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.

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5 responses to “Father George, Poverty Tourism, and the Slums of Kibera

  1. Can you help me with the coordinates of father George?
    I want to contact him and make some contribution.
    Thank you.

  2. Hi everyone, – uncovered your current internet site accidentally when wandering around the net this morning, and happy that I did! I do like the structure and tones, but I should point out that I’m having issues when it loads. I’m making use of ELinks 0.11 browser, and the footer does not align completely. Seems OK in OmniWeb45 however.

  3. Interesting post. I think you exaggerate the problem, though. It’s not that too many tourists visit slums or that poverty tourism is “available from agencies, large and small, around the world. These companies provide comfortable, safe, and fully narrated bus tours” (can you actually provide the website address of a single international travel operator who does what you say here?), but that only a tiny fraction of foreign visitors to developing countries ever go anywhere near the reality of life on the ground for their hosts. While of course your own commitment as someone providing humanitarian assistance is laudable and should be emulated as much as possible, surely it’s a good thing that ordinary tourists are given exposure to local conditions and the opportunity to make a visit and be affected by what they experience. Kibera is not some ghetto that visitors to Kenya should shun. *My* issue is not with visiting per se, but with the local, Nairobi-based operators (all small, as far as I know) who offer guided walks in Kibera, but who, to my knowledge, do so as part of their other profit-making tour programmes and, while claiming to leave some benefits with Kibera residents, are less than transparent about that. For anyone, such as yourself, with good access to Kibera and its citizens, the ideal solution would surely be helping to set up one or two Kibera-based tour operators to bring visitors into the neighbourhood, where some of their welcome foreign currency could be spent in Kibera’s snackbars and shops. If more tourists came, more Kibera businesses would emerge and more Kibera capital (what there is of it. . .) would stay in Kibera to develop the community.

    Just a thought.

  4. Having been in Nairobi for about a month now working with an organization that focuses on human rights for people in the slums, I have heard about this “poverty tourism.” It’s pretty incredible- and of course any big shot who comes through Nairobi has to visit Kibera (the latest being Joe Biden). I feel appalled that tourist agencies are actually profiting from something like that, but I can see the other side that any attention on the slums could be good. It definitely has brought a lot of money to Kibera (which ironically brings more and more people from the rural areas to settle there, making conditions worse), and maybe it will encourage the government to follow through with slum upgrading.

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