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.
Structurally, an ironic encounter is one in which:
A Global North traveler visits a place of perceived suffering in the Global South
The account is told through the visitor’s voice using narration and/or confessional interviews
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:
They position experiential knowledge as better than detached learning about global inequality
They present tourists as more knowledgeable about the conditions and consequences of global poverty than those who live it daily
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.