Inside The Controversial World of Poverty Tourism
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
In Kenya, slum tourism - also known as poverty tourism - is quickly taking off. While the beautiful landscapes, unforgettable wildlife experiences, and rich cultural heritage draws visitors to Nairobi, some feel compelled to get a glimpse of the city’s inequality by visiting some of its most impoverished and marginalized districts.
“Seeing the same tourists manoeuvring this dusty neighbourhood to see how we survive was shocking,” Sylestine Awino, a mother of two from Kibera, said in an interview with Aljazeera.
Sylestine is commenting on poverty tourism, where financially privileged tourists visit impoverished communities in hopes of witnessing poverty firsthand.
Established in 2008, Kibera Tours boast 150 customers annually. Each client is charged around $30 for a three-hour tour in hopes to promote the slum as the city of hope. In an interview with the Guardian, Kibera Tours shared that “the idea behind [the tours of Kibera] was to simply show [its] positive side and promote unique projects around the slums. By doing this, we created employment for ourselves and the youth around us.”
In Kibera there is no sewer system, residents are exceptionally poor, and tap water is grandeur. Unfinished roads are scattered with litter, sharing what little space there is with open sewers that drain into a nearby river. The tour operators claim that these tours bring the slum dwellers, who survive on less than a couple of dollars a day, much needed income. Martin Oduor, a guide for Kibera Tours, further explained their goal in an interview with the Guardian; “the aim was to humanise residents, not degrade them.” Kibera Tours promises its profits will stay in the local community. "We want to demystify this place, that it is so dangerous and sad," Oduor adds, “people are poor, but they have normal lives."
Forty-year-old Mary Atieno, a fishmonger in Kibera, further addressed the issue of slum tourism with Anadolu Agency. She revealed, “probably this is what makes the tourists visit us. We have no lions, no wild animals. Just as you asked they come here to see how a human being can live in such conditions."
Many visitors expect the trip will prove educational and help alleviate poverty. Bahare Bahrampoor, a 29-year old public health worker from Denmark, claims she convinced herself to do the tour to see how people help each other with various projects and because she believed that her money would aid the community. “We are blessed to be here,” she added in an interview with Agencia EFE, “we are amazed to see how people help and support each other to tackle their everyday problems.” When interviewed by the Guardian, Eric Schlangen, a tourist from Denmark said, "it might seem a bit strange to come here, but I wanted to see how people live in this country, not just the animals." Another tourist, 46-year-old Lotte Rasmussen, is a Nairobi resident who has toured Kibera over 30 times, often with friends from abroad, “I bring friends to see how people live here. The people might not have money like us, but they are happy and that’s why I keep on coming,” she says as she bends down to take an image of a smiling Kiberan toddler. The tour she takes includes stops at sites where visitors can buy locally-made crafts and artwork. “We support local initiatives like children’s homes and women’s groups hence I do not see a problem with ethical issues,” adds Rasmussen.
Willis Ouma, a Kiberan youth employed by Kibera Tours, spoke about how much the “[tourists] enjoy seeing this place, which makes me want to do more. But some locals do not like it all.” He remarked in an interview with Aljazeera that he often had to calm down protesting residents.
When asked her opinion, Mary Atieno remarked, "This makes me very angry. They come with their tour guides, mostly ‘hawa vijana’ [slang for often-unemployed youths].”
Sylestine Awino adds, “I felt like an object." Speaking of an incident where a group of tourists approached her, one trying to capture a photo, she “wanted to yell at them,” but was afraid of “the tour guides accompanying them.”
Musa Hussein is also angry about the growing groups of guided tours. “Kibera is not a national park and we are not wildlife,” says the 67-year-old native in an interview with Aljazeera. “The only reason why these tours exist is because [a] few people are making money out of it,” he continues. Hussein argues that the act of profiting from showing a handful of wealthy people how the poor are living is morally wrong, insisting that tour companies should stop this practice.
So how much do the tours really accomplish?
Critics make note that unlike township tours in 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.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Barrack Muluka, an expert on East African affairs, elaborated that although large amounts of money is generated from the business, little or none goes back to alleviating poverty amongst the slum dwellers. “That is like going to see animals in the park. It is inhuman[e] to say: ‘Let’s go and see how people live in the slums,” Muluka added. “This is a humanitarian crisis situation. Nobody chooses to live in a slum where, many times, the amenities are missing; you don’t have water; you don’t have lighting; you don’t have proper sanitation or security and live in subhuman conditions.” Muluka went on to passionately state, “this is not like going to see a lion in its natural habitat … I think there is something wretchedly wrong with the tour firms that have decided to offer the slum tourism program; that is unacceptable.” Despite possible aid from foreigners donating funds, Muluka believes Kenyans are “dislocated in slums due to poor governance.” The issue, if addressed, can help improve the living standards of people in slums unlike “the tokens of sympathy and empathy from outside as they take pity upon us and try to say that they are actually doing something for the slum dwellers.”
“That doesn’t ameliorate our situation in any significant way.” Muluka’s final comments to Abdoula Agency stated that slum dwellers need economic and social justice.
Similar to Hussein and Muluka, Awino remains adamant that it is morally unfair that tourists keep on invading her home. “Think of the vice versa,” she says, “What would happen to an African like me in Europe or America, touring and taking photos of their poor citizens?”
On the other hand, Christopher Kimani, a shopkeeper from Kibera, believes these tours provide empathy, “we are associated with drugs and violence and also extreme poverty; the fact that they are here shows that we are also humans. They appreciate their lives by viewing how bad life can be. Let them come and teach their kids good morals after seeing mine playing with sewage all day,” he remarks as he explains to Anadolu Agency that he is not against slum tourism because it shows that the district is safe. “Let them come and learn to appreciate water after seeing us with none."