‘I am so tired of white people coming here to look at us like monkeys in a zoo…’ these are the words of Mama Otieno to Mr. Onyango, a tour guide who had taken us on a slum tour at Mathare slums, Nairobi-Kenya. I did not understand the local dialect that she had used, but I asked him to interpret for me since the look on Mama Otieno’s face was not a happy one when she saw us. This really got me thinking especially as we continued walking through the murky waters, escorted by a pack of fleas and ugly sights of raw sewage on the sides of the narrow footpaths. The slum area reflects a clear perception that many people from the West have when they imagine life in Africa. Poor people, hungry and dirty children, a dire need for aid, lack of infrastructure, insecurity and lack of education resulting in high unemployment rates are just but the words that many Westerners can use to describe Africa, and this was very clear in the slum area that we visited.
Reflecting on Mama Otieno’s words, does slum tourism defame Africa ? Does it mean that slum tours tend to turn poverty into entertainment for tourists ? Its clear that she was not impressed that we had come to see her small house with a roof that was ripping apart and taking pictures of her dirty children playing near sewage water. She might have felt that tourists come to invade on her privacy as she regards herself as a monkey in a zoo!
Tourists who visit slums do walking safaris, through the many footpaths, with the help of a tour guide who is mostly a person from the slum area. During these tours they like to take photographs of everything they see as they are amazed by this other kind of life that they have probably ‘never seen’. One would wonder whether they are enjoying taking pictures of poor people who are struggling in order to make ends meet!
Slum tourism is a special kind of tourism that for a long time has been looked at as an exploitative kind of tourism whereby tourists travell all the way from their home country to have fun taking pictures and looking at poor people struggling to make ends meet. Promotion of this kind of tourism tends to portray Africa as a pitiful continent whereby those that visit the continent are convicted to donate money to the people. Africans tend to be looked at as a helpless people who cannot develop themselves without receiving aid either from China, US, Russia or the UK….This is a perception that certainly has to stop!!! There is something that slum tourism does not show to the visitors….how hard many of the slum dwellers work to be able to make an honest living because some of those who live in the big houses and drive expensive cars are involved in illegal activities to be able to maintain their expensive lifestyles.
Suzi, another friend of mine from Austria, has set up a small organization in Mathare slums that helps children be able to access a good education and a home away from home in her orphanage. She suggests what I certainly think is the best solution to this problem, turning slum tourism into voluntourism. This involves people coming to live among the locals for a certain period of time, familiarise themselves with the people and create a good rapport with them instead of randomly taking pictures of residents. Visitors coming to these areas for their first time and feel compelled to contribute in the development of the area have to first stay with the people, feel accepted and then involve the locals fully in whatever developments they want to undertake. Moreover, travel agencies operating slum tours in these areas should also train and employ the locals living in the slums so that they can be able to earn a living out of the visiting tourists.
With time, the local people will start to see the benefits of having visitors coming to stay with them, learning things from one another hence be able to embrace them as friends and not people that come to take pictures of them like monkeys in a zoo.
Does slum tourism defame Africa ?
What are your thoughts ?
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Until the next time its many thanks from the 50 Treasures of Kenya Trust to all the contributors in this feature with special acknowledgment going to our chairman Mr.Harmut Fiebig for the wonderful photography and most of all to you our treasured audience for your delightful company.
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Written by: Carol Kavinya
Does slum tourism defame Africa ?
Give me your thoughts