Slumming It

Schoolgirl in Kiberra.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest trek across the rolling grass plains of Kenya’s Masai Mara and into Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, following the water supply. Famous for its brutality, births, predators and sheer magnitude, the trek draws about 200,000 tourists each year to the Mara alone.

That it is a sight to behold is not in question. The Masai Mara is easily one of Africa’s best game viewing parks, not to mention a remarkable asset for Kenya’s economy.

At 550 hectares, the Kibera slum community is considerably smaller than the Mara. It sits a 20-minute ‘matatu’ bus ride from the city centre, and is home to between one and three million people (depending on who you speak to), making it Africa’s second largest slum.

With its eternally muddy streets, rusted corrugated iron rooftops and in-your-face poverty, it is not especially picturesque though the railway dissecting it and the rich earthy hues of its huts do lend a certain charm. But it too holds a certain appeal for a certain type of visitor.

Kibera means ‘forest’ in the language of the Nubians, who were the first to settle the area after World War I, and ‘forest’ is how the area was marked on Nairobi’s maps until last year, which is indicative of the area’s significance to the Kenyan Government.

Indeed, consciousness about the slum is higher outside of Kenya, particularly after it achieved international fame of sorts as a setting for the 2005 film The Constant Gardener. The legacy of the community’s brush with fame lingers in a toilet block and water tank which both prominently proclaim ‘Donated by Constant Gardener 2004,’ and in minor misgivings voiced by locals who received sparse other recompense for their stint as Hollywood extras.

Journalists have played their part in bringing the plight of the slum dwellers to the world too. A four-part exploration of life in the slum by BBC journalist Andrew Harding in 2002 introduced audiences to characters such as Julius Mzembe, who ‘works from nine to five, six days a week, and takes home just under US$75 a month to his wife and two daughters,’ and to the concept of ‘flying toilets’ plastic bags of excrement which people toss out their doors at night when it’s too dangerous to do your business outside the hut.

While this publicity has been good at raising public awareness, members of the community fear it is the wrong kind of awareness.

The Kibera Community Youth Programme (KCYP) evolved from within the community as a training centre where young people can learn skills, read books, or record their own music in a small recording studio. It spreads information on pertinent matters of health, education, environmental awareness, child molestation and HIV.

To the outside world its message is different. ‘Kibera is not as the media portrays it as a dark, sad and terrible place to live,’ explains one project officer. ‘We can be happy and we can produce very strong human beings. Some find this very hard to understand.’

Contrary to popular opinion, crime in Kibera is relatively low, due partly to roving bands of community vigilantes, and the fact most slum-dwellers are gainfully employed in their own small businesses.

The KCYP offers community visits to outsiders interested in learning the ways of life in ‘informal settlements’ (as it refers to slums) and the daily activities that take place.

According to program director Fredrick Ouko, the star attraction is the people. ‘What the visitors mostly expect is to find gloomy faces from the fact that this is one of the poorest place in Nairobi,’ he says, ‘but they later come to realise that people are full of life and involved in different struggles to better their lives.’

Ouko says the drawcard of the community tours is that visitors are normally curious to see how people survive in the area and what makes them stick together.

‘In Masai Mara, one cannot talk to an animal. Here one can freely interact with someone living in the area. This opens the visitor’s mind and perspectives about the informal settlement. They want to see another perspective of the area rather than the one represented on the media that only shows hopelessness.’

One audience that has been quick to seize the opportunity of visiting the slums on the KCYP tours are the numerous young backpackers visiting and working in Nairobi. This demographic is usually hesitant to spend the large sums of money demanded for safari tours (more than US$110 per day), preferring more personal encounters with locals.

Nairobi Backpackers works in partnership with the KCYP to bring interested travellers to the slum for a tour and lunch with a local family. It costs about AUD$10 per visitor, which goes directly to the KCYP, who use it for their projects within Kibera. The  Backpackers also take collections of discarded clothes and items from its guests, which it forwards to the slum.

American traveller Aviva Bergman was one who took the opportunity:

It let me see what this life is like. This was not a glorified trip like the tourism in Rio’s slums can be. It was just walking down the streets with a born and raised city dweller and talking about life and music and the situation and his favourite soccer teams and what we eat in America.

It wasn’t some big flashy group with a flag and a microphone or we didn’t drive in with a big jeep and such, we took a matatu there and met his friends and we sat in his house.

But for all the obvious differences between game park safaris and the slum tours, there are also parallels: namely the zoo-like voyeurism of watching animals/people going about their daily lives.

One article in the UK Observer last year mused : ‘A new travel experience gives visitors a glimpse into the harsh lives of Delhi’s street children. But is it a worthy initiative or just an example of voyeuristic poorism. ’

Ouko says it’s a justified question, but ultimately believes that the benefits of the tours outweigh the negative sentiments expressed by some locals.

‘We have people who feel that this is exposing them to the outer world, showing how poor they are. But we also have those who take this up positively and are ready to share themselves with the visitors.’

As a well-known community group, the KCYP encounters little resistance from locals on its tours, particularly after informing community members that all visitors donate a certain amount to KCYP for use in implementing its community projects.

‘Otherwise, there is no reason to bring them in as it will be only one side gaining while the other is left to languish in poverty,’ says Ouko.

American/French backpacker Mathilde Piard, who was in Nairobi to intern with a UN publication, disagrees that the experience is voyeuristic:

If overdone I can see how it can become voyeuristic, especially with organised tours of big groups. As long as it’s just a few people, then it is more like a sharing of experiences between different people rather than a tourist site.

She does question though whether visiting just the Kibera slum reduces the tourism money-making potential of Nairobi’s other slums:

Visiting only Kibera certainly does discriminate against less famous slums, but Kibera is also probably the safest slum and therefore ‘most visitable’ as well. No one should go into Mathare alone, and with all the Mungiki stuff going on at the moment I wouldn’t recommend they go at all.

The Mathare slum has been the centrepoint of a series of recent murders attributed to a secret society called Mungiki.

Piard’s views on voyeurism are shared by Bergman, who has worked in slums in Rios, and is helping Kibera to develop a website and work on marketing strategies for its promotion outside of Nairobi and Kenya.

‘I think it depends on how the trip is organised but if the people feel like they are in a zoo or something that is where it turns detrimental and the divide between Kenyans and Mzungus (White people) is made even bigger,’ she says.

Besides, adds Bergman, she visited Kibera not for its name or reputation, but simply because she had the opportunity to. ‘I went to different ones in Rio for parties and for passing through and they are all pretty much the same set up. Some are hillier than others, some have more bars than restaurants, some are bigger, but it’s just the name media has created outside of the area.’

Kibera produces a monthly newspaper written by community contributors. A May article commented: ‘Ignorance is a lack of consciousness in something or anything, which later brings grave shortcomings to an individual or the larger society.’

With only four public primary schools to serve 800,000, and no public secondary or tertiary institutions, the message was directed at Kibera’s residents but it’s an observation Kenya’s tourists might like to reflect on as well.

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