Whenever I travel, I like learning how people live in that area. I love learning about different cultures and getting a feel for what a day might be like for someone living there. Because I felt removed from the people of Nairobi, I searched for a tour that would close the distance. There was a tour for Kibera, a neighborhood in Nairobi and the largest urban slum in Africa.
I showed Ben what I found. His reaction was immediate.
“We’re not doing poverty tourism.”
Poverty tourism, or slum tourism, is a type of tourism of poverty-stricken areas, such as slums, with the connotation that the poor are a form of spectacle or they’re being exploited for the tourists. Some have even described this as crass voyeurism. This type of tourism has existed since the 1880s when wealthy Londoners and New Yorkers visited their local ghettos to see “how the other half lived.”
I read several articles on the ethics of poverty tourism/slum tourism and discussed the issues with Ben. When we went to Peru, we did a tour of the different islands on Lake Titicaca and visited the tribes who lived on those islands. No one would describe those tours as poverty tourism, even though the people in the tribes are poorer than us. I wondered what made that tour perfectly fine, but not a tour of Kibera. Ben reasoned that perhaps it wasn’t seen as poverty tourism because the tour was focused on culture of those tribes.
As I thought it over, I reasoned that the differences between touring the tribes at Lake Titicaca and touring Kibera that made one enriching and the other exploitative were superficial. All societies have culture. The fact that the tribes on Lake Titicaca wore non-Western clothing doesn’t make them more cultural. After a lot of thought I decided that it was possible to do ethical tourism in Kibera. I based my decision criteria for ethical tourism on the tenets of ethical research.
In my field, we have guidelines for ethical research that determine how research is conducted. The three tenets of ethical research are autonomy, beneficence, and justice. Autonomy is that people freely consent to participate. This meant that the tour company works with the people in the community so that the people in the community consent to having tours and visiting businesses. Beneficence is that people benefit from their participation and justice is that everyone in the community benefits from research. I translated this to meaning that the tour must directly benefit community, meaning most of my dollars go into the community. I wanted a tour company that employed people in the community and that my dollars specifically goes back to the community itself.
Diddy’s Kibera Tour met these critera. Diddy was born and raised in Kibera. He started his tour company after talking to a friend who told him that foreigners were interested in visiting Kibera. Diddy wanted show outsiders the lively enterprising side of Kibera, where people scrabble in innovative ways to create a living for themselves. Amidst the poverty, the people of Kibera are hard-working and creative. I liked the fact that someone who understood Kibera would be the one giving us the tour. Even better was the fact that he was the sole proprietor, which meant that 100% of our money was going to stay in the community because he still lives in Kibera. The money from the tour didn’t solely benefit him, but also directly benefited other members of the community because a portion of the tour money was paid out to the people whose businesses we visited.
Diddy met us at a cafe, The Mug, at Prestige Plaza, which was just outside of Kibera. We then took a matatu, a private minibus, to one end of Kibera where our tour began. The tour was truly interesting and informational. He told us about history, how Kibera was formed, and what was currently happening to Kibera, and the governmental policies that affect the people and community. We visited Maasai Mbili, an art studio, where we looked at the art and spoke to the artists who explained how they look at everyday life in Kibera for inspiration. Then we went to a workshop collective, where people turned bone into jewelry and souvenirs. This is a good place to buy souvenirs, but alas, we didn’t have any shillings with us. Then Diddy took us around to show us different points of interest in Kibera. Many houses in Kibera do not have running water, so people get water from nearby water stations. People run paid toilets and showers as businesses (one demonstration of how people in Kibera spot an opportunity and capitalize upon it). We saw several of these toilet and shower businesses.
Another big business in Kibera are “movie theaters” that are large shacks with seating. The screen is a television and they play old movies. These theaters also show soccer games. We got to peak inside and see what one was like. It was a dark room with primitive wooden bleachers. Because we were there in the middle of the afternoon, the room was mostly empty. But I did notice that the only people in the room were all men.
The next business that Diddy took us to was a classic Kibera place – changaa bara. Changaa is a type of moonshine (Kibera whisky). These changaa bars are usually run by women out of their living rooms. The one we went to was run by a woman whom Diddy said was like a mother to him. Because her bar was successful, her house was one of the larger shacks. Unlike many people in Kibera who live in a single room shack, she actually had three rooms. Two of the rooms remained private, while the living room operated as a changaa bar during business hours. It was privilege to have the opportunity to see a home in Kibera. When we went in, the bar was full of (drunk) men; one was completely dead asleep. They joked with us and Diddy explained how the alcoholic beverage was made. Neither Ben nor I were brave enough to taste it.
We did a lot more walking around, seeing the various markets. At one point a small toddler came up to me and insisted that I pick him up. I looked around for his mother, but didn’t see her. His arms were raised up and he demanded that I hold him. I picked him up. Ben took a photo and said that I was channeling Angelina Jolie. The boy seemed very interested in my hair and skin until he saw a young blonde girl walk by. Then he squirmed out of my arms and ran to her with his arms up, demanding that she pick him up. Sigh, I lose out to a blonde every time.
The entire tour took about three hours and costs 2000 KSH ($20 USD). We learned a lot and found the experience of seeing Kibera fascinating. If you’re ever in Nairobi, we recommend visiting Kibera with Diddy.