I've got to admit that the highlight of my week was running into an old friend of mine from Wenzhou Medical College (or "University" for you young turks). Mrin - now known as 'Maureen' since some Kenyans can't pronounce her name right - happens to be volunteering in Kenya right now, a long way off from her native South Africa. Even stranger still, she's practically staying 2 kilometres from the hospital where I work.
I met up with her earlier this week, and it was great catching up. Lord knows there's some things that only a fellow doctor can relate to. In addition, one of the other things we ended up talking about is the 'poverty tours' that people are running around town, and how one of her colleagues wanted to attend one. Now, Kibera, Kenya's premier slum - the largest urban slum in all of Africa - is typically a fan favourite spot for such activities. As she puts it, and I 100% concur, poverty tours are a wholly unAfrican thing.
Seriously, every country has some sort of area 'over the tracks' that is understood to be low income or a rough neighbourhood. We all know they exist, and for the most part steer clear of them. For other people, these are opportunities for service, and God Bless their hearts, they settle into those areas and interact with the locals and bring meaningful change. Then there's a third group - people who are essentially just gawkers. They just want to look and see, providing nothing meaningful in the end, except money for the unscrupulous folk who take it upon themselves to hawk this 'poverty porn'. Perhaps, that's a bit harsh...the tourists provide a job opportunity for some folk (keeping them gainfully employed); but this topic is a bit loaded, considering that the same tourists wouldn't do the same thing in their own countries. NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) seems to be their favoured approach.
It reminded me of an event which happened while I was at college, circa the early 2000s. So, I was down at Messiah College, down in Central PA, and one tradition of the Christian college is chapel attendance; with a required total of 24 chapels attended by semester's end, or the option of facing dire consequences. So there I was in chapel, one early Tuesday morning. On this particular day, can't be sure if the theme of the chapel was 'mission work' or 'show & tell', but I remember a student walked onstage and began to talk about how he spent his summer. He had come to Kenya, and spent practically all his time in Kibera. He detailed the squalid conditions, cited the erroneous statistic that millions of folk are squeezed into that slum (made it seem like he interacted with a sizeable number of them), and of course he broke down onstage. If that wasn't enough, he had written a song, for which he specifically dragged his guitar onstage, and decided to belt out for our consumption.
I remember that a bunch of the international students and missionary kids were clustered at one side of the chapel, and we pretty much had the same look on our faces: Disbelief. A couple of thoughts ran through my mind at that juncture:
1. You dragged me out of bed at this ungodly hour to sit through this??
2. Kenya, like all places, is a place of delightful variety and complexity. Who on earth spends their whole summer solely in a slum?
3. As someone meant to serve as an ambassador for people who won't bother to find out anything more about the country, this is the limited view you're bringing?
4. There are parts of your own country (USA) which are steeped in 3rd world poverty - the projects, the Native American reservations, Appalachia - and you choose to highlight those of another country far removed from yours (and comparably less wealthy)?
Personally, it was quite the gut-punch. Having people come over to this country to tour the slums as some sort of safari is gut-wrenching. At the heart of Kibera's problems are complicated socioeconomic forces exacerbated by the gross unemployment in this country; there are the complicated land issues concerned with Kibera, lack of viable low-cost housing solutions, and the slum-lords who make tons of money just doing things business-as-usual; and of course issues of gentrification. These are the kind of problems that an impartial government and political class should band together to solve, but as it stands, only uses for cannon fodder. Therefore, rather than use it as a cheap tearjerker, people need to put in the work to ensure that Kibera and all the mushrooming slums become a thing of the past; so that people don't have to resort to lowering their dignity to have to eke out a living.
Poverty tourism is not only unAfrican, it is quite simply inhuman. NIMBY, and certainly not in yours
Rant done (for today, at least)!