Slum Tourism: A Look at Both Sides of the Debate

When I traveled to South Africa in June just before the World Cup was about to begin, this being my first time there, I had a list of things to tackle including climbing Cape Town’s Table Mountain, hiking in the Drakensberg mountains, going on a Kruger safari, going to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and of course, enjoying the World Cup up close. Visiting a township was right near the top of this list.

The first time was outside of Cape Town, when we headed into what seemed like an entirely different world but was only a 20-minute drive from the city- the sprawling townships that were built to contain blacks and Coloureds during apartheid and keep them away from Cape Town proper. We drove by what seemed like some decent houses before passing wooden shacks and outhouses; a pattern that would be repeated during the trip. Finally we got out at a housing complex, walked into a sparse apartment and then a nearby hostel where rooms held several families sleeping on one bed each. We visited a kindergarten where we were “mobbed” by little tykes who urged us to take their pictures and lift them up.

Visiting Soweto a few weeks later, I walked through the place where black students were gunned down by police 34 years ago for protesting the enforced teaching of Afrikaans, but which now boasted a fine museum and neat brick houses, and down a street where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived. What had been a key battleground in the struggle against apartheid was now a symbol of optimism and a proud heritage. Both times, I came away feeling illuminated, heartened that I had directly encountered, if only a little bit of, the less glamourous but vital aspect of this fascinating nation.

If all this sounds like a good travel experience, then you aren’t the only one. Taking a tour of slums and townships used to be unheard of but in recent years it has become an essential tourist activity. The idea behind people visiting these communities isn’t difficult to understand. Tourism supposedly benefits the communities when tour operators help support schools and art centers while tourists get a better understanding of the locals’ lives. However, “slum tourism” has also been heavily criticized, especially for being voyeuristic and not bringing significant benefits to locals.

Soweto's Vilikazi Street is where the houses of human rights icons Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu ca be found.

Soweto’s Vilikazi Street is where the houses of human rights icons Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu ca be found.

A recent NY Times (Aug. 9) opinion piece revived the debate over slum tourism. It was notable because the writer, Kennedy Odebe, is a Kenyan from Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Odebe questioned slum tourism, describing how he felt like a “tiger in a cage” when a tourist once photographed him as he was hungry and washing dishes outside his home. He even told of seeing a tour group being led into a room where a woman was giving birth!

Odebe’s article is not a bitter rant  but a poignant stand against slum tourism, saying that the temporary experience of slum tours benefits tourists while locals gain nothing much and lose “a piece of their dignity.” On the Aidwatchers blog, mostly written by William Easterly, it has inspired a spirited debate on slum tourism. Easterly, an NYU professor and the author of “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” is a strong critic of slum tourism.

The article also made me reconsider my positive attitude towards slum tours.

I had found my visits to Cape Town townships and to Johannesburg’s Soweto to be good. What really stood out for me weren’t just the visits or the sights. It was the words of the guide Thabani who talked about apartheid, life in the townships and the nation’s pressing issues, made all the more striking by being able to observe the physical manifestation of apartheid around us in the form of the sprawling townships. At one of our stops, there were several men hanging around outside a nearby apartment block, presumably because they were unemployed, this being a weekday morning. Thabani told us about the high level of unemployment in the townships and the underlying reasons.

Table Mountain looms in the background of a Cape Town township.

Table Mountain looms in the background of a Cape Town township.

“It is not that these people aren’t looking for work,” he said. Under Bantu education during apartheid, blacks weren’t taught maths and science, resulting in adults with little knowledge and undereducated teachers, he explained. This was why there were not enough doctors and engineers in South Africa and why so many adults didn’t have skills to find decent jobs.

Yet, I was rationalizing township tourism from my perspective, but what about the locals? Odebe’s article raised very strong points from a resident’s perspective against slum tourism. Are there benefits to slum tourism and how significant are they?

It’s no secret that slum tourism has been growing in popularity and frequency, especially after the 2008 hit film Slumdog Millionaire which was partly set in a Mumbai slum.

Many tourists are visiting slums partly out of curiosity, but also out of a desire to understand more of the places they visit, which in the case of slums, represent a significant part of major cities like Mumbai, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro. Many visitors to South Africa choose township tours, especially to Soweto. Places like Nairobi’s Kibera and Cape Town’s Khayelitsha have hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, making them equivalent to a city.

Slum tourism provokes different kinds of responses from residents. This was what Brian Ekdale, an American PhD student who lived in Nairobi and worked with Kibera organizations for a year, encountered first hand through many conversations. “When you ask some Kibera residents how people outside could know more about Kibera — both the bad and the good — some people suggest that outsiders should come to Kibera. They should see with their own eyes, they should talk to Kibera residents and not just believe what they see in the media and hear from those who have stereotyped slum residents,” said Ekdale.

Not everybody he spoke with felt the same way though. “[Tourists are] paying to come to Kibera and take some pictures of Kibera, but the Kibera people are not having anything. They don’t have any share. They are not being given anything…Their lives are just getting worse or just being the same as it was yesterday. It’s not changing,” said one resident. Many residents seemed to feel this, Ekdale said.

The varying reactions that Ekdale got is reflective of how difficult it is to pigeonhole slum tourism, arousing both positive and negative feedback from outsiders and residents. The criticisms usually center on the voyeuristic factor and the lack of visible benefits from the tours. Things seem to be improving from the past, at least based on the way how many tours are run now.

Many agencies support facilities and programs in the slums they bring tours to. Our Cape Town township guide reminded us that our money went towards the community. Now, how substantial this was, I don’t know but one thing that stood out for me was how few formal businesses there were within the townships. Also, unemployment is high in South Africa, estimated at over 20 percent, but in the townships it is even higher, with the guide saying it is around 40 percent. I didn’t doubt it. I couldn’t help thinking that township tours were a significant part of the economy, by supporting local schools or community centers and training programs.

Later on, when I went to the Drakensberg mountain range on the other side of South Africa, my backpackers (hostel) did a daytrip into Lesotho. A roughly circular, mountainous kingdom that is surrounded by South Africa, it is the world’s third poorest nation, a local teacher told us. At one village, there was a primary school that the hostel had helped renovate. The main building was a small one-story structure that had become too crowded for the students. Right next to it was a smaller building, which the hostel had supplied building materials for. The hostel also provided stationery, furniture and gardening equipment. The village had started building it and did not have enough funds to complete it, until the backpackers helped out. Given this was the only primary school in the village, I don’t think the backpacker’s support was insubstantial.

Besides South Africa’s townships and Kenya’s Kibera slum, Dharavi is another popular place for slum tourism. Located in India’s largest city of Mumbai, Dharavi is a massive slum settlement of over one million that has a thriving economy including entrepreneurs, small manufacturers and craftsmen.

Reality Tours runs tours into Dharavi, taking people to see this entrepreneurship and meet residents. The company also funds its own charity, a registered non-profit organization called Reality Gives. Reality Gives maintains a kindergarten and a community centre that runs English classes and workshops.

The tour’s cofounder Chris Way stressed the importance of changing perceptions, “we try to break down the negative image of the residents of Dharavi.” This helps makes outsiders perceive slum residents with more dignity, as people who work, support families and enjoy life. Way also bans photography, as he found it “verges on [voyeurism].”

Way says they initially faced opposition from locals over bringing tourists into Dharavi, but after explaining his purpose, their anger dissipated.

Similarly, my understanding of South Africa would have been significantly limited if I had only gone to scenic places and not into the townships. Soweto was a key battleground of the struggle against apartheid including the 1976 Soweto Student Uprising. Visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum, which commemorates the victims, and walking on the nearby streets where the protest occurred gave me an appreciation of Soweto and its people. It may be a place where much poverty and crime exists, but it also has a proud role in the nation’s history and an integral part of Johannesburg.

This memorial pays tribute to Hector Pietersen, who was gunned down during the 1976 Soweto student riots.

This memorial pays tribute to Hector Pietersen, who was gunned down during the 1976 Soweto student riots.

Direct interaction goes a long way to promote mutual appreciation and avoid having locals be seen and pitied as disadvantaged people, which Odebe particularly criticized in his Times piece. Slum tours have become more engaging than voyeuristic, as travelers get to visit schools and businesses, talk to residents, attend church services or even have a drink in a neighborhood bar. My Lesotho outing to the village had us being accompanied on a hike by village kids, then a football game with some older kids, and finally a bout of pineapple beer at a home “brewery.” I have no way of knowing how the locals really felt, but the ones we met didn’t seem like they resented our presence.

Sometimes tourists are spurred on to further action, whether it is to donate to organizations or even volunteer later on. It’s even caused people to give up their jobs and go right back to the country to start their own organization, like former film studio executive Scott Neeson. On a vacation in Cambodia, Neeson was so moved after visiting a poor neighborhood situated by a massive garbage dump, that after going back to the US, he left his job and returned to form Cambodia Children’s Fund. His organization runs programs that provide education, shelter, and health care for over 700 poor children.

Of course, most visitors won’t do something so drastic and selfless, but this is one of many instances where people have been inspired to do something after having seen poverty up close.

That tours should be respectful of the communities and not be run as if it’s a safari should be a given. Eric Weiner, who has written on township tourism for the NY Times and Worldhum, stresses several guidelines that tours should follow. These include only going in small groups, not taking photos and that operators should contribute significantly to local projects; all of which make a lot of sense.

In the Cape Town townships, our guide assured us taking pictures was alright, unless it was of an adult. In that case, ask for permission and be respectful, he said. He also told us not to give sweets or money to the kids because this would make them develop the habit of begging tourists for things. As it was, the kids who approached us didn’t ask for anything.

There are different kinds of tours that offer different experiences. In South Africa, you can even stay overnight in townships such as Soweto in backpackers. There are standard tours that take you into townships to schools, homes, and even neighborhood bars (shebeens). Meanwhile, you can go on walking tours through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the massive slums of Mumbai.

In the end, I would say that “slumdog tourism,” the title of the Times article, is not entirely beneficial but neither is it entirely detrimental. No one should feel guilty if they want to visit a slum or township, but people should just go in the right frame of mind. Don’t treat it as a freak show and do respect the locals. And if you should ever come across anybody giving birth, don’t stop to watch and snap photos.

Hilton Yip is a writer and copy editor based in Taiwan. He blogs at hcyip.wordpress.com.

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