Ode Magazine, which I once subscribed to, ran a story this past April called “Slum tours: Traveling off the beaten path” detailing the rise of what some have dubbed “poorism”, or traipsing through the slums of this planet for an alternative travel experience. Coming from Ode, I figured that this would be a hit piece – I was wrong. The author actually did some “pooring” in the favelas of Rio. According to the article:
Slum tours offer travelers an authentic, offbeat look at foreign cultures—and locals a new way to make a living.
Authentic? Sure! Offbeat? How can 1/6 of the earth’s population’s lifestyle be considered “offbeat”? To her credit, the author does point out this fact. She doesn’t sound like the kind of visitor to a foreign country that makes many of us cringe, but the tour that she describes definitely gives me that feeling. Imagine the marketing that these slum tour operators must use: Come see the REAL Rio! You’ve seen the Taj Mahal, now see how millions of impoverished Indians live! Hideous capitalist mindsets run amok? I doubt it. These are regular people trying to make a living, and their product is hot.
The photo that accompanies this post is of my “impact assessment team” (me and Mark Mann) from The 1010 Project moving through the Korogocho slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Korogocho was the toughest spot I had seen in Kenya – open sewers, schoolchildren eating and learning in chicken coops, and sheet-metal homes. A few days later, my team went to Kibera. That’s the big one. Smaller in size only to Soweto in South Africa, Kibera is the slum featured in the (awesome) film “Constant Gardener”. In many ways, Kibera was a lot like Korogocho: packed to the gills with people, poor, and dangerous (like any city). But when I left Kibera, I found myself absolutely drained emotionally. That’s not an easy thing to do.
I cannot imagine poorism being a rewarding trip for anybody. Dive-bombing into an impoverished community and moving on after snapping a few interesting pictures can be spiritually dangerous. Having a sustained relationship with the slums and favelas of the world would ameliorate this, I feel, and provide the “locals a new way to make a living” that is founded on up-to-date understandings of humanitarian assistance, compassion, and friendship.