three hours in Kibera

I’m standing in the shower letting scalding water rush over my body. It sweeps away a long day’s worth of dust, grime, sweat and smoke. But it can’t clear the haze from my head. I’m still hearing faraway shouting, music blaring, generators pulsating. Smelling smoke and garbage. Tasting fumes and slum-brewed moonshine. Feeling compost slipping under my feet and dusty fingers wrapping around my wrists. I’m still in Kibera.

630,000 acres of "informal" housing

Some facts about Kibera: It is the largest slum in East Africa, and possibly all of Africa — depends who you ask. The population figures vary widely, swinging between 170 thousand and two million people. The latest census from Kenya pegs it at the lowest end of the scale, meaning it would barely qualify as Kenya’s biggest slum (although I’m not sure how one does an accurate census in a slum). Meanwhile, one of the guys who lives there says that it’s home to 700 thousand.

Kibera is more than 600 thousand acres of “informal” housing, and the UN estimates that rental income from Kibera is worth about CDN$47 million annually to its landlords — a goldmine.

It’s bordered by a golf course, Uhuru Gardens and the Nairobi Dam:

a man and his dogs

Yesterday, I visited Kibera. The last time I set foot in a slum was in Sierra Leone. I wanted to see where locals went to dance, drink and make merry, so I asked one of the guys in my neighbourhood to take me where he would go dancing on a Friday night. He was skeptical about why I’d want to venture into the corrugated-iron maze of Freetown’s back alleys, when there were plenty of clean(ish) ex-pat bars a few minutes’ taxi ride away. I explained I wanted to see the Freetown he knew, not the Freetown that existed on the sidelines of main roads. The dance club we went to was only about a four- or five- minute walk into the slums, and it was at night… so all I saw were darkened doorways and the glowing tips of cigarettes. I stepped over open sewers without knowing what I was avoiding. I didn’t see the slum so much as blindly glide through it. (The club, Congo’s, was an experience of its own, which you can read about here.) This time, I actually felt like I’ve “seen” a slum… even though using the label “slum” feels strange. The term carries such negative connotations, when really it just refers to an area characterized by informal settlements and substandard housing that lacks tenure security.

watching the rain begin to fall

I wish I could leave it up to the photos to tell my story of Kibera — it wouldn’t leave me searching for words to explain the sounds and smells and feelings. Let me be clear that this is just my story, not the story. I’ve only spent three hours in Kibera. I only know what I saw and what I was told by D and V, the two guys who showed us around. (We met them through one of the media fellows who was at the Nation last year. D has lived in Kibera his whole life, 25 years.)

greeted at the door to a makeshift bar

I want to say this off the top: the Kibera I saw is not a sinister place. It is not evil, scary, or treacherous. It is not some black hole of disease and crime and hopelessness. As we navigated its streets, I wasn’t afraid once. (Ok, I was a little afraid drinking the moonshine, but that’s just because I’m too young to go blind.)

So let’s make that clear. Humans are humans no matter where in the world you find them. The reality of life in Kibera has not twisted its residents into evil, heartless or hopeless mutants. There is just as much laughter and entrepreneurship and kindness on the streets of Kibera as there is on the streets of my neighbourhood in Nairobi. (There is more kindness and entrepreneurship and laughter than on the streets of Ottawa or Montreal.) The people who live in Kibera are doing just that: living. Some have gotten lost along the way, but that happens everywhere. I would venture to say that it happens more in Kibera, but I think we’d all be surprised how quickly it could happen to us. So, no, Kibera is not an unfriendly place. But while it has just as much light and kindness as the areas I’ve been fortunate enough to live, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Kibera is essentially 630,000 acres of poverty.

a chicken picks through a pile of compost and garbage

The most overwhelming element of Kibera is the garbage, simply because it’s inescapable. It covers every surface. Burning garbage, blowing garbage, garbage ground into the earth by foot traffic. Open sewers with rivers of trash and shit. Waste as far as the eye can see: clogging gutters, underfoot, stacked in piles beside the paths. Plastic bags disintegrating in the sunlight, used condoms, egg shells, naked corn cobs, gum wrappers, broken chairs, chip bags, stray socks, general unidentifiable sludge.

Kenya already has a smell that drifts through my bedroom window on the morning breeze: exhaust fumes, burning garbage and mangoes. In Kibera, add to that the smell of rotting human waste leaking from public latrines (where users have to pay just to use the facilities).

My lungs were thick with dust, smoke, and generator fumes for hours after I got home. I blew my nose and the tissue turned black. Kibera is not a healthy place to spend three hours, let alone a lifetime. But the pollution is just the strongest impression, not the only one.

"Haawaryoohaawaryoohaawaryoo..."

The kids of Kibera run alongside newcomers and wrap their tiny hands around your wrist. They giggle and shriek and ask over and over again, “How are you? How are you?” until it becomes a mantra being chirped from all sides. They’re friendly and playful; they don’t regard us with the (understandable) suspicion of their parents and aunties and grandfathers. They just want to touch our muzungu skin, pose for photos and, more importantly, see themselves in instant replay on the screens of our digital cameras. Runny noses, dusty cheeks and huge smiling eyes. Infectious laughter.

Margaret.

A slum is a city. People are working. Women are braiding hair, brewing moonshine, selling roasted corn or raw chicken or cassava root. Men are boiling pork bones for stew, holding court over their shops stuffed with extension cords and bubble gum. Other women are frying bhajias or mending clothing or hanging laundry out to dry. Piles of dried fish bake in the sun, beside tomatoes and cabbage and bananas for sale. Teenagers rent time on Playstation consoles, or watch football matches in darkened “stadiums” (Kenya won its qualifier yesterday for the Africa Cup of Nations). There are volleyball games, blasting sound systems, footballs made out of plastic bags and twine. Kids are playing in the dirt alongside ducks and chickens and dogs.

Not being anything close to expert on Kibera, I would venture a guess that the low standard of living is not due to unemployment so much as underemployment. Some people commute to other parts of Nairobi for work, but others try to make their living in the informal economy of Kibera. People are not lazy. They are doing their best with the opportunities they have available. But you can sit at your vegetable stand all day, and if no one is buying bananas, you come home with nothing.

Changaa

In a bid to put a bit of money into the local economy, we stopped at a bar for some moonshine. We never would have known it was a bar, the entrance was just a doorway with a curtain drawn across it… and two little girls peeking out on the doorstep. Even inside, you’d have no idea you were in a drinking establishment — two couches and a few chairs around a coffee table, and a baby sleeping on a mattress beneath a TV set blaring the football game. The woman of the house got out four small tumblers and an empty mickey that once held vodka. From a small, unmarked plastic container, she filled the mickey with Kibera’s ubiquitous brew, Changaa, and then settled back into her armchair. This “bar” is her home.

Changaa is 80 percent alcohol. The income from the sale of the drink helps feed families and send kids to school. Only recently did it become legal. It actually went down smoothly, and no signs of blindness 24 hours later. So far, so good.

potato bhajias

We followed the moonshine with some bhajias bought from a street vendor. Moments before, we had been accosted by a group of giggling kids who left our hands smeared with red earth. As we looked at our palms, I said “Just don’t put them in your mouth.” No more than a minute later, we came across a bubbling pan of oil, with bhajias floating temptingly at the surface. It didn’t take much to seduce us, and before long were digging our fingers into plastic bags full of fried potatoes. They were worth the risk — warm, salty, crispy around the edges. We didn’t know what to do with the grease-laden bags when we finished… we paused for a moment and then dropped them on the ground. Two more floating pieces of plastic. “When in Rome,” Alex said.

Wiping the oil from our fingers, we met Pastor Alois, who presides over one of the Baptist Sunday services in Kibera. He also runs an orphanage, where eight children currently live with him. He showed us the church: a bare concrete floor and corrugated metal walls, grimy plastic lawn chairs stacked in the corner.

Pastor Alois in the door to his church

Other than those vignettes, the experience of exploring Kibera becomes a twisting maze of uneven roads and haphazard shacks and thousands and thousands of faces. We hiked up one of the hills of Kibera to get a “good” shot of the slum… and D insisted that Alex and I be in the photo. It seemed inappropriate to even be posing for the picture, and even more so to smile.

not exactly uhuru peak

Going to Kibera is something that I struggled with. There are two ethical dilemmas for me — the first is why I wanted to see Kibera in the first place, and the second is how I saw it.

When we disembarked from the matatu (public bus) in Kibera, one of the first things we saw were a bunch of white people pouring out of a safari vehicle, no doubt on a “slum tour” (more on those in a bit). I was immediately disgusted. What do these sick foreigners think they’re doing, coming to gawk at poverty and suffering? But I had to pause. What was I doing there? How am I different from those tourists in their khakis and backpacks, setting off into the slums like it’s a day hike in the Masai Mara?

Here is how I justify it: Journalists bear witness. We try to understand the communities in which we live, then we use that knowledge to promote others’ understanding. We don’t hide within our own demographics. The stories that move mountains aren’t written from press releases. I’m living and working in Nairobi for eight months. After three weeks it’s gradually becoming home to me, but I can’t write about Kenya without seeing it. I’m not breezing through Kibera in between game drives and pedicures. My journalism degree is specialized in foreign reporting, and I have a master’s of international development. In the coming months I hope to cover stories that encompass all elements of Kenyan society. That includes Kibera. Surely that qualifies me as more than a slum tourist?

vegetable stand

I think it does. But, if we’re being honest, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I also wanted to see Kibera out of a unsettling fascination with the lives of those who are less fortunate. I wanted to see the piles of garbage and smell the smoke and taste the street food. Going to Kibera, for me, was about seeing with my own eyes the conditions that millions of people live in every day. What I saw of Kibera was just the beginning of a journey of getting as close as I can to “understanding” what happens in the poor parts of Kenya’s urban environment. But witnessing a lifestyle so unlike my own leads to obvious misinterpretations or egregiousness oversights. Kibera is a world so foreign to me that there is no way I could understand what I was seeing at first blush. Yes, I’m not just a tourist, and my understanding of life in a slum has to start somewhere, but can anyone who hasn’t grown up there ever actually get it? Is “understanding” just an excuse to gawk at poverty? As Kennedy Odede wrote in the NYT, about a “slumdog tourist” snapping photos in Kibera, “For a moment I saw my home through her eyes: feces, rats, starvation, houses so close together that no one can breathe. I realized I didn’t want her to see it, didn’t want to give her the opportunity to judge my community for its poverty — a condition that few tourists, no matter how well intentioned, could ever understand.”

Most of the people in Kibera were friendly but we got our fair share of dirty looks, which I don’t begrudge in the slightest. White skin, sturdy shoes and a camera at the ready, I am indistinguishable from a “slumdog tourist”. Even if I explained that I was a journalist, I can imagine that some of the people who live in Kibera wouldn’t care about the distinction.

chopping firewood

To use a term that was thrown around in the pre-departure seminar for this trip to Kenya, we have to be careful that our quests for understanding don’t become about indulging in the “pornography of poverty”. Now, I’m not using the “pornography” of sick, fly-bitten children to market an NGO to potential donors. To belabour the metaphor, it’s porn for personal use only. (And in terms of the images on this page, they’re all collected with consent.) But nevertheless, I’m posting photo upon photo of garbage and poverty. The difficulty of understanding the nuances of living in Kibera makes it so much easier to just focus what I can easily see and grasp.

The second issue is how we saw Kibera. It’s not the kind of place where there are street signs and tourist kiosks — it’s not a “show yourself around” kind of neighbourhood. Without D and V, there’s just no way we could have seen it. Period. And if I want to see it, it seems unfair to expect a free tour. So, straight up, we compensated D and V for their time. In one sense, it’s no different than paying a boat company to ferry you up and down the Rideau Canal, a guide in the bow of the boat spouting little-known facts about Colonel By. But on the other hand, the “attractions” aren’t monuments and tulip gardens… they’re humans and the often-appalling conditions in which they live. Without the people, Kibera is just a pile of garbage (of which no one would be tempted to take a tour). All I can hope is that as a resident of Kibera, the money I gave D will go back into the community. It’s not like I hired these guys to show me around, but I’m still conflicted about the fact that cash changed hands.

Ethical ramblings aside, I’m glad I went. And I’ll go back. I want to see Kibera as more than what Kennedy describes in the NYT. I hope it’s possible to really understand. I’m going to try. I plan to return, to walk the streets and ask questions, to keep my eyes and ears open, to read what’s been written and to write what hasn’t about the people who live there. Because three hours in Kibera is simply not enough.

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2 thoughts on “three hours in Kibera

  1. I’ve been following your blog through a link on Dustin’s blog. This is a very honest entry and I think one that gives the reader a lot to think about. As I read the first half of your entry, I kept thinking about Kennedy Odede’s article on slum tourism. I think you’ve done a good job at describing the vibrant community that lives in Kibera and your thoughts about why and how you experienced Kibera. As a Kenyan national, I too am interested in visiting Kibera.

    The organizers of this project that is now complete and was based in Kibera and Baba Dogo may be of interest to you: http://www.kuweniserious.org/2011/02/we-want-you/

  2. Wow Rose,
    I was feeling very homesick and sorry for myself today. But reading your story reminded me why I’m here. I completely understand your internal conflict about feeling like a tourist and that you may be contributing to the ‘pornography of poverty’. However, you have dealt with this dilemma in a very delicate way. Thanks for this.

    Kristy

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