“Do you smell that?” asked my husband Scott.
“I do,” I replied. You couldn’t miss the toxic smell that hung in the air; a combination of feces, piling garbage, and cramped living conditions.
“Definitely not our smartest decision,” I added as I climbed over a mound of twisted wood and metal. My anger was growing by the second. I was angry at Scott for convincing me to go with the stranger we’d met at the beauty salon, but I was angrier at myself for not having the gumption to follow my gut.
“I’m chalking this one up to backpacker inexperience,” joked Scott.
“I’m not in the mood. Let’s just keep our wits about us and get out of here.”
After a month in Uganda we had arrived in Nairobi eager to find a safari to the Masai Mara. I was equally as eager to have my legs waxed. When we left home six weeks earlier I vowed to keep my waxing routine. This vow forced me to walk around Uganda for the previous two weeks with some seriously hairy legs.
We stepped out of our hostel and were immediately hit with safari touts. Overwhelmed, we tucked into the closest salon. While I was having my legs attended to, a smart looking gentleman wandered in. I assumed he was waiting for a haircut and so we chatted politely. He gave me some friendly advice on battling the touts and offered to give me the names of three companies he would recommend.
“Have you been to the elephant sanctuary?” asked my new friend David.
“No we just arrived,” I offered too easily.
“I can take you there for a small price,” he proposed.
Naïvely we negotiated with David, hopped in his car and arrived at the sanctuary. Scott and I congratulated ourselves because our visit with orphaned elephants was worth the negotiated price and blind trust.
“Do you know about the Kibera slum?” questioned David as we arrived back in the car. “I grew up there.”
“I’ve heard of it,” chimed Scott.
“I can take you on a tour for a small price,” proposed David.
Scott started negotiating as I shot him non-verbal eye daggers; eye dagger that husbands are supposed to understand. Twenty minutes later we had been transported to another world. Both interested in understanding the poverty that pervades many East African nations we were open to going there, but something about a ‘tour’ didn’t sit right with me.
David parked the car and paid a kid to watch it. He wanted us to believe he was a big shot in this neighborhood. I got the feeling people resented him.
He guided us through the maze of tin houses and sewer trenches spouting information about the slum.
“All of these electrical lines are illegal. Very few people can afford legal,” said David as he pointed to the lines we were to duck under. “Kibera is home to over one million people. The average house size is twelve feet squared and eight people would live in a house like that,”
“Is there any sewage system?” asked Scott as he dodged a rat. It was obvious he was oblivious to how I was feeling.
“There is no sewage system,” said David. “Diseases related to the open sewers are the biggest problem.”
He encouraged us to take pictures. My gut kept screaming that this was wrong. How could touring such horrific conditions do any more than line David’s pockets with some dollars? Sure, we’d had our eyes opened, but at the exploitation of the slum’s residents. I felt like a visitor at a zoo that kept their animals in poor conditions.
When David dropped us at the hostel, we paid him and he gave us the names of the tour companies he mentioned.
“Did you have a good time?” he asked nonchalantly.
How do you answer that question?