New Article: Touring Slums and Telling Stories (About Ourselves)

Five years ago, when wrapping up fieldwork in Kibera, I blogged about the controversy surrounding slum tourism. While many Kibera residents resent the fact that so many foreigners tour their community, a few told me they believed there would be less misunderstanding if more outsiders visited Kibera.

In a previous article, I discussed the complex feelings residents have about their home community and, in doing so, tried to challenge the dominant discourse about slums. In a new article, titled “Ironic Encounters: Posthumanitarian Storytelling in Slum Tourist Media,” David Tuwei and I look at the stories slum tourists are telling about their encounters with global poverty.

The article examines three texts produced by tourists of Kibera: the BBC special Famous, Rich and in the Slums, the book Megaslumming: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa’s Largest Shantytown, and a White House slideshow about Jill Biden’s tour of Kibera. We draw from Lilie Chouliaraki’s The Ironic Spectator and H. Leslie Steeves’ article about representations of Africa in U.S. reality television to argue that slum tourist media exemplify a narrative genre in the post-humanitarian era, which we call “ironic encounters.”

Structurally, an ironic encounter is one in which:

  1. A Global North traveler visits a place of perceived suffering in the Global South
  2. The account is told through the visitor’s voice using narration and/or confessional interviews
  3. The story is structured chronologically around the visitor’s trip

More important, ironic encounters make three normative claims that are consistent with Chouliaraki’s account of post-humanitarianism:

  1. They position experiential knowledge as better than detached learning about global inequality
  2. They present tourists as more knowledgeable about the conditions and consequences of global poverty than those who live it daily
  3. They depict the visitor’s journey as a source of encouragement and enlightenment for those being toured

The article is a part of an upcoming special issue of Communication, Culture & Critique edited by Steeves on the topic of “Africa, Media and Globalization.” The abstract is below:

We argue that slum tourist media exemplify a distinct and growing narrative genre about post-humanitarian travel: ironic encounters. In ironic encounters, Global North tourists construct a humanitarian Self through their first-hand engagement with suffering in the Global South. In these stories, tourists present their travels as essential for coveted experiential knowledge while depicting locals as the true beneficiaries of the tourists’ self-discovery. We examine three high-profile texts produced by visitors of Kibera, a densely populated low-income community in Nairobi, Kenya: the BBC special Famous, Rich and in the Slums, the book Megaslumming, and a White House slideshow about Jill Biden’s tour of Kibera. Emblematic of ironic encounters, these texts ultimately justify slum tourism as a humanitarian act.

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