One afternoon in Juba, I arrived at the headquarters of an international NGO to find that my interview had just left. I walked back to the car, kicking the dirt in frustration, then noticed, across the road, a sprawling neighborhood of mud huts tucked away behind a bamboo fence—a scene right out of rural Africa, in the middle of the capital of South Sudan.
I asked Joseph, my driver, if we could walk through the neighborhood. He was confused: do you want to interview people, he asked?
“No, I don’t want to bother them,” I said. “I just want to see it.”
He grinned, started the engine, and two minutes later we were at a pub down the road to pick up his friend, William, a soldier with the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) and part time bar-owner. William’s aunt lived in the neighborhood, and when Joseph asked, William offered to give us a tour.
“It’s called Tomling area,” he said as he led us down a narrow mud path, a labyrinth organized neatly along bamboo fences, around the neighbourhood of thatched-roof huts. We passed school children in navy blue uniforms on their way home from school; a woman in a pink and orange kanga hanging clothes on a line to dry; another woman stirring something in a steaming iron pot.
Tomling did not feel depraved, squalid—the words I used to associate with the word slum. But it was not all cheerful either. A middle aged woman lay in the dirt moaning; a man without a leg limped with a cane, barely able to cross the jagged mud road. Occasional bursts of sour air, the smell of human waste, wafted out of some of the structures we passed.
On our way out, I saw a young man in slacks and a polo shirt walking in front of us, out of Tomling, onto the main tarmac road. He had come from a mud hut, but now he’s walking down the street with everyone else.
I watched him: tall, back erect, book in hand, one foot in front of the other. He was not an image or an abstraction. Each footstep he took I imagined him looking back at me. In my mind he was saying: I am someone. I am someone.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Slumdog Tourism, Kennedy Odede discusses the phenomenon of tourists paying to visit Kibera, the largest slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. He writes:
"...Many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home.
But it's just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.
Nor do visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue estabished, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.
Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them."
Maybe tourists paying to walk around slums, to spend thirty minutes snapping photos of another person's life, another person's hardship, is distasteful, irreverent, and unhelpful.
There are many thoughtful people, though, who think that, on the whole, it is a good thing, the same way some thoughtful people think student "mission trips" are a good thing, even if they do little to help the poor in developing countries.
"It has to be done completely differently, but they should absolutely be done," a friend of mine said. "And yes, if even 99 percent of the tourists don't feel like doing anything about global poverty, but 1 percent do, I still think that is a net positive."
Maybe. I'm inclined to agree, but then I wonder: if it was me in there, in the slum, and someone with more power and chances and money came to look at me, in my rags and filth, what would I feel? Humiliated. Powerless. I would feel anger at their pity.
Is there a way to do development tourism right?
And what if you work in the development business? What if visiting slums is part of your job?
I was in Nairobi a week ago, working on a story on a program that sells highly subsidized vouchers to poor women, who can use them at accredited health facilities to safely deliver their babies, among other things. One morning, I visited three such facilities. They were located in a slum called Korogocho, less well-known than Kibera but nearly as large and just as poor.
After an interview, the clinic manager took me on a tour of the facility. This is the reception, he said, the lab, the delivery room. I nodded, jotted down some notes.
Then he turned a door knob to take me into a room where a nurse was counseling a patient being tested for HIV. No, I said, reaching out my hand to stop him. We don’t need to go in there.
The tours are all the same: exhaustive, intrusive, helpful, uncomfortable, and bewildering.
Maybe it’s debatable—whether development professionals like me should be here at all. (I happen to think that we should.) But we are here because, despite the imperfections and inconsistencies of our business, this is the job we have chosen to do. And to do it well—to change the way things are for the better—we have to get as close as we can to reality as it is. Needing to see and understand poverty, even though we are not poor, is a dilemma we have to live with.
(Thanks to M for your fierce sense of getting on with it.)