In Reply: Slumdog Tourism

My first Op-Ed in the New York Times received so many comments that within the first eight hours of its publication the “comments” feature was disabled.  My piece struck a very personal chord with the readers.  Responses to my piece follow a general trend: people reacted based on their own personal experiences and exposure to poverty. I will first outline some common threads, and then give my reply.  1) People who had visited slums themselves and taken “tours” or versions of tours (some were commercial and others just visited on their own) often argued that their visits forever changed their lives and their perceptions of the world. They often argued that eliminating slum tours would “close a window onto the range of human experience” that exists in the world. They also said that seeing poverty can have a “long-term impact.” 1a) Also related, some people wrote about how special they are, and how they have done slum tourism “differently,” and were thereby able to understand the locals.  They advocated for mutual understanding.  2) Many argued that slum tourism boosts the local economy, as people perhaps purchase goods and because they pay for the tours this itself stimulates local economic growth. 3) Some attributed my writing to my being “ashamed” of my poverty.  4) There were many attempts to deny the system of structural injustice in which we all participate that creates poverty, and attempts to argue that slum tourism actually decreases the gap between the rich and the poor. 5) Some called my writing hostile and said that such writing (and implicitly thinking) creates more problems between the rich and the poor because it perpetuates a view of the “other.”  6) Many people agreed with me, and honed in on my pivotal question.  One reply sums it up nicely: such “interactions” allow people the false sense that they have done something “good,” it allows them to look the other way in the face of extreme poverty because they’ve “seen” it, and then they go back to their first-world lives and don’t change anything.  Below are my replies, responding to the numbers I have assigned these points of view above.

1) The problem that I see with slum tourism is that many “see” what another world is like, and perhaps it “changes their life,” but nothing changes for the people that they’ve seen.  My central argument corresponds to these points of view.  If only 50% of the people who had ever taken a tour through Kibera were moved enough that they took action after, places like Kibera would now be very, very different.  The fact is that maybe only 1% of people who ever take a slum tour contribute in a meaningful way afterwards.  If this percentage were higher, perhaps such tours would be worth it, but because it is not I take issue with people who say their experience led to long-term impact.  The costs of slum tourism (such as a loss of dignity) are too high when not enough change occurs as a result. It is quite a privileged position to be able to go somewhere and say, “your life has changed.” It is not enough if perspectives are changed for the rich—the payoff then needs to be that standards of living also change for the poor.   I also take issue with the argument that this “window of human experience” should be open for anyone to view.  In America, no one can come visit the home of the affluent unannounced and uninvited.  Why is it that the privileged can then do this to the poor? (for Kibera is our home!)  It seems that this window only opens one way.  I also do not believe that “mutual understanding” is possible from spending an afternoon in a place like Kibera.  I think that people are compelled to feel that they now “understand” in order to deal with the world’s inequality—as claiming “understanding” makes poverty easier to deal with.  It is impossible to really understand unless you too have lived what I’ve lived.  And then, even if people do “understand,” what is the point?  What are the concrete gains experienced by my community because of their understanding?

1a) People often responded to my article to distinguish how they are “unique” from other Westerners.  One wrote, “I have thrown away my pocket map and thrust myself upon the majesty and mystery of…many corners seldom seen….I go not to gawk but to try and understand….” First, such replies continue to romanticize extreme poverty as something more “real” than their own lives.  It is also quite presumptuous to assume that a Westerner can choose how they will be perceived, that they can simply “choose” not to gawk.  Once again this reinforces that the foreigner is in power of the entire exchange, as unless someone is directly contributing to the community, their presence alone is implicitly gawking.

2) Saying that slum tourism boosts the economy is simply a myth.  First, the prices for such tours are insignificant. Secondly, the money from these tours never reaches the ground.  Maybe sometimes a few lucky local people make enough money to survive one more day. I can assure you they don’t share this wealth.  More often, foreign tour companies take the profits and give back to token development projects of their choice (but that are most often not the projects that the locals would choose to begin with).

3) My reaction to slum tourism does not stem from feeling shame that others might see the conditions in which we live.  I am not ashamed, I am proud.  So proud that I feel a right to have a home, even if it is only a single room, where no one can just show up uninvited.  I am proud to be a human, and feel that I deserve to be treated as such.  I am not trying to hide my poverty, only saying that it is not yours, so therefore it is not yours to see, judge, or photograph.

4/5) Many tried to deny or skirt the system of structural injustice that creates places like Kibera.  In this world 20% of the world’s population consumes 80% of the world’s resources. There are only so many resources in the world. The economic truth is that no one wants poverty to go away enough that they are willing to redistribute resources. Thus, many try to make themselves feel better with mythologies such as saying that the world’s poor don’t really want it to change, don’t really mind, or that they visited a slum and people looked happy. One person even commented that to suggest there should be an alternative to extreme poverty would, “deny them [the poor] their reality and full humanity.”  Let me say this: there is another way. Growing up in Kibera I saw this alternative everyday, as in Nairobi affluent apartment buildings tower over Kibera.  There is a world where people don’t struggle for basic survival.  However, because many in our world have way too much, this means others have nothing at all.  We are all responsible. And the basic truth is this: we are indeed “other” to each other because we participate in an economic system that makes this so.  If we were not other, people would find it harder to sleep at night.  Slum tourism does not erase this boundary, the power structures that such tourism operates under only serves to uphold this distinction.

Black Kennedy

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