X Tourism

For many of us, slum tourism represents a step back in our relation to mostly European and North American white tourists. We worry that the black bodies on display in our slums are akin to the wild animals that adorn the tourist souvenirs we sell. We worry, even more, that those who visit slums will perform an inevitable act of metonymy, and take those slum dwellers as representatives of the true Africa, an Africa whose truth is confirmed on CNN and BBC, the Travel Channel and Discover. We worry, in fact, that we will be tarred with the same brush as those who live in slums. And the precariousness of our middle-class positions, precarious because of our histories and ethnicities if not our finances, will not tolerate such threats.

But this is old. It has been said before. And I am interested, now, in what our critiques of slum tourism enable and mask.

Slum tourism is only one of many hyphenated (silently) tourisms. These include eco-tourism, sex tourism, wild life tourism, marine tourism, and various kinds of archeological tourisms. Each of these comes with its own complex ideological baggage. For instance, wild life tourism is represented by big game hunters and conservationists—those who kill Africa’s animals and those who save them, not least from Africans. And as scholarship on tourism has noted, it is an industry whose rapacious underbelly helps to sustain its façade of respectability. Indeed, a brief look at the ostensibly authentic bare-breasted girls that fill our tourist curios shops tells an ideological truth about what we are selling. Quiet as it’s kept.

Because tourism, in all its hyphenated guises, is such a huge income generator, it has been easier, or at least more expedient, to critique various forms of hyphenated tourisms than to critique tourism as a whole. And, given our truncated approaches toward tourism, some advanced as official national discourses, it has been convenient to distinguish colonial-era tourism, including that immortalized by Hollywood and practiced by figures like Teddy Roosevelt, from post-independent-era tourism.

Certainly, cheaper, budget-friendly tourist packages have somewhat changed the complexion of tourism, and we have as many carpenters and barbers, if not factory workers, visiting as we do bankers, doctors, and lawyers. And these multi-class tourisms have major implications for how we understand post-independence tourisms.

But just as our literary artists and philosophers have cautioned that we should not understand post-independence politics as radically different from colonial-era politics, so, too, we should not understand post-independence-era tourism as being radically different from colonial-era tourism. Radical—this is the right word, pointing to roots.

To suggest that there are overlaps between these two tourist temporalities is not to suggest that they are identical. It is to suggest, in a very imprecise way, how certain economic and cultural interdependencies (not pure dependencies) shape the interaction between Kenya and its tourists. It is also to suggest how these interdependencies create discursive possibilities and impossibilities: we may critique sex tourism or slum tourism, for instance, but we critique them as degraded forms of tourism, not as representing tourism in its entirety.

This is useful fiction from which we all benefit.
This ramble started with a question about how to understand contemporary race relations between Kenya and its visitors, and predominantly those visitors from former imperial powers. The usual canon of thinkers on colonialism and its legacies seemed inadequate, even dated, part of what I like to call independence-era intellectuals.

Was there, I wondered, a way of thinking about race relations anchored in tourism that was historically distinct from that emerging from colonialism? While we should continue to trace colonialism’s legacies, it seems shortsighted not to engage with other forms of socio-cultural making that cannot be attributed to colonialism.

For those of us born from the late 1960s onward, our dominant engagement with race has been through tourism, not colonialism.

However, because of the elaborate structures of interdependencies tourism needs and creates, we have been relatively muted, unable to stage the same critiques (structurally and affectively) of tourism that prior generations had with colonialism.

There is a lot at stake in how we engage with tourism, of course. To complain about tourism, is to mark oneself as provincial, even xenophobic, and perhaps worse, anti-development. (To be anti-development in Kenya is akin to treason.) We who pride ourselves on our internationalism and hospitality frame tourism as cosmopolitanism, as a kind of necessary, even ethical exchange.

In rushing to avoid provincialism and to practice cosmopolitanism, though, we posit oppositions that have, as one consequence, a studied muteness.

By no means am I suggesting that some of us have not thought about tourism or how it structures race differently than colonialism. I am suggesting that part of the structure of tourism, as an exchange between Kenya and its visitors, is a certain critical silence, an unwillingness to name and critique this contemporary form of race- and world-making.
I have been trying to figure out, albeit circuitously, why critiques of slum tourism and sex tourism feel so inadequate, so, to use an old word, genteel. I remain fascinated by how hyphenating tourism creates different discursive possibilities and moral and ethical frameworks.

On a more banal note, I am trying to understand the tourist instinct that seems so ingrained in Kenyans: when abroad, we are constantly inviting others to visit, inviting others to be tourists. Our invitations are affectively and ideologically different from those of our hosts who invite us for Thanksgiving or Passover.

Why do we turn into tourist ambassadors?

To answer this why might be one necessary step in understanding tourism’s ideological impact on us and our visitors.

4 thoughts on “X Tourism

  1. You’ve never invited me to visit. You say it’s a terrible place and I would be hopelessly bored with the mundane rituals of your family, parafin and siafu. I will find nothing fabulous in the dusty, rural roads; dingy, run-down buildings; bland ugali. You say this with a mischievous grin that gives the lie to your sincerity, but is not reverse psychology either. I’ve never deciphered it.

    But do the though experiment. Who would you invite to Kenya. Why? What would you hope to show them? Would you still believe them to be tourists, rather than guests?

  2. Silly typos and an auto-completed field. I’m sure you’ve mentally corrected both, but I apologize regardless.

  3. You really must stop using me against me. Your wonderful memory and eye for detail gives a history to my thinking (and acting) that makes my present meditations tremble at being found out.

    Ugali is pretty terrible, even when good.

    I am, of course, avoiding the more mundane and obvious fact of my having turned into a tourist. Perhaps my own reluctance to invite myself, or feel I have the right to issue invitations. This question of what kind of “right” that is I need to think through more.

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