Saturday, August 14, 2010

Slum tourism

This is a measured take on slum tourism from a resident of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi. I agree with his aversion to poverty porn, a voyeuristic marveling at the misery of others. But I ask myself where we draw the line between voyeurism of people (unacceptable) and honest inquiry into a place (acceptable and even desirable). What is the difference between watching Italians going about their daily life in a plaza in Rome, or Kenyans going about their daily life on a streetside in Kibera? This may seem like an academic abstraction or an unfair conflation of two very different situations, so I'll bring it closer to home.

When I take tourists around Colombia, I show them the lovely colonial architecture of our cities, the finest restaurants, the urban bazaars, the rural areas. Many of the places we go are predominantly peopled by the poor. In fact, one of the most interesting features of our trip to Medellin is a ride in the Metrocable, a suspended public transit cablecar that passes over some of the city's slums, which have been revived and improved by the increased mobility brought by the Metrocable. Medellin and Colombia are rightly proud of the social transformation brought about by enlightened infrastructure investments like the Metrocable, and they highlight it as a tourist destination. As my groups ride in the Metrocable, we see poverty below us, but also small commerce and industry, well-kept neighborhoods, and an avant-garde public library building in the middle of the slum.

I don't want to show poor people to my visitors as if we were in a zoo, but I don't want to perpetuate the government's myth that Colombia is a shiny, bourgeois, perfect place, a safe museum for historic architecture and high-end shopping. So does my tourism fall into the acceptable category, like a trip to Rome, or the ugly, voyeuristic category, like a trip to Kibera?

A photo of the author, either appreciating traditional artisanry or posing voyeuristically with an oppressed neocolonial pawn

1 comment:

  1. Great pic. I suppose life is too complicated to be either one of the other. But it is important that you engage this dialogue because, as I've unfortunately learned from some of the foreigners I met in Brazil (okay, my roommate), too many people do not think about these issues or simply gloss over them. Thinking about our role as first world tourists is super important, especially if we want to do more good than harm.