Scenes of camera wielding gangs of exotic foreigners in colourful attire strolling through filth-ridden slum alleyways, charting with locals and buying trinkets while cheerfully inhaling whiffs of rotting garbage and open sewers are becoming common in Nairobi, Cairo and other African cities. Seeing how the world’s downtrodden live is the new craze as tourists seek more adventure away from the typical fare of resorts and game parks.
“Some tourists want to get an integral view of the country they are visiting,” says one tour operator. “Because of globalization, it’s no longer possible to ignore how the biggest part of mankind lives in the so called third world. Tourists are not only interested in landscapes or wildlife or shopping. They want to see and understand social and political problems.”
Poverty tourism-sometimes called poorism-is a rapidly emerging sector in the leisure travel industry that provides guided tours into the slums of major cities in the developing world. A two sided argument has been raging on between proponents and opponents of this controversial phenomenon. While tour operators argue that the trips demystify poverty and improve lives of slum dwellers through the generated income, opponents of slum tourism have branded it unethical, voyeuristic and intrusive. Critics have gone on to say that it sacrifices the hallmarks of human dignity on the altar of entertainment and capitalism.
Although there are reports of tourists whose philanthropic soft-spirit was touched by what they saw and decided to sponsor a kid’s education or some other project, how the concept is being marketed tells more about slum tours’ motives than its promoters would readily admit. “Where can the wealthy world traveler go when she’s tired of the ski slopes, beaches, spas and wildlife watching? Where can you ride around in air-conditioned comfort, press 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?” taunts one website in a manner meant to whip up the traveler’s appetite for adventure.
Goaded by such literature tourists these days 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 rubberneckers to gawk at third world urban poverty first hand; families cramped in tiny shacks, naked babies clinging on desolate looking mothers, tiny alleys bleeding with dark green trenches of open sewers and huge garbage damps. Besides snapping enough shots to grace their travel albums, already laden with photos of migrating wildebeest and mating lions, the slum misery confirms the skewed picture of Africa reinforced in the visitors’ minds by the western media.
Apart from the enterprising tour operators the media and showbiz, either intentionally or otherwise, have been a major force behind the rapid growth of poverty travel. Movies like Kibera Kid and City of God, both shot exclusively in Kenyan and Brazilian slums respectively, glamorizes shantytowns by portraying them as easy-go-lucky societies bubbling with drama, vices, despondency and cultural vibrancy all begging for exploration. The meteoric success of the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire lifted poverty tourism to unprecedented levels of popularity in the world. Tour operators in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums, where the award winning movie was shot using a section of local cast some of whom still wallow in poverty, recorded a phenomenal 25 percent increase in business after the film’s release.
Whenever poverty tourism is mentioned Kibera slums in Kenya immediately pops in mind. Harbouring an estimated 800,000 people crammed in shacks squeezed in a three kilometer long valley in 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 a hundred souls and few able to afford the community toilets that charges per usage, “flying toilets”-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 travels in Africa.
Tour operating companies have popped up in recent years to cater for the rapidly growing number of clientele. Branding Kibera “the city of hope” and “the world’s friendliest slum” the companies’ web brochures are full of vivid praises for slum trips. One company is particularly sentimental, purporting to have ventured in 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 US$30 per individual for a four hour stroll along the tiny sewer drenched alleyways watching, among other “attractions”, the manual draining of pit latrines using buckets and visiting a few families in their hovels where they might donate freebies, while rapidly clicking on their state-of-the-art Kodaks. Although the tour operators claim they recoup back a significant percentage of their earnings to local schools, orphanages, individual households and other projects Kibera residents tells a different story.
“They see us like puppets, they want to come and take pictures, have a little walk, tell their friends they’ve been to the worst slum in Africa,” says car-wash worker David Kabala. “But nothing changes for us. If they really want to know how we think and feel, come and spend a night or walk around when it’s pouring with rain here and the paths are like rivers.”
But the tour operators are not the only enterprises that have been accused of sustaining their existence by marketing or glorifying poverty in the slum. The place swarms with a plethora of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) some of which residents claim are being used as fronts by individuals whose motives is 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 toilets, but because on average each toilet built in Kibera is claimed by many NGOs and institutions. It’s possible to have as many as ten organizations all claiming to have built the same substandard toilet in Kibera, at a cost of millions of shillings,” complains a lobby group calling itself People’s Parliament.
Slum tourism is no longer a reserve 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. Under the disguise of official reasons like “touring projects”, almost every foreign dignitary visiting Kenya always finds the time and excuse to make a stopover in this world famous slum. From Ban Ki Moon, Barrack Obama, Magdalene Albright, Gordon Brown, Koffi Annan to Chris Rock the list reads like a roll call of world celebrities. The traffic of limos dropping VIPs in the slum-mostly to interrupt residents’ lives in exchange for a few group photos-was so high a while back that it was becoming a nuisance.
“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 back-handed 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 remains a Herculean task due to the myriad of unseen forces at play. Besides the slum landlords, the Nubian community that claims communal rights over the land and other parties whose lifeline depends on the slum’s existence, Kibera is an important political province for one of the country’s most powerful politicians.
Eradicating slums in any society, either by upgrading or simply flattening the shacks, is usually a delicate and potentially explosive affair. This was witnessed in Zimbabwe a few years ago when the government embarked on an aggressive slum bulldozing campaign dubbed Operation Murambastvina (wipe out filth). The disastrous venture left many citizens homeless and pushed the politically volatile country into deeper crisis.
Townships are the South African version of slums or informal settlements which were established by the apartheid regime to house people of colour who could not be allowed to reside in the “white suburbs”. Located in the outskirts of major cities and housing huge populations, townships were hotbeds of resistance against the apartheid rule hence they have an important historical significance. With the majority of black urban South Africans still living in these ghettos sixteen years after the end of apartheid, townships have developed their own unique culture over and above the traditional African culture. There is a new influence on music, dance, dress and speech all portrayed in the numerous artist studios and festivities that take place here.
Unlike slum trips in Nairobi, Mumbai or Rio where tourists hurriedly walk through the shantytown and leave before dark fall in 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 makes a township visit a uniquely emotional and sensory experience, like having drinks with locals in the Shebeens ( brewing houses) and seeking remedies from the sangomas (witchdoctors) who sells muti or cure for every ailment.
Just outside Johannesburg and housing more than 3.5 million people Soweto Township, a conglomerate of twelve informal settlements, is one of the most popular spots for tourists because of its antiapartheid landmarks and authentic township ambience. In this neighbourhood visitors can see Hector Pieterson Memorial that commemorates the 1976 students uprising where more than 500 people were killed and Nelson Mandela Family Museum where Madiba once lived. 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 centers which tell the story of the struggle against the apartheid rule. However due to poverty and unemployment crime rates in the townships is astronomical hence visitors have to be escorted. Besides Soweto being classified as the most dangerous urban center in Africa outside war zones, it is in the townships that tens of foreigners were murdered and hundreds of thousands of others left homeless during the xenophobic attacks in 2008.
Although most poverty travels to Africa are inspired by the spirit of adventure and curiosity to confirm the content of Western media, scholars say that slum experience prompts demands for social justice, motivates philanthropic tendencies and helps eliminate stereotypes.