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On being a good tourist in poor parts of the world!

Hello friends! I was in South Africa a few months back and my time there inspired me to repost this gem I wrote a few years ago when I was in Brazil on slum tourism. You see again folks have asked me if I want go to tour Soweto and my feelings  about slum tourism from my time in Brazil remain, so here goes…

When I was in Brazil a few years ago I kept a list entitled “things to do in Brazil.” Every time someone suggests a restaurant, a club, a museum and a food that I should absolutely try while I was there, I whipped out my phone and recorded it!  I did the same in South Africa, well with music amongst other things( because I am so behind on these house beats), and there is still one thing I did NOT do in Brazil and will not do in South Africa.

I did not go on a favela tour in Rio de Janeiro and I will not go on a slum tour of Soweto.

One of my favorite internet phenomena a few years back was a now non- existent tumblr called “Gurl Goes to Africa.” This blog was a collection of Facebook pictures of “white girls” who went to visit in Africa, for whatever reason, and took these pictures with the “ locals” that they captioned with things like, “These African babies are so much lighter than American babies.”( yes I rolled my eyes to the back of my head at this) In turn their family and friends commented “ Aww honey we are so proud of you, putting a smile on the faces of these poor African kids.” The Onion, America’s finest news source (that some people never seem to realize is satire), summed it up well with the article, “ 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture”.  This blog went viral for various reasons including why he chose to highlight only girls and more interestingly it sparked a debate on the ethics of volunteerism/voluntourism in poor parts of the world and personal photo journalism that comes with it, including practices such as slum tourism.

Hear me out. If you are not familiar with it, slum tourism is a type of tourism that involves visiting impoverished areas of the world for well various reasons, to be discussed later. The practice was actually interestingly originally focused on the slums of London and Manhattan in the 19th Century (thanks wikipedia). “Now, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Johannesburg to the garbage dumps of Mexico, tourists are forsaking, at least for a while, beaches and museums for crowded, dirty — and in many ways surprising — slums” (direct quote from some article praising slum tourism, inset eye roll here). Wait, can we take a moment to recognize that early slum tourism was in Manhattan??? Thank you, you may all take your seats now.

Slum tourism is a divisive subject and I have so much to say on it. I worked on this article for a while just to try to be as concise as possible. It still ran long but I promise you it is good read, so here goes.

One school of thought calls slum tourism a clever way of raising awareness of social conditions and poverty to people who would otherwise never know about it. In the 1980s in South Africa, in an attempt to bring global attention to gross human rights violations occurring due to apartheid, black residents brought slum tourism onto themselves, by organizing township tours to educate the whites in local governments and the world about the racially segregated, impoverished districts they were being forced to live in. In that same line of reasoning, to conquer the perception of slum residents as helpless in their situation, Dharavi Tours in India aims to showcase the Dharavi slum in Mumbai as the heart of small-scale industry in the city. Visitors on this tour experience a wide range of economic activities including recycling, pottery making, embroidery, baking, soap-making, leather tanning, poppadom making and many more.

In her article, The End of the Developing World, Dayo Olopade wrote about how poor people live in the optimal space of solutions and are entrepreneurs by necessity, because they have to come up with solutions to survive everyday. She even went on to claim a thing or 2 about sustainability could be learnt from these “lean” economies by the “fat” economies of the west, which would a great outcome of slum tourism if ever. As an added bonus some slum tour companies claim to be ploughing back some of their profits to the slum communities they showcase, an arguable point if you ask me because if they do improve the slums, they will be out of a job right?  

The other school of thought is where I stand. Slum tourism at its core is a form of exploitation of the poor and their situation and stories without their explicit permission.

Let me set this picture for you.

Some of my African friends and I have a running joke for years now. You know the hungry looking kids in some NGO commercials and brochures, we totally think we could have made the cut.  

I grew up in a middle-income family in a modest neighborhood in Zimbabwe. I was a normal kid whose daily routine after school was change, eat, do my homework and go out to play with my best friend Brenda and other kids on my street. My mother insisted I wear my worn out clothes for these afternoon exploits because I came back home, shoeless,  looking like a little ghost from top to bottom with red clay-caked feet, from running around on the street in the dirt all day. Two things were a wonder to us growing up, great big cars and white people. They were such a rare sight in our neighborhood that we gathered around then in little crowds in awe if we ever saw one on our street. I do not remember if this ever happened to me, but if any of them ever had a camera, Brenda and I would probably put on these wide toothed smiles and jostle each other to be in the front of a picture.  

The Internet is rife with such images; these smiling kids from Bangladesh and Ethiopia,  who have no idea what having their picture taken like that means or where it is going. These pictures are the reason why when I got to college in the US , one of the questions I got from my curious classmates, was “Oh you are from Africa, how does it feel wearing shoes???”  More importantly these kids have no idea what stories are being told about them. My first introduction to one of my favorite writers to date, Chimamanda Adichie, was through a TED talk called The Danger of a Single Story.  It’s a summary of how most of us insist on one lens of looking at the world, and we like to box things and people, especially when they are unfamiliar. The captions on the pictures on “Gurl goes to Africa” tell a story of privilege and people using it intentionally or not to tell other people’s stories who cannot defend themselves. No matter how good the intentions are, the fact of the matter is the poor are often victims in this power dynamic because they do not in turn have a platform to express themselves after all is said and done.

All this is not to say there are no people without food, shelter, and basic commodities and services in Africa, India, and Brazil. They are there, just like there are very poor people in similar conditions in Detroit, Chicago and DC. There are ways of helping them, and snapping pictures of people in these situation and and captioning it, “Look, this is called a camera! I don’t know if you have these in Africa…” is not one of those ways.

For whatever reason people go on slum tours, slum tourism effectively turns poverty into a spectacle and entertainment that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from.  Aside from snapping away at the sight of a half dressed kid in front of a tin house, most of the time the visitors barely interact with residents of slums. Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan who grew up in the Kibera slums in Nairobi, wrote about seeing a group of tourists enter the home of a young woman giving birth in his home in Kibera. They stood and watched as she screamed. Eventually the group continued on its tour, cameras loaded with images of a woman in pain.

What did they learn?

I can guarantee you they did not chat about the state of healthcare in Kenya and the World Health Organization’s MDG goals of fighting martenal mortality by educating populations about the dangers of births in non sterile conditions, or the cultural significance of a home birth in some parts of Africa, or the role of midwives in these situations, I could go on and on. Perhaps I am too cynical they did, but for like all of 30 seconds, and the rest of the time, they were feeling damn lucky it is not them.

And did the woman gain anything from the experience?  I will leave that to you, dear audience.

My last note, people in extreme poverty exist largely because of the failings of socio-economic and political systems to protect them and provide them with the means and opportunities to get out of these situations. Slum tourism is a display of government failure, and I will never get how governments allow this to occur at all.  Well in Zimbabwe, my government once tried to hide its failures in one Operation Murambatsvina/ Drive out Rubbish, where up to 700,000 people were displaced in what the government called a crackdown on illegal housing.

There is an argument ( often made by the Republicans in America), that people are poor because they want to be, which is totally not warranted. In a graduation speech once, Neil Degrassi Tyson said, “We live in a world where not everyone has the urge to help others. It is OK to encourage others to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. But if you do, just remember that some people have no boots. ”They have no boots and barely a voice to defend themselves when accosted with this depiction of their stories.

So dear friends, please be good and responsible tourists in poor countries. Think twice before you take a close up picture of the family begging on the streets in Ethiopia, or people picking garbage in Mexico or half dressed children in Rio. They may smile for the camera but you as a person in a position of power should know better than to exploit their image and their circumstances in such a away. Go on your favela tour and get whatever satisfaction you get from it but remember to be respectful of people’s situations and their stories when you document your visit.  Or better just don’t do it, it’s in bad taste.

Now for the big finish, remember Kennedy Odede’s words on Kibera slum tourists,

They get a picture, we lose a piece of our dignity.”

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