28 March 2011

Poverty as entertainment: Please put to an end Kibera slum tours

Apparently, a reality show-cum-documentary called Famous, Rich and in the Slums, which has been shot in Kibera, has been airing on a British TV in the last few days.
The film is being promoted as a fund-raiser for the residents of Nairobi’s most notorious slum.
A British journalist, who told me about the film, and who has lived in Kenya for several years, said that she was “shocked and appalled” at the way Kenya was being portrayed to the British public, and wondered why “Kibera has become as iconic as the leaping Maasai warrior used to be’’.
The two-part documentary shows four British celebrities, including the actor and stand-up comedian, Lenny Henry, leaving their privileged lives behind to spend a week with residents of what the producers of the film describe as “one of the most impoverished places on earth”.
The film by Red Nose Day, a charity whose slogan is “Do Something Funny for Money”, shows the celebrities mingling, sleeping, eating and defecating with the locals.
“It’s like being in hell,” Henry is quoted as saying, minutes after relieving himself at a pit latrine that he shared with hundreds of Kibera residents.
For many Kenyans, the film is the worst form of slum tourism because it turns poverty into entertainment in the name of charity.
Kennedy Odede, a former Kibera resident who is currently a student at Wesleyan University in the United States, says that while he understands the need among foreigners to witness poverty, he believes that slum tourism is largely a one-way street: “They get the photos; we lose a piece of our dignity”.
Slum tourism is one of the fastest growing trends in Kenya, particularly since the films, The Constant Gardener (partially shot in Kibera), and Slumdog Millionaire won Oscars.
Odede says that, like the Hollywood films, slum tourism has become another source of recreation for people who think they can understand poverty just by hanging around poor people for a few hours.
In an opinion article titled “Slumdog Tourism” published in the New York Times in August 2010, Odede recalls his first experience of a slum tour when he was 16.
“I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly, a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”
In another incident, a documentary film-maker who was interviewing him started to video a man defecating. “For a moment,” he says, “I saw my home through her eyes: faeces, rats, starvation, houses so close no one could breathe.”
What has this kind of tourism done to the residents of Kibera, except erode their self-respect further and make them objects of foreigners’ pity?
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of charities operating in Kibera and other slums like it, with few significant results to show for their efforts.
There may be slightly more sanitation facilities in the slums now, but the living conditions have become only slightly less appalling – they have not improved dramatically. And the slum continues to grow.
What’s worse, rather than addressing the bigger issues of social justice and human rights (which slum residents are denied daily by virtue of their dehumanising living conditions), charities and other do-gooders believe that provision of toilets, water and other amenities is the solution to slum-dwellers’ problems.
For instance, a product called Peepoo is being promoted in Kibera as an environmentally safer alternative to the notorious “flying toilet” plastic bags used by slum residents.
The product (which is patented by its Swedish inventor) is a biodegradable bag that “sanitises the human excreta shortly after defecation”.
Critics say that the bag may be environmentally friendly, but it is hardly a sustainable or permanent solution to the lack of sanitation facilities in slums. Its well-intentioned promoters also gloss over the fact that defecating in a bag is hardly an edifying experience.

Africa: Failing a continent

That the AU had no say in the recent declaration of a no-fly-zone over Libya is a shame, and a huge step backward for a continent that has been trying to prove it is capable of managing its own affairs. 

Against the backdrop of the debate about the foray of the Chinese into Africa, and the resulting concerns about neo-colonialism, we have watched with dismay as Africa's leaders, under the umbrella of the AU and other regional bodies, have repeatedly shirked the responsibility of ensuring that Africa has a say in its internal affairs.
The West African regional group, ECOWAS, is equally guilty of this abdication. For months now, Cote d'Ivoire has lain in crisis; the fallout of disputed presidential elections. Laurent Gbagbo, who has been in power since 2000, is believed to have lost the November 28, 2010 elections to Alassane Ouattara. But Mr. Gbagbo, following the lead of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, has refused to concede defeat, and continues to hold on to power; polarising a country that emerged from civil war that fractured it into two, only a decade ago.
In the months since the elections, the body count in Cote d'Ivoire has steadily risen; and West Africa is on the verge of yet another refugee crisis. Yet it wasn't until last week that ECOWAS leaders resolved to take concrete action in Cote d'Ivoire to put an end to Mr. Gbagbo's continued illegal hold on power.
One does not need to be a foreign affairs analyst to realise that the ECOWAS leaders were probably nudged into motion by the military action recently embarked upon in Libya, by the United Nations.
After months of equivocation (meetings and half-hearted resolutions, which Mr. Gbagbo predictably ignored) and outright nonchalance, ECOWAS now wants us to believe that it is deeply concerned about the tragedy unfolding in Cote d'Ivoire.

Now that the decision has been made to take military action to save Cote d'Ivoire from Laurent Gbagbo, (the resolution has received the endorsement of the United Nations) we are eager to see how quickly and efficiently the regional body will move to implementation.
It is also important to note how the violence (orchestrated by the state against its citizens) in Libya and Cote d'Ivoire, and the precarious nature of Gabon's situation (also a case of disputed elections) are threatening to reverse the progress that Africa seems to have made in the last decade. Just when we thought we were gradually putting a culture of wars and sit-tight leadership behind us, we are faced with these reversals.
The new century brought with it some hope. The reinvention of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) - a three-decade-old organisation run by dictators and warlords essentially for themselves - as the African Union, in July 2002, was supposed to usher in a new age for Africa. The early days of the AU did indeed promise much. The new organisation launched the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), and a celebrated (at least in theory) Peer Review Mechanism; and made noise about being committed to good governance and human rights.
But Africa seems to have become quite adept at the one-step-forward-two-backwards motion.

There is now little difference between the AU and the inefficient, dictator-ridden OAU it replaced. Nothing signifies this as much as the decision of the union to elect, in January this year (at a time when Tunisians and Egyptians were revolting against dictators who had held them in bondage for decades) a surviving member of Africa's class of long-standing tyrants (Teodora Obiang, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 31 years) as its new Chairperson.
Puzzling as that choice was, it says a lot about the true state of leadership on the continent - more than a third of Africa's Heads of States have spent well over a decade in power; a fifth have spent more than 23 years.

This state of affairs may partly explain why the AU has been largely silent while Libya has tragically descended into civil war. Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, and Africa's longest reigning Head of State is an influential member - and one of the most prominent in recent years - of the union's Assembly.
Many of Africa's leaders are too deeply implicated in bad governance that they have lost all moral authority to speak boldly about the continent's travails, and to intervene on the side of good when necessary.
Africa has lost a great deal of time to violence and tyranny. Now is the time for redemption. It is dismaying to realise that the leaders in whom we have invested the hopes for this redemption, have not proved themselves up to that task - whether in their domestic affairs, or in matters relating to the wellbeing of the continent as a whole.


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