No. It is not a typo. You read that right. Slum tourism is a real thing. Let me explain. Slum tourism is also known as “slumming”, poverty tours, reality tours or adventure tours. However, no matter how one prefers to call it the definition, to put it starkly, is simply a form of tourism that involves visiting impoverished areas of cities aka slums. Picture a group of White tourists on a guided walking tour of Kibera slums. Relax. You did not miss out on a newly opened national park located in Kibera. The slum dwellers and their way of life are the actual tourist attractions.
Kibera and Where Else?
Clearly, slum tourism is a controversial practice. Now, before we get into the good and the ugly of this whole business let’s first understand where it comes from and get some context around it. Surprisingly, it is a practice that has been around the world since the 17th Century in England. Rich Londoners began venturing into the ill-reputed East End under the guise of charity but usually with police escort. The wealthy Londoners even went as far as touring slums in other countries such as New York in America to compare, perhaps, whose plight was worse in the various slums. Fast forward to modern times and this form of tourism is mainly practiced in Manila, the Brazilian favelas, India, South Africa, and of course, Kibera.
In Brazil, slum tourism gained traction during the 2014 World Cup. Foreigners probably driven by curiosity saw it as a chance to visit the infamous favelas. South Africa’s slum tourism actually started on a notably positive note. Black South Africans in the early 1990s began giving tours of their marginalized and racially-segregated townships. The aim was to raise global awareness of their situation. Nowadays, it is mainly tours of Soweto where most dwellers are part of struggling mining families.
Dharavi is the world’s third largest slum located in Mumbai. A major attraction in the slum of Dharavi is the open-air laundry set up for cleaning, molding, reshaping and recycling plastic. The industry employs about 10,000 dhobi-wallahs or washermen. Another notable slum that offers slum tourism is located in Manila, Philipines. It is estimated that 3 million of the 12 million residents of Manila are informal settlers. That and finally Africa’s largest slum ours truly, Kibera.
Now, to the elephant in the room or in this case, in the slum. On the one hand, it is easy to see why people may find this form of tourism imperialistic and downright disrespectful. Imagine a rich Mzungu traveling thousands of kilometers to come and observe people go about their normal lives in Kibera. To come and stare at poverty. To see how fellow humans are able to live in such dilapidated conditions. It is as if they were animals in a zoo to be observed.
Entrapped in a slum and a state of poverty that is largely not of their choosing. Despite their best efforts to change their plight, this “financial zoo” is seemingly inescapable. And yet, the Mzungu jollies along the slum in a haughty and condescending manner taking pictures and stories to tell at a dinner party back home. Without their consent, slum dwellers become a commodity. “We are not wildlife”: Kibera residents slam poverty tourism.
Most of these slum tours are organized by for-profit companies. Therefore, little to no financial benefit or compensation trickles down to the community.
On the other hand, some organizations such as Kibera Tours claim to be a source of employment to locals dwelling in the slum and try to promote a positive image of the slum as the “city of hope.” Further still, other organizations help raise awareness on key issues facing slum dwellers and even ensure that monetary value gained from such tours helps in community projects and those sorts of things. Some of the tourists claim to be more sympathetic to the situation of people living in slums which in on itself is a good thing. Most respectable companies offering such tours have strict rules against taking pictures of locals and their residents. That at least reduces the animal in a zoo feeling.
At the end of the day, it is definitely about the intent. However, one thing is for certain. All companies offering such tours should be compelled to ensure that the communities in the slum also benefit from the tours. It is only fair. Well, feel free to voice your opinion on slum tourism in the comment section below or on our social media platforms. Also, please note that we DO NOT offer slum tourism. We do, however, offer packages to Mombasa. Speaking of which here are 5 Fun Things To Do in Mombasa With Your Kids.