washingtone.

“That’s why they won’t even care about the story they are writing, even if it will tarnish the image of the slum. I enjoy the job, not because it pays me well, but because I get to meet new people from new worlds from whom I learn a lot.”

Godwin’s favourite part of his work is the opportunity to contribute to positive articles about Kibera and share his love for the community with the tourists who visit.

For these reasons, it is important to him that he be viewed as a professional rather than “a hustler” trying to exploit his fellow slum-dwellers.

And so this year he plans to make business cards so that clients can see him as a trustworthy and accountable partner. 

“I think we should be viewed in that sense,” he says. “You have to be really connected to do this job, because you are a freelance. You don’t operate from an office where people approach you.”

Slum promotion is really a tough field to work in, Godwin explains, not only because of its ethical complications, but also because of the grief he gets from many Kibera residents. Some people don’t appreciate the difficulty of his job or the effort he puts in to make sure the community benefits at the end of the day.

Worth the punch

“Whenever you take a walk, you meet so many people who are not happy with you,” he says as we wrap up our interview. “But the good outweighs the bad, definitely.”

Godwin believes that every cloud has a silver lining, and that in the case of slum promotion, that lining can come from the most unexpected places. One photo, even if taken with selfish intentions, can have a trickle-down effect that is ultimately good.

“There are cases of that,” he explains, “people who just read the story which was written in a negative way, but were touched with it and decided just to make impromptu visits to Kibera to help. Sometimes I don’t always see how it’s going to empower directly, but the fruits turn out to be sweet later.”

Slum promotion is one black eye that’s worth the punch, say the trio, stacking up our plastic chairs before heading to The View Point to take some pictures. The murky morals are implicit, but stick to your guns and you should be okay, they explain.

“We say here in Kibera that this is a chocolate city,” says Washintone, smiling, “and that, in the ghetto, you ‘Get High Education To Teach Others (GHETTO)’.”

 

 

 

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