By Hannah Neumann
I recently read a very thought-provoking article titled “Slumdog Tourism“. Basically, it’s the thoughts of an African man (who grew up in a Nairobi slum) on the phenomenon of “slum tourism”.
He explains that there has been a recent increase in the numbers of American and European “tourists” (I think that this could apply to both sightseers and some short-term missions or humanitarian aid teams) who take the chance to tour slums and shanty towns while visiting developing countries to “observe poverty”.
After reading the post, I had mixed thoughts…
Being exposed to poverty — to real life poverty — can be a life-changing thing. It’s one thing to see images of starving kids and shanty towns on a computer or TV screen, but It’s quite another to be there, to see it with your own eyes.
To stand in the middle of a filthy street, breathing in the smells of human waste and disease and sometimes even death. To watch a filthy naked child running past, deprived even of the dignity of a pair of underwear (I once asked a Filipino friend what the greatest needs among the poor in a particular shanty town were. Her answer: underwear and medicine).
Sometimes, sadly, the sheer weight of human suffering has got to hit you in the chest and stun you into action. And for that reason, I do believe that giving people from affluent areas the opportunity to see what life is like for those who are not so fortunate is a good thing.
However, reading this post made me think about the flip side of the issue as well. Observing poverty can move us to action… but it is just as easy to experience poverty and not even let it sink it.
We’ve become desensitized to suffering, in a way. It can become a momentary thrill… for a moment, it chills us and we think “Oh, God, that’s awful”… and then we go back to our comfortable routine and forget about it. Nothing is gained by the experience, and another shred of dignity is taken from the poor. I think the author of the original blog post puts it well when he says:
“Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really ‘seen’ something – and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before…Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions to our problems – but they won’t come about through tours.”
People who are affected by extreme poverty have already lost so much dignity and self-worth. Let’s not make them feel degraded- as if they are somehow a lesser human being- by senseless gawking at their misfortune. Let’s DO something, change something… help them hold their heads up high again.
Hannah is 20 years old and is currently back in the Philippines where she belongs. She is currently the lone “Americana” in a really big family of over 100 orphaned and abandoned Filipino children and the people who care for them, known as Shepherd of the Hills. Hannah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org