• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
NAROBI, KENYA - No one talks of going on safari, Swahili for “journey,” when venturing into Nairobi’s massive Kibera slum. But a degree of preparation, vigilance, and discretion similarly applies. No flashy jewelry. Wear sturdy but throwaway shoes, as you may wind up ankle deep in open sewage. And no photographs without permission from the guides, most of whom, including William Ogutu Okoth, live in Kibera. Population is estimated as high as 1.5 million, exploding as more rural people flee severe drought, and HIV is epidemic.
“How are you? How are you?” children chant at foreigners, reaching to touch white skin. Tips and treats are frowned upon, Mr. Okoth warns.
Okoth often guides tourists looking for the “real” Kenya or who just want to gawk at one of the undisputed wonders of the slum world. Unlike the Giraffe Park or Karen Blixen (“Out of Africa”) House, so-called “poverty tours” are advertised chiefly on the Internet by tour companies such as Niche Africa Holidays and Victoria Safaris.
Tours are touted as a development tool, playing to customers’ charitable instincts. Alex Ndambo arranges tours of all kinds for Real Adventures Africa from the lobby of Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel. He says tours took off in Kibera after it played a big role in the 2005 film “The Constant Gardener.” The government calls Kibera an illegal settlement, yet approves tours, Mr. Ndambo says, because they inspire charitable giving. A typical tour costs $60-$80 per day, he says, estimating that 35-45 percent gets passed on to the community.
Critics say slum tourism just helps the government evade its responsibilities, and that some aid organizations use poverty to fuel business. Numbers are hard to verify in Kibera, and no one has polled resident attitudes about putting their poverty on display.