Friday, September 11, 2009

Let's Go and Watch People Die in Slow Motion

Taking photographs in East Africa is not a straightforward matter. It's advisable to ask permission before taking a photograph and the answer is often something like 'we are ashamed of how we live, we don't want people to photograph it'. Sometimes it's a more brash 'give me one dollar' or something similar. One has to be careful taking photographs, it can be intrusive. Perhaps it always is.

I was quite taken aback when I met volunteers in Kenya who told me that a 'professional' photographer who had visited their area explicitly demanded that sick and dying people pose so as to show off their emaciation and their suffering. These volunteers, Kenyan and European, felt humiliated. But not as humiliated as the people being asked to show their protruding ribs and collar bones.

So I was speechless when I heard that for 2500 Kenyan shillings (about £20), you can go on an organised tour of Kibera, 'the friendliest slum in the world'. Some Dutch and Kenyan (apparently) people have set up Kibera Tours and they arrange for guides, security, 'dedicated photography points', etc. They even give advice on what to wear and carry and what to do and what not to do while on the tour.

Is human deprivation now a spectator event? Who will be next to try to make money out of water shortages, food shortages, inadequate housing, non-existent schooling and health services, disease and corruption?

I don't think this is the way to advocate for social change. Sphere: Related Content


  1. I don't think it is! This is abominable. Shame on all these people, the photographer who wanted poses, the tour organisers, the whole lot of them!

  2. Hi Mama
    I notice a lot of people on other blogs commenting on it. I haven't seen a favourable comment yet.

  3. I sent a blunt summary of my feelings to the people who run Kibera Tours and got the following reply (as Kibera Tours don't seem to worry about people's privacy, I'll treat this email as non-confidential):

    Dear Simon,

    Since you took the effort to send us a mail, we'd like to respond, because
    we have an entirely different view at tourism in Kibera.

    We strongly feel that the people in Kibera have something to offer to
    tourists, although they don't have many material things. We think richness
    has not only to do with material stuff, but there is also another type of
    richness. In Kibera many people know how to make something from their
    lives even without having much material things. They have time for
    eachother and have a true community-sense. They know how to tell a story.
    They are resilient and positive. A lot of the people in Kibera try to
    improve their lives and the lives of the people around them by different
    projects and activities. We think therefor tourists can learn a lot from
    the people of Kibera, learn that hapiness and well-being in life not only
    has to do with 'having'.

    Furthermore I personally think the people from Kibera should be able to
    benefit from tourism like everywhere else in the world, since they seem to
    have something to offer the tourists. Tourism is based on experiencing
    cultures, people and environments that are different from home. Why should
    tourists be able to go to the Masai, to Amsterdam, to mexico, but not to
    Kibera? I, as a Dutch, am therefor trying to help two people from Kibera
    in the marketing and sales of their tours and have provided the
    microcredit for the organisation.

    The people of Kibera profit directly from the tours in terms of jobs,
    donations and sales of jewelry, snacks and drinks.

    I hope your view on Kibera and our tours has changed by this answer. And
    we hope to welcome you on our tours, so you can see for yourself.

    With kind regards,

    Esther Bloemenkamp

  4. And my reply to Ester Bloemenkamp:

    Dear Esther

    This is the most patronizing load of crap I've ever heard to excuse the treatment of people like animals in a safari park. I find it hard to believe that you can be so insensitive towards the plight of vulnerable people. Will you next take people on guided tours of prisons and psychiatric hospitals?

    As for benefitting from tourism, most Kenyans don't benefit from tourism because most of the big tour operators are owned by white Africans and foreigners. In the Masai Mara, people's cultures and traditions are destroyed by the creation of reserves where they are not allowed even to enter unless vetted by some idiotic authority. National parks are not for the benefit of the Masai or any other Kenyans and if you had spent even a short time thinking about it you might have come to the same conclusion.

    People don't go to Amsterdam to see people dying or suffering, they don't go there to see how 'resilient' everyone is. If people had gone as tourists to see how Amsterdam looked under Nazi occupation, that would be a different matter. Then they may have remarked how happy the kids looked playing in the streets, who knows. If you'd been around then you may have been able to charge fees to show people around.

    I've spent a lot of time in Kenya and people tell me they feel humiliated by tourists who take photos of them to show their friends at home. If you ask them some will say they feel ashamed of their poverty and don't want others to see it.

    The sort of poverty that gives rise to huge slums in Nairobi needs to be eradicated. Using slums as a way of making a bit of money will not eradicate poverty. And even if it did, that would not excuse your treating people as part of a freak show to raise money.


  5. And here's Esther's reply:

    I think you are the one being patronizing, since you think you can speak for the people of Kibera.

    Maybe you should write to the big tour operators and not to a small organisation mostly owned by people from Kibera. I don't understand that you think that you can speak for my co-founders, who are from Kibera. Why don't you let them think and speak for themselves and let them earn a good living in tourism.

  6. You're right Esther. Next time I'm in Kibera I will ask people what they think. People who live there, not people who visited and said 'I felt so safe' and the like.