Washingtone, Godwin and Chrispine work in “slum promotion”. That is an all-encompassing term, they say, for the work they do as tour guides and fixers in Kibera, where they were born and raised.
They often come under fire for bringing foreigners into the ghetto, but believe their intentions are misunderstood by many members of their community.
In this exclusive interview, the three young men tell DN2 why they do what they do and how they navigate the murky ethical waters that come with the controversial job.
I need to eat,” says Washingtone Jadivera, a 26-year-old tour guide working in Kibera. There is no shame or guilt in his expression as he talks about his controversial business in Kenya’s famous slum. “I have bills to pay,” he continues. “It was harsh for me to finish my diploma — I wasn’t financially stable and I only have one parent.”
We are sitting in a crumbling retail building on the outskirts of Kibera, joined for the conversation by Godwin Oyindo and Chrispine Omondi.
They nod their heads in agreement; they too know the financial trials of “the hustle”.
The three young men have been friends since childhood and grew up exploring the decrepit, muddy streets of the slum. Now they make their living taking foreigners through them.
Washingtone, Godwin and Chrispine refer to themselves as “slum promoters”, or, in other words, freelance tour guides and fixers working for journalists writing about Kibera. They translate interviews, spot locations and connect reporters with tough-to-find sources.
“So many people get mad,” says Godwin, shaking his head. “They say we are helping the foreigners to take their pictures and then send them abroad to make money.”
The young men are very aware of the ethical concerns surrounding their work, but ultimately have no qualms about inviting outsiders into Kibera. There is simply a right way and a wrong way do it, they tell me as I interrogate them on the hardest parts of what it means to work in “slum promotion”.
Problems with pictures
In 2013, the International Journal of Arts and Commerce published a study on slum tourism in Nairobi and found that photography was the number one attraction for tourists visiting Kibera.
According to a survey of nearly 500 Kibera residents and employees in the industry, the practice surpasses viewing local houses, sampling food and entertainment, and experiencing the day-to-day activities of people in the slum.
This is one of the trickiest parts of being a tour guide, says the trio. Despite their best efforts to explain that photos are not permitted in certain areas, a good number of clients will take them anyway.
The men are then stuck with the difficult task of pacifying those who have been captured in the picture and feel exploited or degraded as a result.
“Sometimes (the tourists) are ignorant, they don’t know,” says Washingtone, adjusting a green bandana that holds dreadlocks away from his face. “It’s upon you to make sure he or she is safe.”
The young filmmaker has been working as a tour guide since 2004 and escorted more than 200 tourists in 2014 alone. To try and minimise issues with photography, he gives all of his clients a cultural sensitivity talk before they begin their tour in Kibera.
“First you talk to them,” he explains. “You ask them what they know about Kibera and then what they want to know. I won’t just show them (poor) children and say, ‘Take a picture,’ until we talk about it.”
Washingtone insists that his clients understand the historical context behind every photo, and uses “The View Point” as an example.
The rooftop scene of Kibera is located along the “Lunatic Line”, he explains, where post-election violence flared in 2007 when the railway tracks were overturned.
But, what happens when tourists want photos of people but can’t get permission to take them? Do the promoters have any “photo safe zones” where Kibera residents have already given consent?
The answer is no, says Godwin, a bright 26-year-old who has worked as a tour guide and fixer since 2011. He deals with the issue on a case-by-case basis and often finds himself explaining to residents that no one is profiting off of their photo.
“If you know that is what will make them happy, you have to get them there,” he says. “But not all (tourists) want to do that, some of them just want to see Kibera, how people live.”
I ask the young men whether they ever say “no” to pictures or projects they feel are unethical or misrepresent life in the slum. Each has a different experience with foreigners and a different answer to my question.
Refusing the work
“I will take because I need the money,” says Chrispine, 27. With only three years of experience as a fixer and tour guide, he is the most junior promoter among the group.
Chrispine is the eldest son in a large family and his single mother cannot afford all of her children’s school fees. He dropped out of his own studies at Nairobi Technical Training Institute to offer his younger brothers a chance to pursue their own education. The income he earns supports his family and he can’t afford to turn down a job.
Godwin and Washingtone consider the issue carefully — everything is complicated when their bread and butter depend on the satisfaction of their foreign clients. If they say “no” they risk losing their income, but if they say “yes” they risk tarnishing the reputation of Kibera.
For every empowering article or image published about the world-famous slum, they say, there are probably a dozen online that illustrate classic stereotypes of poverty, misery and illness in Africa.
A quick online search of Kibera gives credence to their estimate; the Internet is crawling with stories and pictures of crime, destitution and corruption in the slum.
As fixers and tour guides, the men use whatever influence they have to stop visitors from misrepresenting the place where they grew up, but every now and then they hit a brick wall.
Much to his dismay, says Godwin, some of his clients are pretty persistent.