In the lobby of Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel you’ll see signs promoting all manner of tourist sites, from a Maasai crafts market to animal parks to the Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) museum. For now, at least, you’re unlikely to see any signs promoting tours of Nairobi’s infamous Kibera slum, the largest slum in East Africa. But that doesn’t mean such tours are difficult to find.

As a reporter covering the debut of Kibera’s first free school for girls in 2009, I made multiple visits to the massive slum, where an estimated 1.5 million people eke out an existence mostly without basic services such as electricity, running water, sanitation, and police protection. Winding my way through streets lined with garbage and human waste, dodging rivulets of raw sewage and ducking the edges of rusty corrugated iron roofs, I was shocked to learn that this was a popular tourist site.

Kibera stands at the pinnacle of “poverty tourism”—one of many terms, along with “slum safaris” and “poverty porn,” for the trend. But it is hardly alone. From Soweto to São Paulo, Jakarta to Chicago, urban “slumming” has become a global phenomenon, a tool for entrepreneurs to entice tourists as well as for some nonprofit aid and religious groups to entice donors. Meanwhile, a lively debate rages in print, on the Internet, and in academia about the ethics of what promoters call “reality tourism” and detractors say exploits and dehumanizes slum residents.

The debate over slum tours may be just a footnote to the great international-aid debate, but the same hot-button issues arise, such as: Who really reaps the economic benefits? What are the long-term effects? Who makes the rules? And where—for the poor who are the prime attraction—is the protection and oversight?

Of course, no one who promotes slum tours actually says, “Come with us to gawk at desperately poor people in one of the smelliest and ugliest places on earth. Observe how they scrape by so you can have stories to tell at home and feel better about your own lot.”

The typical pitch appeals to travelers’ desire for authentic experiences, as if authenticity can only be found in suffering. But the big sales pitch is to travelers’ charitable impulses: Take this tour to see “real” life up close and help slum dwellers in the process, because—it is claimed—part of the profits go to schools, orphanages, and other worthy projects.

Prices vary. A short tour of Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, with Reality Tours and Travel, can be had for $11, while a private tour that lasts several hours and includes interaction with residents costs $71. Alex Ndambo, who books all types of tours for Real Adventures Africa from Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel, told me a day tour of Kibera or Mathare slum costs $50 to $80. He said he’d “heard” that 35 to 45 percent goes to the community, where most people live on less than a dollar a day.

Slum tours have existed in some form for a long time. Nineteenth-century New Yorkers toured the Bowery to satisfy their curiosity, and perhaps to stimulate their charitable instincts. Today, however, the Internet has helped expand and popularize the concept as never before, so that travelers to almost any major city can find or arrange a tour of the urban underbelly. A 2009 article in National Geographic Traveler called this brand of reality tourism “the latest frontier in travel,” and credited its growth to tourists’ eschewing “indulgent vacations in favor of more meaningful travel experiences.” The same article gave tips for “the right way to slum it,” like inquiring about how much of the cost goes to the slum community, but it neglected to mention how difficult that information is to verify.

All tour promoters, commercial and nonprofit, claim the best intentions. Victoria Safaris goes so far as to call its Kibera tours a “noble idea.” Another organization, Kibera Tours, promotes its destination as “the friendliest slum in the world.” Most tours have rules for patrons: no photos without permission from the subject, no peering into windows, and no handing out treats or money to the children who chant, “How are you? How are you?” while reaching out to brush white skin. After tours end, guides typically solicit donations of cash or goods on behalf of residents, pledging to pass along the loot.

The biggest markets for slum tours are Kibera, Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (shanty towns), and the Dharavi district of Mumbai. The obvious reasons are their size, in square footage and degree of human misery, and the fact that all three have been featured prominently in major films. For Kibera, it was The Constant Gardener (2005), for Rio, City of God (2002), and for Mumbai, Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Those films didn’t create slum tourism, which was formalized in Rio as early as 1992. But they have certainly bolstered it.

Kennedy Odede, the Kibera man who co-founded the free girls’ school I went there to cover, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in August describing how, as a teenager outside his Kibera shack, he spied a white woman taking his picture and “felt like a tiger in a cage.” He recalled another occasion when a tour guide—someone he knew—led a group into a private home to photograph a woman giving birth.

For my part, I had a job to do in Kibera and an invitation to be there. Yet I have to wonder what made me so different from slum tourists, driven as I was by curiosity, seeking the satisfaction of doing good, and attracted, like many journalists, to danger and despair.

My husband and I traveled around Kibera under the guidance of a resident named Bangkok, a nickname he acquired after a trip to Thailand as part of a youth boxing team. With a scar on one cheek and long, muscular limbs, Bangkok moved with leonine grace and assurance throughout his neighborhood of Kibera, the one dominated by the Luo tribe. Kibera is said to have “a thousand corners,” and every time we rounded another it was plain from the deference we were accorded that no one messed with Bangkok. The name alone, he assured us, was enough. “You get into any trouble,” he said, “just say Bangkok.”

With each return visit to Kibera, the residents seemed less beaten down and foreign, and we appreciated their resourcefulness and vitality more. Once the initial shock of the place was past, we could begin to see Kibera as a community, not just a slum. But this takes time, and a tour is by definition a glimpse, a chance to skim the surface. If the surface is shiny, maybe it doesn’t matter, but in poverty zones, like in war zones, it can lead to false and dangerous assumptions.

With Bangkok on my side, I was tempted to take his when he said he also led commercial slum tours. In the midst of such extreme poverty, I questioned my right to criticize how he used what he had to make a living. He told me he made sure Kibera residents got a cut of the profits. Perhaps they did. But to date there appears to be no real accounting, there or anywhere else, of how much tourism money actually makes its way into the slums.

Robert Frank, blogging for the Wall Street Journal’s “Wealth Report” in February 2010, wrote that the slum tourism debate has so far been “fueled by emotion and politics, with little research.” That may change, he added, with a study underway by British researcher Fabian Frenzel, who is attempting to quantify the economic impact of tourism in Rio’s favelas.

When I asked Ndambo in Nairobi what Kenyan lawmakers thought about Kibera tours, he said they encourage them because it inspires charitable giving. You could also say it helps let the leaders off the hook when it comes to addressing the poverty in their midst.

Brazil is trying a different approach with “Rio Top Tour: Rio de Janeiro in a Different Perspective,” through which the government partners with slum residents to promote tours celebrating local arts and culture. It’s shrewd politics in advance of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics, but it also shows how slum tours could evolve into something genuinely beneficial to residents. If slum residents from Rio to Kibera can get help marketing something other than their poverty to tourists, poverty is more likely to disappear.

Curious about the demographics of slum tourists, I asked Ndambo who is most apt to book a Kibera tour. “Americans,” he replied without hesitation. “Then Canadians, and sometimes British. French, and Germans, not so much.” I asked why he thought that was the case. He replied, “I suppose it’s because Americans are so kind.”

“Thoughtless” is more like it, if you ask Wayne and Emely Silver, co-founders of American Friends of Kenya (AFK). Their Connecticut-based nonprofit has partnered with Kenyans, including Odede, since 2004 to support projects driven by Kenyans. No one associated with AFK is paid. Twice I’ve joined the Silvers in Louise Walkup’s ethics class at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Connecticut, to discuss working in developing nations. Slum tours were a hot topic, and I found the “reality television” generation primed to give them a chance. Most tourists probably want to help, students theorized, or they wouldn’t go there, and as long as they are respectful, where is the harm?

Wayne Silver insisted the tours are “inherently disrespectful” because there can be “no real zone of privacy” where homes are mud-and-corrugated-iron shacks and all the neighborhood life is on the streets. Students listened respectfully, but not all were convinced. “Eyes are being opened” by slum tours, one said, on both sides of the equation. “It all depends on what you do with what you see,” said another.

To this Emely Silver offered a challenge. The plane ticket alone makes any trip to Africa an expensive proposition, she said. “So if you can afford to go to Africa and go on a slum tour, you can afford to go and work with us.”

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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Published in the 2010-12-17 issue: View Contents
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