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Slumdog Tourism

My parents have been working in Kenya for 17 years and AIM has been helping the people of Kibera (the largest slum in Africa) for over a decade.   We see people come and go. Years ago we helped start a school for 400 children who can’t afford it. Although it’s been a success, now, it look…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
My parents have been working in Kenya for 17 years and AIM has been helping the people of Kibera (the largest slum in Africa) for over a decade.
We see people come and go. Years ago we helped start a school for 400 children who can’t afford it. Although it’s been a success, now, it looks like we’ll have to close the school for lack of funds.
All the while, short-term groups from America come and go. You love their desire to help, but sometimes you wish they were more thoughtful in their approach.
Kennedy Odede wrote the following article in the New York Times about the issue:

SLUM tourism has a long history – during the late
1800s, lines of wealthy New Yorkers snaked along the Bowery and through
the Lower East Side to see “how the other half lives.”

But with urban populations in the developing world
expanding rapidly, the opportunity and demand to observe poverty
firsthand have never been greater. The hot spots are Rio de Janeiro,
Mumbai – thanks to “Slumdog Millionaire,” the film that started a
thousand tours – and my home, Kibera, a Nairobi slum that is perhaps the
largest in Africa.

Slum tourism has its advocates, who say it promotes
social awareness. And it’s good money, which helps the local economy.

But it’s not worth it. Slum tourism turns poverty
into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and
then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something – and
then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community
right where we were before.

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside
my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the 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.

When I was 18, I founded an organization that
provides education, health and economic services for Kibera residents. A
documentary filmmaker from Greece was interviewing me about my work. As
we made our way through the streets, we passed an old man defecating in
public. The woman took out her video camera and said to her assistant,
“Oh, look at that.”

For a moment I saw my home through her eyes: feces,
rats, starvation, houses so close together that no one can breathe. I
realized I didn’t want her to see it, didn’t want to give her the
opportunity to judge my community for its poverty – a condition that few
tourists, no matter how well intentioned, could ever understand.

Other Kibera residents have taken a different path. A
former schoolmate of mine started a tourism business. I once saw him
take a group into the home of a young woman giving birth. They stood and
watched as she screamed. Eventually the group continued on its tour,
cameras loaded with images of a woman in pain. What did they learn? And
did the woman gain anything from the experience?

To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums
wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a
better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among
the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead
the tourists to action once they get home.

But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to
nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is
overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing
witness to such poverty is enough.

Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside
from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no
conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos;
we lose a piece of our dignity.

Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans
or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions
to our problems – but they won’t come about through tours.


Comments (8)

  • How true and sad. I know I have had the same thoughts…”Am I really helping these people when I don’t actually talk to them but only treat them like animals at the zoo with the occasional picture?”

    I am embarrassed to admit that, yes, I too have been one of the “tourists” but I am also happy to say that I am not going to be one that goes back feeling more “informed” but am actually taking steps to get inside to make a difference.

    I may not be able to do anything for a while but I know that it is better than just being “safe” about it – I want to know the people who are calling those conditions their home. I want to hear their stories and love them in the ways I know how.

  • I read this article the other day and haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s true, we can’t make those less fortunate a project or a learning experience for us…. we have to treat them like genuine family and friends. That means investment of time and means; concrete acts of love, to help transform lives forever (not just for the moment).

  • so glad you wrote this. i was just reading something on slum tourism in India and felt myself becoming angry. travel voyeurism is a form exploitation. i’m not a fan. remind me to show you a few quotes from the book i’m lending you on this topic.

  • I get a sick feeling every time I read something on this subject. I have written numerous fun, happy feature stories about community members (from a well-off suburb) doing this exact thing with churches and other organizations. I also recently observed the insensitive photo-taking issue first-hand. However well-intentioned, we’re essentially coming home and patting ourselves on the back for humbling ourselves for a couple of days. We then sink back into our regular routine, maybe give a little extra money to missions at church, or maybe not.
    Here’s a story I recently wrote after an experience in Peru:
    How do we balance wanting to help with not wanting to exploit or offend? We westerners also need to realize most of the world doesn’t want all the stuff that we think they need to live well.

  • This is so poignant and true. Thank you so much for sharing this Seth. This reminds me of Jamie-the-very-worst-missionary’s post on Short term missions/ poverty tourism. It does more harm than good. . . People do not need tours, they need opportunities to live life alongside the poor and walk the road they have walked for a bit and then mobilize their resources to do something about it once the desperation has seeped deep into their skin.

  • Thank you Kennedy for taking the time to share your point of view. I really appreciate your willingness to communicate honestly and directly, but also with grace.

    If you could ask one thing of the people reading this blog, what would it be? From your perspective, what is one thing we could do that would make a difference for your community and your country?

  • It all must begin and end in love. Love does not titillate nor manipulate. And always to those who have been given much, much is expected. A good reminder that the people we encounter are always People and never just stories.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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