Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tourists guided through the slums of Kenya

Some call exploitative, some say is inspires compassion. Despite the wide ranging opinions poverty tourism is a thriving business in Kenya.

A story in today's Guardian profiles a couple of the outfits that charge tourist to walk through the slums. Writer Xan Rice tagged along with one such tour.

The Dutch tourists came well prepared for the walking safari: strong shoes and sunscreen, backpacks and bottled water. Ahead lay an afternoon visiting one of Kenya's most recognisable sights – but one that rarely features in tourist brochures.

"It might seem a bit strange to come here," said Eric Schlangen, as the guide led him towards the sea of tin-roofed shacks that constitute Kibera, often described as one of the world's largest slums. "But I wanted to see how people live in this country, not just the animals."

Slum tourism is taking off in Kenya. Several local organisations have started selling guided trips through Kibera, a short drive from the luxury hotels that serve most foreign visitors in Nairobi.

For about £20, tourists are promised a glimpse into the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people crammed into tiny rooms along dirt paths littered with excrement-filled plastic bags known as "flying toilets", as one tour agency explains on its website.

While Kibera has long been an obligatory stop for foreign dignitaries and film crews shooting movies such as The Constant Gardener, its addition to the tourist circuit has stirred debate.

Critics say that unlike township tours in 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.

"You might argue that it is good for business and that might be truly so, but it smells," wrote one critic when one of the first tours began in 2007.

Unpleasant whiff aside, the tours have proved popular and at least two new operators have started up in recent months.

Martin Oduor guided the Dutch group for Kibera Tours, which promises that its profits will stay in the local community. He said that the aim was to humanise residents, not degrade them. "We want to demystify this place, that it is so dangerous and sad," said Oduor as he walked through the slum where he was born and still lives. "People are poor, but they have normal lives."

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