Slum Porn

Featured Image Source: Schreibkraft, Under Creative Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nairobi_Kibera_04.JPG

Today you can take a guided tour through Kibera with a few different tour operators. Kibera is the largest slum in the world and sits about 4 kilometres away from the CBD of Nairobi. The exact number of resident in Kibera is unknown though estimations have been done and they range from 500,000 to 1,000,000 although the census of 2009 showed that there were around 170,000 people. This though may not be accurate because many residents do not have a legal status (source).

History

Kibera’s history starts about 100 years ago in 1918. At this time Nairobi was the colonial capital of British East Africa and plans were made for a racially segregated Nairobi, with Europeans and Asians being allowed to live in Nairobi (in separate areas) and Africans only being allowed in Nairobi temporarily for work. There was often no real place for Africans to live within or close to Nairobi (source).

It was at this time that the colonial government gazetted the land where Kibera is currently as ‘Nairobi Military Area’. The place was gazetted so that Nubian soldiers who fought in the colonial army could retire there after their service. They were given a permit with some land where they could spend the rest of their days. There has been some debate about whether the land was given to the Nubian soldiers forever or only temporarily, there are no surviving documents that prove either story and this has been an important political debate between the Kenyan government and descendants of the Nubian soldiers (source).

After WWI the population of Kibera began to grow as more Nubian soldiers needed a place to live. From 1919 onwards the colonial government wanted to relocate the Nubian soldiers to other land further away from the city as land this close to Nairobi was to precious for Africans. Becuase of a multitude of reasons this never happened and the Nubians were allowed to stay (source).

The real influx started after WWII when non-Nubian people started to move to Kibera. The population increased to around 6,000 in 1963. Before independence in 1963, the colonial government built a number of buildings and institutions on the Kibera land which the Nubians protested this but the colonial government felt it was their land to use. About 1/3 of the land remained for the Nubian soldiers and the railway line was laid through Kibera. This is how Kibera got the shape it still has today (source).

After independence, the Nubian soldiers lost any right to their land as the Kenya government felt and feels that they have no right to the land. Many Nubians still live there are rented out rooms to make money. A huge increase in population could be seen between 1975-1979. Around 40,000 people came to Kibera during this time. The Nubians also lost their majority as Kikuyu and Luo people had a greater population. The Kikuyu began to rent out rooms like the Nubians during the 1980’s. During the 1990’s construction almost stopped mainly due to Kibera just being full. There was almost no more space to build (source).

Kibera is currently said to be the largest slum in the world, although without any good census the population is not exactly known and there is little consensus on what areas constituted Kibera. It is however clear the Kibera is a large slum with a complex history.

The living standards in Kibera are appalling, there is no sewage system and almost no running water. As no one has any legal right to the land the government also refuses to provide almost any services to the residents. This means that Kibera is often left to less than reputable private companies who provide water, security and other services. There is also very little work in Kibera leading to a high unemployment rate (source).

It is important though to look at Kibera from multiple perspectives. Kibera is a vibrant area with many of Kenya’s best artist coming from Kibera and a lot of Kenya’s popular culture coming from Kibera. Kibera is also a centre for entrepreneurship were many residents have their own businesses and create opportunities for themselves. It is difficult to frame Kibera in just one perspective.

Slum Porn in tourism

Since 2008 people can take guided tours through Kibera. It is mainly tourists who want to see the ‘real’ Kenya and those who want to see more than just the polished touristic sights. This happens not only in Kibera but in many countries and many slums across the world. Tourists who want to see a multifaceted country. Seeing the good and the bad. This paired with the ‘white saviour complex’ which we also see happening in slums like Kibera creates a system of use. The ‘white saviour complex’ is a well-known idea. In short its the way in which rich, white, westerners come to a poor country to do volunteer work. Often these people feel as if they personally can change the lives of hundreds of people and think that their effect is much larger than it actually is. Or do jobs where they are underqualified for. Like building houses without any knowledge of construction techniques or working in clinics without any medical knowledge. Doing jobs that they would never be allowed to do in there home countries (source). Tourists often want to give to those less fortunate communities and see all sides of a country. The thought is of course good. It is great that people want to try and help the people of the country their visiting. There are however some problems.

One reason why this may not be the best way to give back to the country is it leads to the objectification of its residents and it museumizes the slum and its residents. Objectification is a term that comes from museums study were by objects, people and cultural creations become objectified. Object are shipped to a museum and lose there original meaning and function. This is most pronounced in ethnographic museums where the cultural creations of a living people are put on display or in some cases the deceased are put on display and these bodies are turned into an object in these museums (source). Museumize is defined by Dictionary.com as ‘to display as if in a museum exhibit’ (source). Kibera is made to look and feel as if the whole area is a museum where the main goal is to educate the viewer. In Kibera this is not true, the main goal in Kibera is to house the residents of Kibera. Education is neither a concern nor a wish for the residents. You can read an interesting piece about the residents’ feelings towards the slum tours here.

Kibera is sold to these tourists at least partly as a museum or a wildlife park where you can see another people living their lives. We have seen this movement before in Ethnographic museums. The same issues that were seen in ethnographic museums in the 19th and 20th century will be seen in guided tours of slums in the 21st century (source).

These guided tours where rich westerners can see other peoples pain and suffering from a distance for one day of there 2-week holiday in Kenya is a bit disingenuous at best.

Another issue is that if we want Africa in particular but poor countries in general to progress and develop, a large part of that is treating these countries with respect. When one goes to France and to Paris tourists don’t go to the poor areas of Paris to see the ‘real’ Paris. Nor do they go into peoples houses to see how a Parisian life. If these things hold true for France why would why not hold true for Kenya? Tourism is always a country putting their best foot forward and showing their best. That’s why tourists come to a country. If we want Kibera to excel real investment by western and non-western companies in Kenya and Kibera need to happen and the Kenyan government needs to sort out and legitimize Kibera and its land. The Kenyan government must create a system whereby land is giving to those who are living there in a fair manner. Tourist going through Kibera and paying to buy a small gift for their mother-in-law will not solve Kibera. Tourism is a great thing and can help Kenya to develop but to museumize Kibera and to objectify its people as some kind of huge diorama is wrong and will ultimately help no one.

Slum Porn in Architecture

This story will discuss some of the same ideas written about in Kowloon Walled City story. Though this will be more detailed.

Architecture is a very white and a very male world. It is very westernised and continues to look at architecture from a European perspective. Many architects suffer from the same issues as western tourists suffer from. They look at a slum not as a place where people live, but as an interesting place to visit, to study and to learn from. They also suffer from a ‘white saviour’ complex. The try and solve issues in Africa without asking the people who it effects and educated people in Africa what there ideas and solutions are.

If you want to read more about the white saviour complex you can read the Wikipedia page on is here or an excellent story from Teju Cole about Kony 2012 here.

Architects often discus slums and informal settlements in the same terms as architects take about termite mounds or birds nest, ‘Wow that they can build all that with so little (materials, intelligence and planning)’. These things are never explicitly said and I’m sure many architects don’t even realise what the words they’re saying sound like. These things are not overt and subconscious, though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there and that they don’t effect slums and the people that live there. Architects discuss informal settlements as places of interest and as an interesting experiment. They often, as they so often do, forget the human scale. That there are real people who really live there. Who have to deal with flying toilets, violence, expensive rent rates and inadequate services. These things are often not discussed or only discussed as a passing note.

A few examples, the first being an exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. Urban Think Tank is an interdisciplinary design practice that is focused on research for the urban environment (source). At the Biennale they presented a work called Gran Horizonte a pop-up restaurant/exhibition space that tried to show the architecture of Torre de David.  Torre de David is a skyscraper in Venezuela that was never finished and in many ways became a vertical slum. In 2014 the squatters/residents of the tower were evicted after two years of people living in the unfinished tower. Each resident had built their own little home within the tower’s structure and often these ‘composition’ were very interesting, architecturally. Urban Think Tank said it was ‘a laboratory for the study of the informal’. The idea behind the pop-up restaurant was to exhibit this laboratory. The problem with this language and with the exhibition is the objectification of these people and maybe more worryingly the ‘laboratorification’ of these people. Studying their lives and discussing there lives not in the perspective of the human suffering (although this was partly shown in the exhibition) but from the perspective of art and of architecture. Looking at the composition, materiality and movement of these spaces. This objectifies these people and their lives and discusses them more in terms of a subject rather than people.

Another example was this year, I went to the presentation of the first episode of The Slum, a documentary about slums done by Al Jazeera. The first episode focused on Tondo a large slum in the Philippines, it can be seen here. Afterward the discussion about the documentary and the places that were shown revolved mainly around, ‘it’s amazing what they are able to build this’. Even though the documentary focused on the human scale, my fellow architecture students failed to discuss the human scale. On the one hand, I understand this. The discussion was framed as such and the focus was clear to be on the architectural and urban aspects of the documentary.  Still, I felt that discussing these people in terms of ‘wow, I can’t believe they can do that with so little’ is the wrong way to discuss it. It frames these people as having a choice but more importantly as being second rate people. People cannot believe that poor people who have no choice in materials build a house from whatever they can find. It is demeaning and enforces the idea of civilization, that there is a clear distinction between Western and Non-Western people even though all people would likely act in much the same way if put in those circumstances.

A similar thing can be seen in Kibera. Because Kibera is often said to be the largest slum in the world it draws a lot of study, study too from architects. For exmaple SelgasCano’s Louisiana Pavilion which is currently being used as a primary school in Kenya. The Pavilion was first set up in Copenhagen and was moved to Kibera in 2016. The building is currently in use in Kibera and serves around 600 students. There are however some issues. It cost 25,000 pounds to build, move and rebuild the school. The building is not up to either Kenyan or British building codes. The design of the building is both interesting and works relatively well the main issue is that the money could have been used to build more or a larger school if used more efficiently. Furthermore, because the building was designed and the materials were brought in another country than Kenya, Kenya did not get as much benefit. The skills used to build the building were not transferred to the locals and therefore they cannot help themselves to build similar schools in the rest of Kibera and Kenya. You can read some more about there project here.

Kibera

Kibera is a place with many diverse residents living within its dense urban area. These people are complex, interesting and have hopes, dreams and thoughts that are deep and complex. It is unacceptable to objectify any part of their lives. To look at these people in any other context then as individual people reduces their lives too little more than a museum exhibit. We cannot, either as people of the general population, but especially as architectural professionals, allow ourselves to talk about these people and their lives without the utmost respect and sensitivity. It is indeed true that we can learn things about architecture from places like Kibera. We can learn about architectural composition, peoples movements and try to more clearly understand how to design a better world but we must not fetishise these places. We must look at these places in the wider context that they exist in. Not looking just at what we can learn but also looking at the people, their lives, suffering and their hopes. The research of these place must not only be used to create beautiful architecture or exhibitions for the rich in the west. The research must be also be used to improve the lives of Kibera. Or wherever the research is done.

Extra

full disclosure, I am white, male and have partaken in projects that would definitely fall under white saviour complex. In this piece, I have tried to as specifically, completely and sensitively write down my ideas about this difficult subject. You are free to disagree with my ideas and I am by no means an authority on the subject. I would happily be shown that I’m wrong. This is a snapshot of my opinion on the subject, not my definitive belief. I hope though that you, at the very least, found it interesting. This piece has not talked about the economic effects of the ideas discussed, or at least not explicitly.


Sources: The AtlanticWikipedia (White Savior)Dictionary.comMuseums and the Interpretation of Visual CultureKibera.orgWikipedia (Kibera)The Nubis of Kibera : a social history of the Nubians and Kibera slumsDezeen (Slum Porn Poverty not Instagram Filter)Architectural ReviewFailed ArchitectureYoutube (Philippines: Deliverance – The Slum)BBCUrban Think Tank (Home Page)ArchDailyNext CityDezeen (Selgas Cano’s Louisiana Pavillion)

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