KIBERA IS EVERYTHING
slum lift me up
Having just finished the last of her course work for her MBA, Dayo resurfaced with impressive amounts of energy and dragged me away from my laptop to have lunch and to solve some of the world’s problems. We swiftly dealt with country perceptions even before food arrived. It was India that had got on her nerves, or rather India’s reputation:
She thought that African countries really needed to take some PR inspiration from the sub continent: All you ever see are tales of outsourcing glory and other economic success stories, but she thought the country was no less messy than most of Africa. And Africa’s reputation still isn’t anything to write home about.
So better PR for Africa? I couldn’t get very hopped up about this subject: I’m generally leaning towards a position encapsulated in this internet comment: ‘You do not have a perception problem. You have a reality problem’. I.e., I don’t subscribe to the Mutua School of Thought that all problems are made up by malicious journalists, and usually find that acknowledging and then, more importantly, addressing problems may be more productive.
But in the end, of course perceptions are important: It doesn’t matter much that you could probably snooze through your holiday at the coast quite happily as long as there were images of burning slums on CNN.
Thankfully the mental associations between Kenya and the horrors of the post-election violence faded. They were poison for both tourism and any other business. But is Kenya back to being seen as the land of lions, elephants and jumping skinny tribal people with good beadwork?
I find even this image restrictive since there is so much more going on here in business, in art, well, in life. But as long as Kenya is at least perceived as safari country, things can’t be so bad, right? Even Brand Kenya has the Maasai Mara on its homepage as a welcome.
But if you’re abroad, you might get a completely different impression. It took a friend in the UK to alert me to this: Comic Relief had sent a bunch of UK celebrities to live in Kibera. This is good practice:
You’re gotta do Kibera. It will help you discover the unexpected fact that even in the slums, people care about their family, look after their accommodation, earn a living. This is your spiritual reward of socially responsible tourism: The moment of recognition that Africans are, astonishingly, really 'like us’ (except ‘happy with so little’.
At the last book fair in Frankfurt, my friend Agatha spotted a woman wearing a tag ‘I have worked in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum’. The last census may have found a substantially smaller population than previously assumed, but that’s what Kibera is: Africa’s poverty in a button on a jacket. For your enlightenment.
So this bunch of UK celebrities were made to live in Kibera for a week. I had no clue of this, and I hadn’t really seen anyone of my focus group (read: Facebook friends/Twitter followers) talk about it either. So I had to rely on my friend for a recap of what was titled ‘Slum Survivor’ (yes, really):‘They were all given slum families to live with and were suitably horrified and appalled. Breaking the rules of the game, the comic Lenny Henry - who did a whole lot of crying on the breast of the slum dweller he was shacked up with - spent GBP800 (about KES110,000) of his own money buying the chap a new shack which didn't have an open sewer running through the kids bedroom.’
Nice, no? My friend continued: ‘It was all pretty stereotypical stuff, with the celebrities serving the traditional role of deus ex machina and the role or helpfulness of aid never questioned. Nor did the programme-makers appear to touch on the fact that Kenya has a functioning government whose job is, notionally, to take on problems like Kibera. And a middle and upper class that happily ignores the Kibera on its doorstep and whose members would never dream of slumming it for so much as a week.’
I don’t know about the functioning government – right now it seems mostly busy blackmailing everyone and their pet fish into getting a handful ‘our sons’ out of their mass-murder court case because the timing would be ‘inconvenient’ for their political careers (this matters how?) and because it would ‘endanger stability’ (well, if you know that, do something already!).
But it comes back to the discussion that Dayo and I had: If you sit in the UK and you’re wondering whether you should outsource some of your business to India or Kenya, then images of shacks with an open sewer in the kids’ bedroom won’t help Kenya’s case – and it’s certainly not a true representation of Kenya.
But it’s undoubtedly there: ‘A pig shouldn't have to live in the conditions that half of Nairobi lives in’, my friend said. ‘Kenya isn't associated abroad with lions and elephants any more. Kibera has become as iconic as the leaping maasai warrior used to be.’