By Paul Owino & George Bush
Experience a part of Kenya unseen by most tourists’ reads a tagline on Kiberatours.com. ‘A visit to Kibera takes you to the friendliest slum in the world reads a tagline on another tour website – African spice safaris. The website‘s catalogue prides the company for connecting tourists to renowned destinations like Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mombasa and The Maasai Mara. According to the website for 6800 shillings an international visitor would be given a half day tour of the largest slum in Africa.
Though not officially recognised slum tourism is picking up in Kenya’s informal settlements attracting mixed views with claims that it benefits only a few sculprous people. Critics say it is a way of dehumanising human beings by equating them to animals watched by tourists as if they do not have a conscience. Just like the national parks, the number of visitors is determined by the popularity of the slum thus Kibera, being the largest also receives the highest number of tourists.
“How are you!” young children from Kibera shout every time they see a white person. It doesn’t matter whether they have attended school or not but their psychologies have been corrupted by the high number of tourists who flock the slum all year round. Here there is nothing such as a high tourist season.
When and how did it start? Kibera has long been an obligatory for Hollywood movie crews who want to portray how the urban poor survive in Africa with movies like ‘The Constant Gardener’ being a hit. However, the slum located 5 km south of Nairobi City got international attention after high profile personalities like U.S President Barack Obama visited the slum in 2007 when he was still a Senator. Others like the U.S secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon soon followed raising the profile of the slum in the world.
Although the people have not come out openly against it, some residents think it is exploitative. “These people are reaping from us, we are like animals in the park.” Says Patrick Mueke, a resident of Laini Saba village in the slum.
“We get nothing from these visits and even the government does not tax them. They should be stopped,” he adds.
Mueke blames the tour guides and cartels for promoting the trade.
“I usually see them walking here, taking our photographs, that is what I do not like,” Judith Awuor a vegetable vendor says…
Even though the tourism has been practised for almost five years, some residents still know about the trade.
“I do not know about slum tourism but all l do know is that these wazungus come from various Non-governmental Organisations that have projects within the slum.” Says Rebecca Atieno a resident of Darajani village.
Some tourists like Collin Fitzlberge from the Netherlands who we found on tour do not see anything wrong with the trade but agree to pay money to the tour firms.
His fellow tourist Michelle Smith said he saw nothing wrong with slum tourism at all although he refused to say why he was touring the slum.
Though the government admits that it exists, there have been no attempts to regulate the trade or proper structures for governing it.
In an interview with the Ghetto Mirror, Angela Boki, the Public relations Officer at the Ministry of tourism said, “We know that slum tourism exists, but we cannot regulate it, it is the residents to come up with initiatives to regulate the trade. Otherwise we cannot say that it is exploitative because in the first place there are no laws.”
The principal tourism officer at the ministry, Keziah Odemba said,”The people who are being exploited here are the tourist because they do not know where the money they give out goes to. “
She however said the government is trying to transform how the trade is conducted through slum upgrading which it hopes will make the tourists to visit outstanding projects in the slums instead of the way it is now where they visit to see how people are suffering. She said the same thing is happening at Soweto in South Africa.
Popular sites that the tourists are taken to include Kibera Primary School that was founded by the Queen Elizabeth, Biogas centres, the Kenya Uganda railway, Makina mosque and Toi Market. Infact tour firms use creative brochure type literature to attract their clients. For instance one says, ‘The biogas centre: a fantastic view over Kibera and picture-point. You can see that also human waste is not wasted here and much more…’
Tours firms claim they reinvest 100% of their profit to the community through supporting some of the projects tourists are shown. African Spice Safaris says, “By joining us you will support the people of Kibera. The tour provides local employment and the profits will be used directly for projects to improve the lives of the people of Kibera.”
Mama Tunza Children Centre, a popular destination centre for tourists disagrees that any of the tour firms that bring tourists to their centre give back to the centre.
“Tourists are brought here and the same people who bring them here come back to claim a part of the donations given after the tourists have gone,” Hudson Kahi the man in charge of the Mama Tunza Children Centre said.
Fredrick Omondi a tour guide of Kibera Slum Tours refuted the claims saying no one claims anything from the centres visited. “No one claims part of the donations given, what happens is, it is matters of the heart, if you feel what you have been given is worth sharing you can but we do not take anything,” he said.
Omondi denied that slum tourism is exploitative to the community. He said, “We just want to show the world what life is really like in Kibera.
Critics however say that unlike township tours in Soweto – South Africa, which help tell the story of the apartheid struggle, Kibera’s sole attraction is its open-sewer poverty – with residents on parade like animals in a zoo.
At Soweto, tourists are taken to places like where black students were gunned down by police 34 years ago for protesting the enforced teaching of Afrikaans. The area now has a museum. The tourists also get a chance to visit where the first president of South Africa Nelson Mandela lived and the home of Desmond Tutu- an apartheid struggle hero. Infact the government of South Africa has tried to upgrade the slum which covers over 90 square miles.