Dirty Hands, Beautiful Lessons

By Jessica Ciccarelli

Walking into a community for the first time is an incredible experience. You carry with you a newness that can be beautiful and can help you see things others may not. Still, walking in with new eyes isn’t enough. If you wish to do any good at all, you must walk in with eyes open enough to see the beauty in the difference and a mind open enough to be interested in the vitality of the people and to ask the right questions. Ask questions you believe you already know the answer to. Ask questions about asking questions – How to ask. When to ask. What to ask. You have to see through the eyes of the people who live there. They are the ones who can show you why things work the way they do. I met so many good people doing work in different parts of Kenya. I also met many people from the communities those organizations work in – people who helped me see how a predisposition – believing you know the answers and that you can save people – can infect entire institutions guided by good intentions.

Perhaps the most important lesson my friends in Mathare, Kariobangi, Kangemi, and Kibera taught me is that “slum tourism” can be more than just a thing people do when they visit poor communities. “Slum tourism” can bleed into the mindsets and predispositions people have about a community. It can bleed into the frameworks and principals of an organization through the people that create it.

It is through that understanding, through the eyes, ears, and hearts of the people who showed me so much truth and openness that, though I can see there are some benefits to “slum tourism”, I must make the argument that it does far more harm than good. It makes it normal and far too common to walk into a community with the predisposition that they are something so “otherly”, so abnormal that they deserve to be toured and stared at by all the people who come from so much “better.” As though they contribute so much bad or uncleanliness to the community that they forfeit their basic human rights to privacy and dignity.  That is why they call it “slum tourism.” We are touring the slum of it all. We’re going in to stare at their poverty. Does it make us more empathetic to stare at the poverty and struggle of another? Does it make us more connected to take pictures of someone else’s deprivation and walk away without ever contributing anything good beyond a few bucks for a bracelet? I don’t know, as a whole, that it does.

Normalizing this “slum tourism” mentality, a derivative of the “white savior” complex, gives organizations working in these communities the predisposition that the people or community need to be “fixed”. If something is broken, we must fix it, and if it is broken because there is something wrong with the culture itself, then it needs someone outside to be the one to fix it. Suddenly they are the slum and you are the fixer, and you will provide them with the things they need to get “better”. You have organizations that forget – they romanticize the poverty and objectify the people, capitalizing on and obsessing over their poverty so long that the people disappear and their poverty becomes a symbol for everything that is wrong with the community. They forget to see the people, the good – the vibrant, busy, beautiful networks of people and traditions that create so much positive in their own communities.

I know we do this because I’ve been in the position where I too forgot to see the good amidst the poverty. Many years ago, when I saw my first slum, I cared about the people, but it was so easy to get lost in the poverty and not see the good in that community. I come from a part of the Southern United States that people also forget to see the good in, but still when I was confronted with a type of poverty I hadn’t seen before, I forgot to see the fullness of the community. It wasn’t until several years later, when I had my second encounter with a slum community, that I got it. And I got it that time because I was working with organizations that had already figured it out. The Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) works with local organizations in Nairobi’s slum communities through local partners and the IPJ has so much love and value for the people. I cannot tell you how exceptionally refreshing it was to see a community organization relationship with so much mutual value and respect. Seeing the beauty of the relationships they foster helped me put a face to something I really didn’t know I was looking for. It was like realizing I was missing something only because I finally found it.

“Slum tourism” mentalities are rooted in the same paternalism and superiority as “white-savior” mentalities. We are taught that we’re the answer to the world’s problems, but we’re not. I am not the answer to the Mathare slum community’s problems. However, if I can go in with a bit more humility and I’m willing to listen to and work with people from there that really understand how to change things, I can play a part in making things better. I learned what that looks like through the incredible actions of the IPJ and their local partner, Chemchemi Ya Ukweli (CYU). They showed me how you walk into a community that is not your own and create change through value and love for the people within it. They took the theory I had been learning for months and showed me, practically, that how you do it matters and even the best of intentions can cause harm if we practice peace with the wrong ideals and predispositions.

Everyone says that theory and practice are very different. I think the truth is that if you go in with a value for all people and root your theories in that value, then practicing value for people really isn’t that hard after all. It’s when you go in without that value that you leave yourself open to perpetuating harm, like that created by “slum tourism” and the “white-savior” complex. I had no idea how much I had left to learn or how many beautiful people would remind me that poverty does not mean you are useless, incapable, or invaluable. Dirty floors and outdoor bathrooms do not define your worth. People are intrinsically of value, and if it wasn’t for my time with the IPJ, I may never have known what an institution that intrinsically values human life and agency looks like, or that I hope to spend the rest of my life learning life changing lessons from beautiful people in “less-civilized” communities.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.

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