ONTD Political

'We are not wildlife': Kibera residents slam poverty tourism

5:51 pm - 07/30/2018
'We are not wildlife': Kibera residents slam poverty tourism

Tourism in Nairobi slum is rising but many residents are angry at becoming an attraction for wealthy foreign visitors.

Lotte Rasmussen has toured Kibera more than 30 times, often bringing friends to tour the slum

Kibera, Kenya -  Sylestine Awino rests on her faded brown couch, covering herself with a stripped green shuka, a traditional Maasai fabric.

It's exactly past noon in a noisy neighbourhood at the heart of Kibera, Kenya 's largest slum, and the 34-year-old has just finished her daily chores.

Directly opposite Awino, her two daughters are busy studying for an upcoming maths exam.

The family will not have a lunch today.

"We don't afford the luxury of having two consecutive meals," says Awino, a mother of three. "We took breakfast, meaning we will skip lunch and see if we can afford dinner".

Up until five years ago, Awino made a living selling fresh food in Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city. There, she interacted with tourists who came to enjoy the sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean.

But in 2013, she decided to move to Kibera, in the capital, Nairobi, aiming for new opportunities - only to meet camera-toting tourists again, this time eager to explore the crowded slum where many are unable to afford basic needs.

"This was strange. I used to see families from Europe and the United States flying to Mombasa to enjoy our oceans and beaches," says Awino, who is now a housewife - her husband, a truck driver, provides for the family.

"Seeing the same tourists manoeuvring this dusty neighbourhood to see how we survive was shocking," she adds.

Awino recalls one incident a few months ago when a group of tourists approached her, with one of them trying to take a picture of her.

"I felt like an object," she says. "I wanted to yell at them, but I was afraid of the tour guides accompanying them".

Some residents say tourism in Kibera is morally wrong, while others are taking advantage of the trend by becoming tour guides

Kibera has seen a sudden rise of tourists over the past decade, with a number of companies offering guided tours showcasing how its residents live.

The slum faces high unemployment and poor sanitation, making living conditions dire for its residents.

According to Kenya's 2009 census, Kibera is home to about 170,000 people. Other sources, however, estimate its population to be up to two million people.

Because of the high population, housing is inadequate. Many residents are living in tiny, 12ft by 12ft shack rooms, built in some cases with mud walls, a ridged roof and dirt floor. The small structures house up to eight people, with many sleeping on the floor.

Last week, thousands of families were left homeless after the government demolished homes, schools and churches to pave way for a road expansion.

Strolling through the dusty pathways sandwiched by the thin iron-sheet-walled houses, Musa Hussein is angry to see the growing popularity of the guided tours.

"Kibera is not a national park and we are not wildlife," says the 67-year-old, who was born and raised here.

"The only reason why these tours exist is because [a] few people are making money out of it," he adds.

The trade of showing a handful of wealthy people how the poor are living, Hussein argues, is morally wrong and tour companies should stop offering this service.

'We created employment for ourselves'

Kibera Tours is one of the several companies that have been set up to meet the demand.

Established in 2008, the company has between 100 to 150 customers annually. Each client is charged around $30 for a three-hour tour, according to Frederick Otieno, the cofounder of Kibera Tours.

"The idea behind it was to simply show the positive side of Kibera and promote unique projects around the slums," he says. "By doing this, we created employment for ourselves and the youth around us".

The tour company employs 15 youths, working in shifts.

Willis Ouma is one of them.

Midmorning on a cloudy Saturday, the 21-year-old is wearing a bright red shirt. Accompanied by a colleague, he stands at one of the slum's entrances, anxiously waiting to greet a group of four Danish tourists who have registered for the day's tour.

"I have to impress them because tourists recommend to each other," he says.

For three years, Ouma has been spending most of his weekends acting as a tour guide for hundreds of visitors.

"They enjoy seeing this place, which makes me want to do more. But some locals do not like it all," he says, adding that he often has to calm down protesting residents.

Ouma earns $4 for every tour.

"This is my side hustle because it generates some extra cash for my survival," he says. "I used my earnings to start a business of hawking boiled eggs".

"What would happen to an African like me in Europe or America, touring and taking photos of their poor citizens?


One of the Danish tourists is 46-year-old Lotte Rasmussen, a Nairobi resident who has toured Kibera more than 30 times, often with friends who visit from abroad.

"I bring friends to see how people live here. The people might not have money like us, but they are happy and that's why I keep on coming," she says, carefully bending down to take an image of a smiling Kibera toddler.

The tour includes stops at sites where visitors can buy locally-made craftwork, including ornaments and traditional clothing.

"We support local initiatives like children's homes and women's groups hence I do not see a problem with ethical issues," says Rasmussen.

But Awino remains adamant.

She maintains that it is morally unfair that tourists keep on coming to the place she calls home. "Think of the vice versa," she says, "What would happen to an African like me in Europe or America, touring and taking photos of their poor citizens?"

Sylestine Awino was shocked to see tourists visiting Kibera to see how the residents live


OP: I'm just going to leave the following link over here to emphasize the historical context of this kind of thing...

'Trapped in a human zoo: a shocking history of shame and exploitation'. (Discusses the historical fact that is the existence of 'human zoos' in the 19th and 20th centuries, where POC were essentially showcased like livestock.)

Additional links:
-It is worth noting that Kenya does have wealth. Part of the problem, as is the case in all too many countries (the US is a particularly egregious example) is that it is unequally distributed.
-It is also worth noting that the wealth which western countries strip from the African continent, still greatly outweighs any charitable or other contributions to Africa by those same countries: see here and here.
-As was pointed out in the article, recent demolitions in Kibera have left thousands homeless.

tilmon 4th-Aug-2018 10:13 pm (UTC)
Hmm. From what I understand, there are indeed tourists, foreign and domestic, who visit impoverished areas of major US and European cities, and that the origin of the word "slumming" came from wealthy Americans and English touring their own cities' blighted areas for thrills.
soleiltropiques 5th-Aug-2018 07:55 pm (UTC)
I think context is really, really important to remember here. (As I stated above.)

There is a long and dark history of treating POC as 'tourist attractions' and this can't be simply divorced from that racist history.

Also, this isn't visiting slums in their own countries (which would also be classist and frequently racist as fuck, because poverty all too frequently has a racial component in western countries). This is *choosing* to visit a slum in a poor country to 'view the locals' which is, arguably, even worse.

Edited at 2018-08-05 07:56 pm (UTC)
tilmon 5th-Aug-2018 08:52 pm (UTC)
By no means do I mean to imply that it isn't terrible. But it's not less terrible when neighborhoods are gentrified and "urban renewed", which is the end result of what begins as poverty tourism. I have no reason to think this won't happen in African slums, either. White people who can't afford to set themselves up as landlords in their home countries will start buying properties in the communities they visit, and then start demanding that services and standards equivalent to what they are used to be implemented. Nevermind that the vast majority of their new neighbors can't afford those services and standards, they'll argue for housing and street and health codes that will force current owners to sell, families to be evicted, and unlicensed vendors and home manufacturers to be shut down.
soleiltropiques 5th-Aug-2018 09:32 pm (UTC)
Ah! I see what you're saying now, I misread your earlier comment. (Sorry...)

And you're right.
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