No one in Kibera can tell the exact date it all started. But everyone remembers seeing foreigners come and go.
In the beginning there were a few of them, and many locals believed they were volunteers at the many non-government organisations dotting the area.
But the numbers kept growing — and some of the local youths could be seen in the company of the foreigners. These youths, it later came to be known, were tour guides. Slum tourism had been born in Kenya.
“It happened in the blink of an eye,” Ms Lillian Wambua recalls her first experience with slum tourists. She wanted to bathe her two-month-old baby and had placed him in a water trough outside her door and gone back inside the house to pick a towel. As she was coming out, two foreigners suddenly appeared on a path that runs in front of her house.
“One of them took out a camera and took shots of the baby as the other bent and smiled at the baby.
“I wanted to protest but my eyes met a mean-looking member of the Siafu (a gang that controls a large area of Kibera) who was accompanying them and I kept my cool,” she says. The three then left as fast as they had appeared.
That was in 2008 when slum tourism was largely under the protection of cartels.
Lilian’s boy is now five years old. And although he is yet to start going to school, he has acquired a few English words, thanks to the tourists who frequent his neighbourhood. Like other children born in Kibera, Mathare and Korogocho, where slum tourism is booming, he always gets excited whenever a white person passes by. “How are you?” he shouts with a stretched hand, expecting to be greeted back.
Lilian says she sees this happen many times each day from the spot where she cooks and sells mandazi as her son plays nearby with other children.
“I feel disturbed to see the children act this way, but they are still young and innocent. However, I feel bad when people come from other countries to see how poor we are,” she says.
Mr Christopher Omollo a resident of Mathare also thinks this whole business is exploitative and degrading.
“There are so many orphanages and national parks that the large number of tourists coming here can be taken to. I don’t see anything that would draw visitors to Mathare when those who live here don’t even like it,” laments the cobbler.
Unknown to Lilian and Omollo, and despite their protests, the large number of tourists they are seeing in their neighbourhoods is not about to go away. Slum tourism is now competing with the main attraction sites in Kenya like the Masai Mara and most of the tourists trooping in for the high season are listing Nairobi slums as a must-see attraction.
Tour firms have taken advantange of the huge potential. They are now trying to outdo each other in marketing slums as destinations using fancy marketing lingo on their brochures and websites. A tourist can even book online from the comfort of his home abroad and be picked at the airport on arrival.
“Friendliest slum in the world: Do you really want to see the real Africa? Come and immerse yourself in a community that most tourists never see,” says Chocolate City tours on its website.
“A visit to Kibera takes you to the friendliest slum in the world,” says a statement on Africa Spice Safaris. For $100 (Sh8,700) the tour firm promises one a two-hour walk in Africa’s second biggest slum. This is the cheapest package available. Others like Victoria Safaris charge up to $250 (Sh21,750) for a tour to Kibera, Mukuru,
Kiambiu, Mathare and Korogocho. This cost caters for the tour only and tourists are allowed to donate to the projects they visit and the tour firms insist the money they charge goes to support these projects.
Mama Tunza Children Centre, a popular destination for tourists in Kibera disagrees that all the tour firms donate the proceeds to the projects they visit.
“I see tourists here everyday but apart from the donations they leave when they are here, no tour firm remits any money from what they charge. In fact, some come back and demand part of the donations made,” says Mr Hudson Kahi, who runs the centre.
Victoria Safari’s CEO James Asudi says slum tourism grew as a result of the dwindling wildlife numbers.
“If rhinos are being killed today just behind the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters what tourism do we have left in this country?” he poses.
“There is a time I went to South Africa and saw what was happening in Soweto and I thought if the same happened in Kenya, residents of Kibera and other slums could benefit if we introduced cultural tours.”
“I have seen a lot of children from the slums get scholarships courtesy of my firm from tourists who are touched when they see their plight. Furthermore, when the tourists visit the slums they buy artifacts directly from the residents, replacing middle-men who fleece them,” says Mr Asudi, who lived in Kibera in the 1970s.
His firm was the first to venture into slum tourism in 2007 and it got him in trouble with the government at that time.
“People called me all sorts of names and the police camped outside the door of my office claiming I was a rogue tour operator, who did not want to take tourists to Masai Mara and other traditional tourist attractions. Today it is the opposite, almost every tour firm has ventured into the venture,” he explains.
SLUM DOG MILLIONAIRE
Slum tourism has been around for long in Favela in Brazil, Soweto in South Africa and Dharavi in India where the award winning Hollywood movie Slum Dog Millionaire was shot.
In these countries where the practice is entrenched, slum dwellers have organised themselves into groups that oversee catering, train guides and market tourism in their locality.
It, however, gained popularity in Kenya after high profile personalities like then Senator Barack Obama visited Kibera in 2006. Soon after, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon came calling. This raised the curiosity of many foreigners.
To date, countless celebrities including 50 Cent, Russell Brand, Oliver Wilde and Chris Rock have been to Kibera for so-called charity tours although it is difficult to trace particular projects that they support.
“Kenya has got amazing wildlife but I have also heard about its slums bursting with poverty and I wanted to see for myself,” says Mr Aloysius Franztenberg a tourist.
“Sometimes it is good to see something first hand and to be able to relate with it,” he continues.
His wife, Berta Franztenberg, who was with him on a tour of Mathare said, “When we came to Africa we wanted to see the real Africa. The national parks and beaches present just one angle.”
Even as critics argue the trade is exploitative, curio shops are coming up in sections of the slums to cash in on the high number of visitors. Some have made arrangements with tour firms who take tourists there whenever they visit.
Power Women, a group of 20 women living with HIV in Kibera saw an opportunity in this and started a shop where they make and sell necklaces, bracelets, baskets, clothing and beads to visiting tourists. From just Sh3,000 that they contributed amongst themselves, they make an upwards of Sh5,000 per day from sales. Compared to other residents, the members of the group have a positive opinion on slum tourism.
“People should not just see the negative side of slum tourism. They should instead focus on how they can benefit from it,” says Ms Rosemary Adhiambo.
She adds: “A lot of people think that if you come to Kibera you will be mugged but when they come here they realise that people in Kibera are busy. Smart people have realised this but the non industrious ones are busy complaining.”
The curio shop has linked up with Arts Project, Kibera Tours and the Swedish School, which bring them tourists.
Ms Emily Benson, a 19-year-old student from Dalby, Sweden, was so inspired by her first visit to Kibera last year that she decided to start a project back home to sell the women’s wares. Apart from that she motivated her family members to visit Kibera and she even came back recently for a three-week tour. This time she wants to get more pictures of the slum so as to convince more people back in Sweden to help.
NOTHING LIKE IT
“In Sweden people see a slum as something negative but when I came here I realised that people here live as a community. Everyone here has a connection and there is a lot of closeness and it is nothing like it is in Sweden.”
“It is not like I want to take pictures just to say look! I was in Kibera, I just want to tell people to have a look and tell them this is real. This is how people live in Kenya’s slums.”
Ms Benson says she understands the frustration of some residents when strangers take pictures of them but insists that for change to come it has to be told.
“There is really a thin line between helping people and intruding on their privacy; but if that is the intention of some tourists it would be tragic,” she says.
She recently started selling the women’s wares through the “Harambee-Fighting HIV/AIDs” collection.