Kibera and tourist

Tourists often come to Kibera in Kenya to watch the slums. Photo: Ninara and PickPik

Guest chronicle

When addiction makes it difficult to criticize

I'm on the outskirts of Kibera in Nairobi. I am here on an internship at a small local organization that functions as a leisure center where children from the area can do homework, be creative and find peace. Kibera, popularly known as Kibra, is one of the largest informal settlements in East Africa.

In recent years, Kibera has attracted Western tourists who want to see what the poor areas of Kenya look like. That might not be so strange, do you think? You want to see the whole picture of a country. The demand for slum tours is great and there are a variety of operators that you can go there with.

There are divided opinions about whether the word "slum" is used here, some believe that the word is part of everyday life and try to point to a positive side of the "slum". Others believe that the word "slum" causes negative associations, which damages the area. The discussion reminds me of the one I bring home in Stockholm, when I talk about my suburb, Brandbergen.

The organization I practice with is one of those that offers private tours in Kibera. Unlike other operators, the organization wants to offer a positive view of a slum area, but this is not always the message. Most people who book tours with the organization are Swedes, mainly because the organization is strongly connected to its Swedish sister organization.

This is where complexity comes in.

When a group of Swedes book a trip in the slums, a lot of expectations and preconceived notions are added. Which is normal, it's part of being human. But, and here comes my question, have we Swedes thought about how we ourselves would have liked to be treated by a stranger who stepped into one's residential area?

In Nairobi, a lot of Swedes live, usually in the luxury area Karen or in other nice parts of the city. Swedish children have access to study the entire primary school at the Swedish school of Nairobi. A beautiful building surrounded by perfectly cut shrubs and electric fencing with guards. A Swedish teacher I met from there offered me to come there and swim in the school's private pool, so that I could "escape" the semi-dirty environment I am in at work. In short, the Swedes who live here live a pleasant and privileged life. It is also these Swedes, and relatives of them, who come on private trips to the organization.

The organization's desire to show tourists the positive side of Kibera is thus very difficult. The gap between these areas is so enormous, it's like switching between two worlds. Are we Swedes unable to understand the differences in power in the world? Or are the Swedish tourists I have encountered an exception?

My colleagues who insist on wanting to show a positive side of the area where they grew up, do not hear what I hear when the Swedes are visiting. In English, Swedes say nice things and do not question, but behind their backs there is wild talk. "Do you see what that child is wearing?" said a tourist laughing last week. When it was time to leave the youth center, the same tourist could not stop himself from lifting the child and taking him in his arms. Another asked: "Can you take pictures on the trip?" The question I would like to ask is, what do you want to take pictures of and why?

If you had stood at home on your terraced house plot in Sweden and a group of tourists had passed by, would you have accepted that someone lifted your child and then photographed it without your permission?

The answer usually remains no, no one wants anyone to intrude on their privacy and especially not Swedes who are so extremely strict about their personal sphere.

I have tried to compare it with Stockholm. Would I and my neighbors in Brandbergen accept if a group of rich tourists came to my farm to watch how we live, photograph, comment and point? Absolutely not. The tourists had certainly been chased away and never returned.

What is the difference then?

I had a conversation with a Kenyan friend of mine where I expressed my anger about class differences in the world and how unfair it is. My Kenyan friend had a hard time understanding me. "You can not question people from higher class affiliations, one day you may need their help and then you have to stay on good terms with them," he said.

The difference between me and my Kenyan friend is that - even though I live in a suburb of Stockholm and work hard to make it go around - I still have the opportunity to study at the university and make a class trip myself. It's not that simple here in Kenya. The state will not hold you back if you fail and they provide few basic necessities to their poor population. Non-governmental organizations do this instead, which often consists of a group of white people. White people that you must not question.

And there we have the big difference.

This is a guest column. The writer is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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