In Summary
  • A tourist can even book online from the comfort of his home abroad and be picked at the airport on arrival.
  • 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.
  • The curio shop has linked up with Arts Project, Kibera Tours and the Swedish School, which bring them tourists.

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.

FANCY MARKETING

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.
Demand donations

“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.”

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