Poverty tourism – where does it start and end?

13 January 2020 | Local News

Eva-Marie Born

Katutura. A Windhoek suburb that belongs to the city just like the Christuskirche or Joe’s Beerhouse.
But often neither tourists nor locals visit the informal settlements on the outskirts of the capital. How do you best approach a township tour? Samuel Kapepo says he offers tours that don’t punt poverty. But what are the limits? And what is morally acceptable?
Samuel (34) runs a soup kitchen in Ombili, Katutura. While he comes from a poor background, he is committed to supporting his fellow human beings.
He calls Katutura home, where he lives with “his people” whom he supplies with cash, food and hygiene articles.
He admits to a criminal past. “I've hurt people and I don’t want anyone to follow in my footsteps. I want to be remembered as someone who has done some good,” he says. He has already received several awards for his work and is often also called on to be a motivational speaker.
Ever so often Samuel hosts tours through the small, winding streets of the settlement to show them what life here looks like – far removed from Independence Avenue and the city malls.
If you want to get to know a city, you should consider all facets, right? The consumer temples, the streets, the parks and the suburbs, whether poor or wealthy.
However, many tourists and locals don’t feel comfortable making their way to the less wealthy parts of Windhoek by themselves.
The typical associations with Katutura, if you have never been there, are raids, rapes, the smell and poverty.
But Samuel is committed to ensuring that the reality in Katutura is different. He uses the proceeds from his tour to carry out the soup kitchens’ work. In December, Christmas gifts were distributed. Toys, groceries and even refrigerators all contribute to a more comfortable life for Ombili residents.
He hosts these tours of the informal settlement once or twice a week. “Everyone has to open their eyes and mind. The prejudices must stop. In both directions,” he says.

Poverty tourism
So-called poverty tourism has a long history. As early as 1860, the word “slumming” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, describing it as “going into, or frequenting, slums for discreditable purposes; to saunter about, with a suspicion, perhaps, of immoral pursuits”.
Literally translated, this refers to frequenting or visiting slums for questionable purposes, possibly even with immoral leisure activities in mind.
Even then wealthy Londoners used the pretext of charity to visit the slums – accompanied by the police. In time, the trend spilled over to New York. Brothels, opium bars and saloons were part of the pastime of the rich. Of course, business people also sensed big money here. Gunfights and performances by drug addicts were staged. After all, the wealthy visitors should not be disappointed.
Samuel does things differently though.
He takes his guests on foot through Ombili after welcoming them at his local shebeen where he briefly explains the rules of the game. No photos of locals unless asked for beforehand and valuables must remain in your pockets and should not be put on display.
“We are not in a zoo. There is no black or white here today; there are only human beings,” he adds before leading us through the winding streets.
Everyone knows him here and Samuel appears to be enjoying himself as a benefactor.
We see children, dogs, small groups sitting together over a beer or playing cards. It all seems very peaceful, like a community in which almost everyone knows everyone.
Nevertheless, one cannot get rid of the sense that, despite the lack of a camera around your neck and so much goodwill, you are alien here. While you don’t feel insecure, you are the exception, walking through the streets without really contributing to society. You are obviously a stranger, also because of your skin color.
Still, nothing beats small talk, shaking hands and trying dried mopane worms on the market. Samuel is happy to answer questions about electricity, water supply and home ownership – and the questions loosen up the mood somewhat.

Beer & kapana
At the end of the tour, everyone has a beer together and there is also kapana. Everyone pays what they can for the tour.
Samuel has a vision for Katutura: “I want better educational institutions, proper sanitary facilities and that everyone has enough to eat.”
His tours and his work make a small contribution to this. “Nobody chooses to be born poor or rich,” Samuel says.
He is not interested in politics and says it doesn’t feel that much of it comes to Katutura. Unfortunately, there was no real exchange during the tour. A scratch on the surface, with fear of contact from both sides. What was missing is difficult to say. It is just as difficult to assess the extent to which it is morally justifiable to visit an area for money that one may not otherwise have dared to go to.
*This article originally appeared in the Allgemeine Zeitung of 13 December 2019.

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