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.

Slum Tourism in Kibera: Education or Exploitation?

Recently I was contacted by the author of a popular Kenya guidebook. This author wondered if I knew of any responsible, community-oriented groups that do Kibera slum tours. I wrote back that one of the organizations I’ve worked with offers these tours. The group sponsors several projects in the community, and I know some of the people who lead the tours, so I felt comfortable sending in their information.

But what I didn’t address is whether anyone should be taking these tours in the first place. So, is slum tourism a good thing for Kibera?

It depends on who you ask.

Slum tours in Kibera started around 2007 after a few travel agencies noticed Kibera was generating more and more attention following high profile visits (from people like then-Senator Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Chris Rock) and the release of popular films shot in Kibera (such as The Constant Gardener and Hot Sun Films’ Kibera Kid). Those offering these tours claim they are trying to educate visitors on what life is like in Kibera and using the opportunity to help support community-based projects. They add they simply are responding to consumer demand. After all, if no one wanted to go, no company would offer these tours. Critics charge that these tours are exploitative, demeaning and that these tour companies do little to help the community. The lively (and sometimes inflammatory) debate on this forum sums up some of the major arguments for and against Kibera slum tourism.

During my interviews with Kibera residents, I’ve asked what they think of life in Kibera and what they believe people outside say about Kibera. Sometimes their responses to these two questions are similar, but more often than not, they’ll say yes, life in Kibera is a struggle but it also has many positives (ex. cheap food and housing, talented youth, a strong community) that people outside don’t know about. Those who see this disconnect explain people outside are ignorant of what life is truly like in Kibera or blame the media for covering only the negative stories of Kibera.

So how do we change their opinions, I would ask. Most reply the media needs to also report on the positive stories of Kibera. Others say people should to come to Kibera and see what life is like for themselves. Here’s a quote from one resident in the “come and see” camp:

“Those people who talk about Kibera, let them come to Kibera. For those who say that there is no security, let them come. Let them walk around Kibera…Let them see for themselves that they can walk freely around Kibera…Let them come and see how Kibera looks like and maybe interact with the people a little bit socially. And then they will know that the people of Kibera, they are very lovely people…When [the visitors] go back to where they came from, they will not have that negative perspective in their minds. So now the same-same visitors, outsiders, will also help in preaching that Kibera is not a bad place. So you see it will now be a chain.”

Sounds like an endorsement of slum tourism, right?

If so, then how do you reconcile that point of view with this one offered by a different Kibera resident?

“[Tourists are] paying to come to Kibera and take some pictures of Kibera, but the Kibera people are not having anything. They don’t have any share. They are not being given anything…Their lives are just getting worse or just being the same as it was yesterday. It’s not changing.”

Some upper class Kenyans once told me the U.S. Embassy offers to give Americans a tour of Kibera followed by lunch at the Fairview – a plush hotel popular with foreigners. This may or may not be true, but it reflects the view that slum tourism is a cruel farce that does little to change the mindset of the tourists and the livelihoods of the toured.

While I do not pretend to speak on behalf of Kibera residents, I would argue there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to visit Kibera. Vetting the tourism companies is a must, but I think a lot has to do with the person going on the tour. So I have some suggestions for things to consider before, during and after you take a tour of Kibera.

1) Question your motivations for going. Do you want to understand how good, hardworking, intelligent people find themselves in difficult life situations or do you want to see “large-scale suffering” so you can tell your friends you “survived” East Africa’s biggest slum? Be honest. When I drive by a car crash, I want to look. It’s normal to be curious about life’s unpleasant elements. But if you think Kibera is a car crash and you want to get a better view of the carnage, then you don’t understand where you’re going and you should stay home.

2) Do your homework. Try to understand what life is like in Kibera before you get there. There are some great pieces you can read. For starters, check out Timothy Parson’s article on the history of Kibera. Order Genesis’s book with personal accounts of Kibera residents. Or if you’d rather watch than read, check out two community reporting projects on YouTube: Kibera TV and Kibera News Network.

3) Leave your camera at home. Imagine for a moment that your child was playing in your front yard and a group of rich Kenyan tourists came in and started taking pictures of him/her. You’d freak out, right? If you really feel the need to take pictures of people or their homes, then make sure you act respectfully and ask for permission. Kibera residents are very leery of cameras. They assume (in some cases, rightly) that Westerners will come in, take photos, and then sell those photos. They say these photographers are “eating on them.” Also don’t be surprised if people ask you to give them money in exchange for their photo. But if you do this, you need to understand that you are reinforcing an unfortunate standard that community reporting projects (like the ones mentioned above) struggle to overcome on a daily basis.

4) Don’t assume you understand Kibera after spending a couple of hours there. I’ve been there 10 months and still learn new things every day. Kibera is a very complex place. People like to say 1 million residents, but population figures are contested. Not every organization is doing what they say they are doing. Not everyone is impoverished (I know some who have good jobs but would rather financially support their families and neighbors than move to a wealthy area and leave behind those that helped raise them). Now that you’ve been there, go back and read those articles and watch those videos I mentioned in #2.

5) Don’t think Nairobi is a city of contradictions. Sure, you can get a mocha and french toast at Nairobi Java House, go on a Kibera tour in the late morning, and then grab some upscale Indian food at Yaya Centre for lunch without traveling very far. But understand the Java House/Yaya/Westgate life does not exist in spite of Nairobi’s slum population, they exist because of Nairobi’s slum population. Cheap labor built those massive structures. Cheap labor stocked the shelves. And cheap labor keeps them running. That labor walks home at night to sleep in Kibera, or Korogocho, or Mathare, etc.

I was hoping to go on one of these “official” Kibera tours just to see how they were handled, but I didn’t get a chance. Although I wouldn’t call these “tours” in any traditional sense, I’ve taken a number of people with me to visit Kibera. I’ve shown them where I work, I’ve introduced them to my friends who are trying to find ways to use their talents to help themselves and the community, and I’ve taken them around to give them a sense of what life in Kibera is like.

Am I part of the problem? Maybe. But I think these trips have had a positive impact on the people who visited. But perhaps this impact has been at the expense of Kibera residents.

I’m curious to see what others think. Gone on one of these tours? Think they are ridiculous and insulting? Let me know.

UPDATE (Jan 2011): Another look at the debate from Hilton Yip. Full disclosure: Hilton and I spoke over email while he was putting this together, so my two cents are included in his assessment.