Monthly Archives: June 2010

Father George, Poverty Tourism, and the Slums of Kibera

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.

The Slums of Kibera in the City of Nairobi

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.

Doubts and Fears

On the morning of May 22, 1987 we made our way to the Minneapolis airport and flew to Nairobi, Kenya where the department chair, Dr. Tony Rodrigues, was waiting to welcome us to his adopted homeland–Tony is Goan and came to Nairobi in 1972 when Idi Amin exiled him, and thousands of other citizens of Asian descent, from his home in Uganda

Tony drove to our apartment in married student housing where we discovered that when he said the school would provide modest accommodations he was not kidding. It was a dreary flat with little furniture, empty walls, sagging mattresses, and bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Unlike other places in the neighborhood, though, it did have a functioning western toilet, refrigerator, and counter-top cooking coil.  That night my composure disappeared as I literally broke down and cried.  I looked around at the accommodations and was sure that this time I had overreached.  Doubts and fears crept into my mind as I wondered if this East African working vacation was all a colossal mistake. My wife had to wrap her arms around me and assure me that everything would work out for the best—much like a mother comforting a distraught child. Once more she was right as Kenya turned out to be the most extraordinary and enriching travel experience of our still short traveling lives, bare light bulbs and all.

Because of our relative newness to the working-vacation concept we had not considered the obvious solution to the problem of less than ideal housing. If the accommodations provided by the school, agency, or company are not to your liking then simply thank your hosts for what they have done, find a local real estate agent, and make your own arrangements realizing, of course, this will add significantly to your travel costs.  When faced with the dilemma of substandard housing ask yourself which is more important—more money in your pocket or higher quality living space.  Since we were not traveling with children, we decided we could make do with the proffered accommodations and chose to stay put.

The next morning Tony took us to the Thorn Tree Cafe, a famous outdoor bistro that is a gathering place for adventurers, big game hunters, guides, backpackers, and other assorted soldiers-of-fortune–it was people watching of the highest quality.  After breakfast he helped me move into my office and introduced me to Chris and Chegge, two young African graduate students also teaching at the university. They would become dear friends and join my wife and I on remote bush trips.

In the afternoon we wandered the neighborhood and made a pleasant discovery—a local YMCA with an outdoor pool surrounded by shaded chaise lounges, a perfect retreat on a warm, sunny afternoon for Nairobi residents of all types–locals and expats alike . Even more surprising was what we found not two blocks from home: a traffic circle, dubbed by locals the “religious roundabout,” rimmed with Catholic and Protestant churches as well as the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation–a 100-year-old institution serving the 175 Jewish families of greater Nairobi. We attended services the following Friday night and joined dozens of exuberant worshippers, both black and white, in a service that could just have easily been in Minneapolis.   Those nagging doubts from the previous night were already beginning to evaporate.

I know that many new travelers would not consider a working vacation in a place like Nairobi, limiting themselves to such comfortable cities as London, Paris, Florence.  You are haunted by the same concern that burrowed into my head that first day–will I be able to handle these living conditions? That is a shame because the cultural adventures, educational experiences, and plain old fun of working in a place like Kenya are truly unparalleled.  While it is true that the housing, shopping, dining, and infrastructure of Nairobi were not the equal of what we had in London, Jerusalem, and Sydney, it turned out to be of no import whatsoever.  The things that were important–people, friendships, culture, history, scenery, and wildlife–were every bit their equal, even surpassing, those of our three earlier working vacations.

So, when planning your next working vacation, you might wish to get our an atlas and expand your horizons because, just as my own doubts, fears, and uncertainties faded and disappeared, so too will yours, replaced by superb memories and stories to share with friends and family back home.

Childless In Africa

Normally, this African adventure story would begin in exactly the same fashion as my first three travel narratives:   “… and the family made its way to the Minneapolis airport for our long flight to Nairobi.”    However, plans changed dramatically when our two children, now 17 and 14, informed us that under no circumstances would they join us on this venture. As I knew must happen eventually, they had reached the age where hanging out with friends, playing video games, and going to the mall were far more appealing summer pastimes than spending a long period of forced interaction with mom and dad on the other side of the globe. I tried convincing them of the wondrous sights they’d see. No dice. I switched to begging, cajoling, even bribery. Still no sale.  We were at an impasse that appeared to have only three solutions: 1) I could drag them along unwillingly and spend three unpleasant months with dispirited, unhappy teenagers—not a pleasant thought. 2) I could cancel the trip entirely, or 3)  I could leave them in the care of responsible adults while my wife and I went on our merry way.  (Question for readers:  What would you do?)

My guess is most people would choose option two and cancel the trip, bemoaning their misfortune while promising to try again in a few years when the kids went off to college. That option did not appeal to us since there was no guarantee this unique teaching and travel offer would repeat itself four years hence—successful cold calls have a notoriously short shelf life. So we asked one more time and, when they refused yet again, met with the parents of their best friends whom we knew well and trusted thoroughly.

These friends agreed to serve as surrogate parents for three months, a move motivated not only by close friendship and our agreement to pay all of our children’s living expenses, but also enlightened self-interest. Their own kids, often bored and cranky during the long, hot summer months, would have full-time, live-in playmates. It worked out well for all parties although to this day our adult children, who now must dive into their own wallets to support a travel habit, lament this lost opportunity for an all-expense-paid three-month holiday in Africa. They still can’t believe we listened to their non-stop whining and complaining and allowed them to remain behind.

Of course I would have preferred that our children join us on this zoological, anthropological, and cultural odyssey, just as you would certainly enjoy having your entire family travel with you. But when that is no longer a viable option, throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity may not be the winning strategy. I understand that most parents do not want to leave their almost-but-not-quite adult children behind while they wander the globe; this runs counter to the parental instinct buried deep within our breast. In our case, though, this mutually voluntary three-month separation worked out quite well as each family member got exactly what he or she wanted from their summer hiatus.  The kids were able to sleep in, play, swim, read, watch TV, and even spend a few weeks at summer camp, while we had the cultural experience of a lifetime, an experience I will be sharing in the coming weeks.

So, before throwing in the towel when children balk at joining you, consider option three, traveling without the kids, either using family members or trusted friends in loco parentis, or sending them to summer camp for the duration of the overseas stay. No one will think you’re a bad parent, and everyone, parents and children alike, will have a wonderful time. Certainly you will enjoy it more than sitting home moping about what could have been.

The Thoroughly Modern and Beautiful Downtown Area of Nairobi, Kenya, One of The Most Lovely Cities In East Africa

So this working vacation story begins in a slightly unexpected way:  “For the fourth time in eight years, on May 22, 1987 Ruth and I, but not our children, trekked to the Minneapolis airport to begin our next working vacation–this time an East African safari adventure.

A Little Mathematics Maestro!

Some skeptics will read the last post and laugh at the idea of cold calling as a viable way of locating working vacations.  With images of struggling telemarketers firmly in mind they argue you would need to contact hundreds of institutions to have even the tiniest chance of success.  I want to show you they are wrong, not just by saying it but by proving it mathematically!

A few years ago the New Yorker ran a cartoon entitled “What Hell Is Really Like.”  There was Satan, complete with horns and pitchfork, standing over some poor, unfortunate wretch writhing in pain and straining to read the words on a piece of paper.  It said “A train leaves New York going 40 miles per hour … ”  While I don’t believe that Hell is an endless series of algebra story problems, I know that many of you will smile and sympathize.  Therefore, I tread carefully when presenting a mathematical argument, and I will try my best not to make this too difficult to follow.

Let’s assume there is one chance in twenty (probability p = 0.05) of success, i.e., of getting a “Yes, we want you” response to your cold call or blind email.  That means you will get back a “No thank you” nineteen times out of 20 (p = 0.95).  Furthermore, let’s say you have contacted four institutions, A, B, C, and D, trying to find that dream offer.

The likelihood that exactly one of these four places says Yes is equal to the chance of getting exactly one Yes and exactly three Nos, which mathematically is  equal to (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.0428687 .  However, that single Yes could come from either A, B, C, or D, so the overall probability of getting exactly one Yes from any one of your four inquiries is four times that previous number, or 4 x 0.0428687 = 0.1715.

However, the true odds are better than that.  If you are a lucky individual you might get two Yeses from your four cold calls.  Of course you cannot accept two jobs at the same time, but you are free to pick the one that best suits you. There are six different ways that two places can both say Yes:  (A, B), (A, C), (A, D), (B, C), (B, D), and (C, D).  The chance of any one of these events happening is the probability of getting exactly two Yeses and exactly two Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.0022562.  So, the overall probability of getting exactly two Yeses from anywhere is 6 x 0.0022562 = 0.0135.  I won’t go through the mathematics of exactly three and four Yeses (rare events) but the sum of all these values is the probability that you will receive one or more Yeses in response to your four inquiries. That final total is 0.1855, or about 18.6%.

Now think about what that means. Even if you have only one chance in twenty of anyone being interested in you, simply by contacting four schools you will have improved your chances of landing a position from one in twenty to 18.6%, almost one in five.  If I told you that spending an hour or so on your computer would result in a one in five chance of an all-expenses paid three-month safari to Kenya would you do it?  Of course you would.  Well, then, why haven’t you!

And you can do even better.  As I said in my last post, the Web makes it very easy to get names and addresses of overseas institutions, so why limit yourself to contacting just four?  If, for example, you send out eight emails (assuming there are eight institutions where you could work), and the probability of success is still one in twenty, the odds go up to one chance in three!  With thirteen emails, you will have a 50/50 chance of finding and getting that dream vacation.  Now that doesn’t sound like the impossibility skeptics would have you believe, does it?

And, finally, for those who scoff at my assumption of a one in twenty chance of success (a value based on my own cold calling experiences), let’s lower the chances to one in fifty.  Even with these dismal odds (who would bet on a 50-1 shot at the racetrack?) if you were to send out eight exploratory emails you will have a 15% chance of landing a position; send out fifteen emails and your odds go up to one in four–a heck of a lot better than the lottery!   With the universal availability of the Web, word processors, and free e-mail software, sending out fifteen inquiries is probably not even one afternoon’s labors.

So, for all those individuals who have been able to wade through my mathematical arguments this far, I hope you are now motivated enough to send out a few unsolicited emails to those dream destinations–India, Norway, Germany, Austria–you described in your comments.  Remember, the odds are in your favor!

Hakuna Matata (No Problem, Man)

Although England and Australia are wealthy nations, Israel in 1983 was not the first world place it is today with a higher per capita income than many European nations. If our family could enjoy living in a developing nation such as Israel, how might we fare in an even poorer, third world location? That question intrigued us as my wife and I had talked for years about working in East Africa, not just for its world-famous game parks but also for the natural beauty and unparalleled archeological history. After our first three overseas adventures, all of which were professionally, culturally, and financially successful, I was feeling cocky about the living conditions our family could handle.

Because of that (perhaps unfounded) confidence we decided our next adventure should take us to Kenya, but how to pull that off? What was the chance of lunching with a Kenyan computer science professor at my next meeting? Near zero. What was the probability of reading an article about computer science teaching shortages in East Africa? Rather small. So, instead of waiting for the improbable to happen I decided on a new approach, an approach that turned out to be startlingly obvious, absurdly simple, and amazingly successful—the cold call. Yes, that irritating technique used by salesman, politicians, and scammers worldwide would now be put to use for a very different purpose.

In early 1987 I journeyed to my school library to track down the e-mail address of the computer science chair at the University of Nairobi, the best IT program in East Africa. (The Web makes it much easier to track down this type of obscure information–you could Google that answer in a few seconds.)   I composed a letter stating my desire to come to Kenya for three months, work at the university, and become a part of Kenyan culture and society.   I attached a résumé with my educational background, teaching experience, professional references, and scholarly interests. I also included syllabi of courses I could teach and workshops I could offer.

Campus of the University of Nairobi Where I Taught for Three Months in Summer 1987

Unbeknownst to me my out-of-the-blue letter arrived at a most propitious moment as the university was planning major upgrades to its technical offerings in medicine, engineering, finance, and computer science. They were excited to have me visit, and after a few e-mail exchanges we worked out an arrangement whereby I would consult on curriculum redesign and teach one course that winter quarter–Kenya is in the southern hemisphere, so my three-month summer hiatus conveniently fell in the middle of their academic year.  In exchange the university would provide one round-trip air ticket, modest on-campus accommodations, and a small living allowance. These funds, along with my regular Macalester paycheck (I was on a twelve-month pay schedule) and rental income from our home, would allow us to roughly break even—not bad for a three-month “working safari” for a family of four.

This fortuitous turn of events taught me an important travel lesson.  In the case of our working vacations to England and Israel I had waited to learn about an opportunity and only then contacted the parties involved.  However, with this African success fresh in my mind, I realized I could reverse that process–first decide on an attractive destination for a short-term stay and then contact institutions in that location to see if they would be interested in hosting a visit.  While cold calls and blind e-mails will, of course, not always be successful this is a technique worthy of your time and effort and which, surprisingly, can offer a reasonably good chance of success–a claim I promise to prove in my next posting.

And The Winner Is …

Dear Readers,

We had nine people provide the correct answer, Nairobi Kenya,  to the contest question.  They were:  dreambreak, Krista, Cara, Peter Drexel, Animash Rawal, Gloria, joe, Alfred Thompson, and Felicity.

So,  I put all nine names in a hat and drew out one for the $25 gift certificate to  And the winner is: Gloria.  I will be sending her the gift certificate shortly.

Congrats to all, whether you guessed correctly or not.  And please tune in tomorrow when I put up a new post about our family’s working vacation adventures in Nairobi.

Talk To Me, People. Talk to Me!

For the past few months I have been running off at the mouth about my working vacations, about my travel experiences.   Well, let’s change that.  Instead, I now would like to know your feelings about leaving home for a temporary position overseas,  your thoughts about living in a completely new culture, your “dream destination.”

Here is the scenario:  Your department chair, director, manager, or supervisor has just informed you that your request for a temporary six-month leave of absence to work overseas has been approved and, best of all, your job will be waiting for you when you return.  You are free to rent out your house and search for a temporary position abroad, comfortable in the knowledge that you are not burning any bridges behind you–your home, friends, family (and paycheck) will be there when you get back.

So, my questions to you are:  1) Where in the world would you most like to go or, if you have already lived out this scenario, where did you go, and 2)  what kind of work would you like to do (or did you do) overseas?

Finally, to spice things up a bit, I am adding a “Jeopardy!” style travel contest to the mix.  See if you can guess, from the following clue, the location of our family’s next working vacation, a trip I will begin to describe in the next post.  Include in your comments  the city identified in the clue, and the winner will receive a $25 gift certificate from to purchase a travel memoir or guide book for that next dream trip.  If we have multiple correct answers I will draw one name at random from among all the correct responses.  Please send in your comments and guesses prior to my next blog entry which will be posted early on the morning of June 17th.  (Sorry, no friend or family winners allowed since you were probably there at the airport to see us off!)  And, while you are here, I invite you to subscribe to my blog and get automatic notification of future posts and contests.  Just click the “Sign Me Up!” button in the right-hand column.

Clue: I am the capital of a country whose name means “God’s resting place” in the local language.  My two largest agricultural exports are tea and coffee but my biggest money earner by far is tourism, with about 2 million visitors arriving last year.