A friends from Minneapolis gave us the name of her former parish priest, Father George, who left his pulpit in Minnesota to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Nairobi, a worldwide organization established by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa. Its volunteers, both lay and clergy, are committed to helping the neediest members of society—lepers, AIDS sufferers, street children, the homeless. Following our arrival we contacted Father George, who invited us to join him as he made his rounds of Kibera, a place unimaginable to anyone who has not traveled outside the first world.
Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi. It covers only one square mile but is home to one million people, a population density ten times greater than Mumbai, the most densely populated city in the world. Dilapidated dwellings rise atop mounds of rotting garbage and human waste, and due to the absence of sewers and drains these deteriorated residences routinely flood during the rainy season and must be rebuilt every year. Although Kibera is geographically within the city of Nairobi, it is not really part of it as the police routinely refuse to enter, and it has no access to basic city services such as water, sanitation, and electricity.
We spent the day in Kibera with Father George, distributing food and medical supplies, participating in last rites for the dying, drinking tea, and talking with residents. It was a disturbing but highly enlightening experience. The dominant emotions in Kibera are not anger and despair but determination and persistence. Residents go to Herculean efforts—for example, walking two hours each way to menial jobs in the central city—to improve their lot and provide for their children. Hearing their stories made me embarrassed by my initial reaction to our apartment with its lumpy mattresses and bare light bulbs. It also made my wife and me mindful of why these working vacations were becoming such an important part of our lives.
One word of caution, though. Our visit was by invitation of someone living and working in Kibera. He wanted us to experience living conditions in the slums, bring that knowledge back to the United States, and share it with students and faculty at my school, which I did. At the time of our visit my wife and I were among only a handful of Western visitors to spend any time in those squalid streets. The situation today is completely different because of a new form of niche travel called poverty tourism available from agencies, large and small, around the world. These companies provide comfortable, safe, and fully narrated bus tours of not only Kibera but the slums of Calcutta, townships of South Africa, shantytowns of Mexico City, and favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the last few years slum visits have become a fashionable form of day tripping, as world-weary travelers grow bored with the standard sightseeing menu of museums, beaches, and shopping.
Proponents of these tours cite the educational experience of learning about conditions in the slums. They argue they are providing desperately needed jobs for bus drivers and tour guides as well as creating valuable opportunities for residents to sell locally made handicrafts. They also believe the embarrassment of tourists witnessing horrific living conditions just a few miles from their own luxury accommodations will pressure local politicians to clean up these neighborhoods. Opponents argue this is simply a way for unscrupulous travel agents to make money off the humiliation and desperation of others, and there is precious little education to be gained snapping photos of shantytowns from a bus window. A recent editorial in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper, castigated movie stars, well-heeled businessmen, and other dignitaries for their current fascination with slums like Kibera, perhaps fueled by the popularity of the 2005 movie The Constant Gardener in which it played a starring role.
It is quite possible that a working vacation will take you and your family to impoverished or developing nations, much like our trip to Kenya as well as later visits to Nepal, Borneo, and Mongolia. Poverty tourism is a moral issue you will need to think about and resolve in your mind as you mull over proffered visits to urban slums, charity hospitals, leper colonies, and other places of poverty, pain, and despair. Of course there is no universal answer to this dilemma, and you will need to decide each case individually based on the goals of the visit, the benefits it brings to residents, and whether you and your family will learn and grow from this intensely emotional experience.