Uganda: The confronting face of slum tourism

By Emilia Terzon

Embarking on a tour of Uganda's biggest township throws up some ethical questions for Emilia Terzon.

Uganda's Bwaise township houses 50,000 people and 120 villages. Health problems are rampant due to a lack of clean water. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user sarahemcc
Uganda's Bwaise township houses 50,000 people and 120 villages. Health problems are rampant due to a lack of clean water. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user sarahemcc

We've just climbed off our motorbikes after a hectic 20-minute ride down Kampala's dusty main highway.

Everybody on the busy neighbourhood street is openly staring as we chat to our local guide, Salim Semambo.

"It's just down here," says Salim.

He leads us down a dark alley that's lodged between two crumbling brick structures.

My partner and I exchange looks as we dodge piles of sludge and trenches filled with crushed plastic bottles.

We had some initial reservations about Salim's very personal tour of Uganda's biggest township.

"Slum tourism" is a growing problem in Africa, as highlighted by a fake shanty resort in South Africa that led to global outrage last year.

There's a fine line between empathy and exploitation, and we didn't want to further intrude with our cameras.

Luckily, as our guide starts telling his inspiring story, we begin to relax about our noticeable presence in Bwaise.

"I was born and grew up in these slums. I decided to start running small tours to help the community," he says.

Almost a decade later, Salim still lives in Bwaise and operates a small yet busy charity, Volunteers for Sustainable Development (VFSD).

VFSD is funded by tours, as well as volunteers from luckier countries that help out with development projects.

On the first leg of our tour, we're shown some of Bwaise's most heavily financed development projects: sanitation.

Salim tells us that growing up in Bwaise was tough, and that health problems are rampant due to a lack of clean water.

This is summed up by a local saying: "Water is life, unless you live in Bwaise. If you live in Bwaise, water is death."

We soon encounter one intended solution to this problem: a small metal box with a spout that's located in a deserted courtyard.

This Coca-Cola-funded clean water pipeline costs a few Ugandan shillings per jug. Most can't afford this, so they opt for free water sources instead.

As we walk further into the township's centre, we start seeing these water sources along the sides of footpaths.

These taps are essentially raw pipes that jut from the ground and collect water in a pool, sometimes mingling with sewage.

"This is very bad for them," says Salim, as we approach a group of children who are holding a large bottle up to a pipe.

The children quickly spot us. They begin running towards us excitedly and shrieking "mzungu", the Bantu word for white man.

While we're now used to this African spectacle, the children's enthusiasm is infectious, and we stop to look at their drawings.

These children seem happy. Not everything in Bwaise is sadness and poverty, despite the headlines about Africa that indicate otherwise.

Bwaise slum houses 50,000 people and 120 villages, so we meet many more children and adults as we continue to walk.

A few that we meet seem suspicious of the rich tourists, however the vast majority are welcoming and approachable.

This includes a group of young Ugandans we find milling around a small but lively wooden building. We finally figure out we've stumbled across the local cinema.

We peek inside and find a small room filled with fold-out chairs and people crowded around a tiny television.

Now, almost two hours into the tour, Salim says it's time to visit Bwaise's red light district.

HIV/AIDs is a major problem for the community, especially due to the ongoing sexual exploitation of vulnerable women.

As we enter the district, Salim tells us to hide our cameras, as they can understandably make the women uncomfortable.

It's now getting dark and I start feeling on edge. I feel like I'm trespassing, and almost reach out for my partner's hand.

A few minutes later, we meet a small group of women wearing bright clothes and a lot of glittery make-up.

They're happy to chat about their work and their everyday lives, and I start feeling less wary about our presence.

The Bwaise slum tour isn't for everybody. Some will be too confronted, even though the sheltered should arguably embrace this emotion.

Others will simply find the tour exploitative. There is a pay-off though: an orphanage funded by some of VFSD's takings.

Salim takes us to this crammed home at the end of our tour. He introduces us to a huge group of children, including a tiny baby.

Holding this baby is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Overall, the tour is complicated and confusing, but we vow to stay in touch with the quiet-mannered Salim.

A month later, he tells us over Facebook that the tiny baby at the orphanage has died from an HIV-related complications.

It's yet another unsettling reminder that while tourists can easily leave Bwaise, others aren't so fortunate.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Bwaise is 20 minutes' drive from Uganda's capital city, Kampala. Emirates flies to Uganda's international airport, Entebbe, via Dubai.

Staying there: Emin Pasha Hotel is a boutique hotel in Kampala.t.

Playing there: Volunteers for Sustainable Development organises bespoke tours of Bwaise slum. Contact Salim via facebook.com/slumtours.

The writer travelled at her own expense.

* The NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently advising against tourist and non-essential travel to Uganda due to the unpredictable security situation in parts of the country. To see the latest MFAT advisories for Uganda, see safetravel.govt.nz.

- AAP

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