Most of my life in Nairobi is defined by a 2 km radius (or 1.24 miles for you Americans).
My office is on one end with Yaya Centre nearby. My apartment is in the middle and then Junction (the other mall I frequent) is at the other end.
And within this 2 km radius, I live in a bubble. I can sometimes imagine that I live anywhere. There are nice apartments and office buildings. Yaya has a grocery store and the coffee shop where I often stop before work. Junction has Nakumatt (like a Wal-Mart without the guaranteed low prices), a movie theater (I saw the Secret Life of Walter Mitty there recently), and Art Caffe (where we like to get brunch). Basically, a good proportion of what I had in the States, I can get from these 2 malls, 3.5 km apart.
Yet, a 15 min drive above and below me there are slums. And I could easily live my life in Nairobi without ever seeing them.
For instance, I learned the other day that one of my boda drivers lives in the Kawangware slum. He told me that he can drive from his house to my apartment in about 10 min. Until that day, I had never heard of Kawangware, let alone known that it was so close.
And below me is Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi and Africa and the third largest in the world. It’s considered one of the worst slums in Africa. And I can get to its edge in 15 min by taxi.
I feel really lucky and grateful to have had a chance to go into Kibera. I was invited by a friend of mine who has done work with the Umande Trust, an organization that has built and supports 60 bio-centers in informal settlements across Kenya. These bio-centers provide toilets and showers and recycle the waste into bio-gas for cooking and lighting. We were able to tour two of the bio-centers in Kibera.
I took only a few pictures while in Kibera, and those that I did take were mostly done discreetly, because I hate feeling like a poverty tourist. I question whether it’s right to even go into a slum at all. On my hand, I think it’s important for me as an individual to see first-hand the living conditions of 1/6th of the world’s population. I’m incredibly privileged because (a) I will never have to live this way and (b) I can choose to spend my entire life never having to think about it or do anything about it. Secondly, by taking pictures, I can share my experience with others and compel them for hopefully at least 20 min to confront this problem.
On the other hand, I think it’s offensive to the residents of Kibera to walk into their community with the express purpose of being shocked by how they live. To walk around in my nice clothes with my smart phone taking pictures to document my experience while they live on about a $1 a day, if even that. And I bring them nothing in return.
I was shocked, as expected, by Kibera. It is one thing to know that slums are crowded with people and another to actually see it.
Every street is lined wall-to-wall with corrugated metal shacks, each the size of a small room. And each of these rooms might house 6-10 people at a rent of $2/month. As you might imagine, because the rooms are so small, most people spend their day outside of them, so the streets are bustling with people. Shops and street vendors line the main roads, selling cooked food, fruits and vegetables, clothing, and household goods. People are constantly moving through the streets or stand off to the side, chatting.
The ground in Kibera largely resembles a garbage dump as plastic, cardboard, food waste, animal and human waste have accumulated over the years. There is no trash service here. Where else would it go? In some parts it has decomposed to almost look like soil but in other parts it is clearly waste. You see the waste in the gutters mixing with dirty water; you see it on the sides of the streets, packed up against houses; and, you see it between the houses, festering.
It’s estimated that over 50% of Kibera’s population is under 15. It certainly felt this way as we were walking through–we saw so many kids running around, acting as all kids do. As we were walking down one of the side paths, we were ambushed by a group of little kids in dirt-stained clothing calling out to us, “How are you? How are you?” They crowded around for hugs, high-fives, and pictures. They loved the novelty of seeing us, and we loved their happiness and eagerness. I took a picture of them below, and it’s my favorite from the day.
On the same path, we passed another little boy, kneeling on a step, lost in his own world playing cars. Yet, when I looked closer, it wasn’t a car but a piece of metal.
As we were leaving Kibera, our guide said to us, “You see now, Kibera has a very low standard of living.” My first reaction was to agree with him, but my friend responded differently. “No,” she said, “it’s not necessarily lower, just different.” I like her perspective.
I walked out of Kibera feeling very lucky to have been born into the society and class that I was. I tried imagining myself living in Kibera and my stomach twisted. Irregular meals, little access to education, no running water, no steady supply of electricity, no personal bathroom, no private space. It sounded like Hell. Yet, my friend’s point was that the people in Kibera have learned to manage a poor situation that they have limited control over. The government has chosen to mostly ignore Kibera (for instance, there’s only 1 public school to serve a population of ~1 million people). Education is limited and costly and there are few jobs. Even through this, there is still a resiliency to Kibera. People work as they can, selling food and used goods. Community groups advocate for more funding for education. And organizations like the Umande Trust work within the community to build access to basic services.
The point is not simply to pity the people living in Kibera but to recognize their strength and to feel grateful for what you take for granted every day.