Kristen Maryn

Kristen Maryn (Hakijamii the Economics and Social Rights Centre): Kristen received her BS in Business Administration and BA in Sociology from the University of Arizona in 2007. Upon graduating, she traveled to Nigeria to work with a micro-finance program. After returning from Nigeria, Kristen worked in corporate management. At the time of her fellowship, Kristen was pursuing her JD at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, with a focus on migration, conflict amelioration, and alternative dispute resolution. After her fellowship Kristen wrote: “This fellowship reiterated my goal of getting to a place where I do not need to sit back and wait for someone to help me in order to get things done. I really enjoyed being part of a network that was small enough that it felt like a family, but had a global reach.”

This could be the beginning of an existential crisis.

09 Jun

I was perusing blogs about Kenya today, and I happened upon a woman who blogs from the perspective of an expat living in Nairobi.  Africa Expat Wives’ Club is not exactly the perspective I am trying to learn about, but it does offer an interesting take on life in Nairobi, some of which it is easy for me to relate to (even though I’m not an expat).

What particularly struck me was a thoughtful and candid post she did on UK celeb personalities spending a week in Kibera for the BBC called Rich, Famous, and in the Slums.  The premise is that celebrities are dropped off in Kibera with only 200 shillings (around $2.30) and are meant to survive as members of the community do, but with a takeaway point: Earn a living, eat, find shelter, learn meaningful lessons along the way.

I have yet to watch it, as I can’t seem to find a viewable version online, and something about illegally downloading while abroad makes me really nervous (ok ok, it makes me nervous in the US, too).  I can see the value in this, though…particularly for those four people, they will (hopefully) walk away from the experience with a lot more respect, compassion, understanding and mental fortitude.  For example, Angela Rippon has developed a relationship with a school in Kibera, providing textbooks and other resources.

There are a lot of articles about this program.  And a lot of debate.  From a Western perspective, it is easy for us to extol the virtues of expanding one’s point of view and keeping an open mind…empathy is a beautiful part of human nature, and it seems like that cannot be achieved without walking in the other’s shoes.

But at what point is it patronizing?  As this article from The Wall Street Journal asks, are these people being used as props?  Additionally, this article from the Daily Nation offers a stark contrast and compelling argument – I highly recommend reading it**.  What about the people of Kibera?  They are humans, not marketing ploys.  Isn’t this dehumanizing?  Why is Kibera a tourist destination?  But it also gets to a more complicated point – where is the government?

I suppose I will stay out of this debate, and try to walk a fine line (I am here to work in informal settlements, after all).  It’s such an individualized lesson we each learn, isn’t it?  People will take from it what they take from it…this is as true of slum tourism as it is of formal education, zoos, relationships, any experience.  Yes it’s true, I learn best by first-hand experiences.  It’s hard to really understand without seeing it for myself.  But in this case, that value is not inextricably linked to objectification.  I hope to leave Kenya with a mutual understanding with the people I get to work with, interact with.  We can learn from each other.  So what I see, from the people of Kibera (and beyond – this isn’t distinct to Kenya) and from the participants in the BBC’s show, is courage.

**I also highly recommend this short article from the New York Times.

Posted By Kristen Maryn

Posted Jun 9th, 2011


  • Catherine Binet

    June 9, 2011


    I love your posts, Kristen. This last entry in particular is very thoughful and addresses an issue that is also very pertinent to Latin America, ie. favela tours in Brazil. Should poverty be an object of tourism? I certainly do not profess to have any answers, but my guess it that is depends on how it is done, with what intention, and the views of local people on the subject. If witnessing poverty creates a ripple effect of awareness raising and advocacy, then is the “objectification” of local people not overweighed by the potential benefits?

  • […] This could be the beginning of an existential crisis. […]

  • […] about potentially promoting my own version of “slum tourism” after reading an insightful and articulate blog by Kristen Maryn, an AP Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. However, after a few hours and some rough translation, the camera came out and stayed. Parents […]

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