For me it also felt like I had crossed the line from being an observer to being an uninvited guest, gawking at the misfortune of others. I tried not to make eye contact.
One of the most telling images from our walk was of Keli looking off into the distance, a soccer field filled with mud and sewage, behind him.
Imagine living in a city with no running water, limited electricity, no working sewage system and almost nonexistent social services. Imagine your playground piled high with garbage, while goats, chickens and roosters roam about freely. Imagine both human and animal feces are being dumped into the only water source that your city has to offer while just downstream people are gathering water for drinking. Imagine your home is made of scrap metal and the floor of your house is as dusty as the air outside. A place like this is hard to imagine for most of us living in a developed nation, but for many people living in the developing world, these living conditions are a reality.
Just five kilometers from the center of Kenya’s bustling capital Nairobi, a slum by the name of Kibera sits intertwined between Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and the Ugandan Railway, which passes directly through this forest of scrap metal. The lives of the people living in the slum are very similar to the scene depicted above and the Kenyan government has very little control over this city within a city.
Kibera’s population is anywhere from 200,000 – 1,000,000 people but this is only an estimate. Because of the unregulated nature of this area, it is hard to monitor the comings and goings of the residents as well as the cycle of births and deaths, a task which has proved to be a consistent challenge for surveyors.
A Kiberian (someone who lives within the slum) can spend their entire lives within its boundaries of 2.38 km2. Markets, schools, churches, mosques, hospitals, tailors, butchers and countless other services can be found within Kibera. The majority of these establishments are independent from the Kenyan government, meaning they receive very little federal funding. These people seem almost forgotten, swallowed up by the general epidemic of poverty that burdens the entire country.
Being in Nairobi over the years I was naturally aware of Kibera. While it is not physically that small it is pinned between two significant roads, close to Wilson Airport, and became part of any drive through Nairobi. It is a barren slash, a jumble of buildings and roofs, corrugated and rusty metal, a scar sub-divided by the rail line. I knew all about it–reputed to be the most populous slum in all of Africa–home to hundreds of thousands of people living without the most basic of services including sanitation, running water, and waste removal. I’d driven by but never considered entering. Realistically, it was an area that was unwise for me to visit. I was told that police officers avoided it at night. Besides, I really didn’t have a reason to venture in–until now.
In the aftermath of the elections there was widespread violence across the country. One of the places that experienced the most violent episodes was in Kibera. Here people from across the country, across tribal divisions, lived side by side in close quarters. Neighbors turned on neighbors. Buildings were set on fire and with no running water or fire department whole sections were destroyed. The railroad tracks–the spine on which the whole area was settled–were ripped from the ground and the ties used as weapons.
I knew that my characters needed to pass through Kibera. I knew we did as well.
Throughout Nairobi there were continual clashes between rival gangs and with police. Often this violence would start in Kibera and spill out into the surrounding city. In trying to break up demonstrations, stop looting and protect people from violence the police and soldiers became increasingly strong in numbers and acted more and more forcibly. Deadly force was used by those trying to quell the violence. People caught in the cross-fire would be at risk.
I placed my characters into a conflict between protestors and police. They smell the teargas and are caught in the rush of people running away. To escape they follow the flow of the fleeing crowd and stumble down railroad tracks. It’s not until they are pushed along, already on the brink of entering Kibera that they are aware of where they are. Muchoki knows enough to be terribly afraid but there is no way out–they can’t go back and they can’t escape left or right, so they must go forward.
I was reminded of a Winston Churchill quote–“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” They have no choice.
As with our characters we had walked into Nairobi the day before. Unlike them, rather than sleeping on a pile of burlap sacks we stayed once at the Kenya Comfort Inn. Throughout the night I was awoke by the sound of another storm, rain pounding down on the roof. I was grateful that by morning that it had ended, not realizing how this storm would impact on Kibera.
We stopped at one of the gates waiting to enter. Our escorts told us to stay close. I asked Connor to watch Matt closely. At times, his eye to the viewfinder, he could become distracted to the things around him. I asked Henry to keep one eye on Kate and Julia and I’d do the same. I asked Julia to keep an eye on Baraka, although I knew the other boys would be guarding him.
Kate had developed bad blisters from almost the first day. Her feet were pretty raw and it was painful to even watch her limp along. I looked at the combination of mud and sewage that awaited us in Kibera. I was afraid that these open blisters could get badly infected in the muck. I asked if she would consider taking the van and meeting us on the other side. She told me she ‘didn’t come to Kenya to ride in a van.’ She walked through Kibera. She walked ever foot of the trip.
It was now time. “Okay, everybody, please try to stay together!” I called out and we entered.
The rain and steady pedestrian traffic had combined to churn up the dirt and turn it into a sea of mud. You can hear our feet sloshing and squishing through the mud. We also knew that with no sanitation system that the mud was mixed with other things. We could smell the raw sewage, dumped in the pathways, running through the swollen gullies that cross the sight. Mixed in among the people were chickens, ducks, dogs and cats–all of them pecking away at the piles of garbage that filled the paths and were in piles in vacant spots.
For the first time in our trip we moved in silence. We moved along narrow, crowded walkways, pressed in on all sides by shacks and stores and stalls, ankle deep in mud and sewage, overwhelmed by signs and sounds and smells. The boys looked scared. Our young Canadians shocked. The soldiers were more vigilant than I’d seen them throughout the walk.
Just after that the “assistant chief” of Kibera came out to greet us. He asked our intentions, complimented us on bringing in our own security, answered questions and then wished us well as we continued our journey.
And then something happened. It started with Mutuku and Julia. Mutuku offered a hand to a little girl to help her across an open sewer. She and Mutuku and Julia – and then joined by her brother – started talking, exchanging smiles. We started to look up from the ground and to start looking at the people. We were greeted with smiles, outstretched hands, words of welcome, questions and curiosity. They were at least as intrigued by us as we were of them.
Within its boundaries were stores and shops, churches and a mosque and schools and pre-schools. People came out of their homes with pressed shirts and ties, high heels and fancy dresses. Women bent over with straw whisks cleaned the garbage from the fronts of their stores or homes. There were two multiplexes–little movie theatres showing half a dozen movies on TV sized screens. Restaurants, butchers and tailor shops, and stores selling everything from kerosene to bread.
Kibera is home to hundreds of thousands of people. Do these people deserve to lie in better circumstances? Certainly. Are they any less than other people? Of course not. The lesson for me was that you could reduce the quality of life given to people but you couldn’t take away the pride in those lives. Kibera is so much more than a general label. It is so much more than a slum, a cliché, a pile of broken down buildings. Kibera is people.
Kibera is currently East Africa’s largest slum and symbolizes the hardships associated with an urban African lifestyle. That said, a question comes to mind … how did Kibera come to be? To better understand Kibera today, as well as the dynamic circumstances within the slum, we must look at the history surrounding its formation.
History of Kibera
In the late 1800’s, the scramble for Africa was coming to a close. European superpowers had entered the continent and divided up the spoils, meaning they had taken over land that rightfully belonged to the native African inhabitants. In doing so, Great Britain gained control of large portions of Eastern Africa, including Kenya. Now that the British had colonized African land, they had to establish services to maintain their control within Africa. In 1902, the King’s African Rifles (KAR) was formed. This military battalion would be used to monitor internal events to make sure they were favorable for Britain. The KAR soldiers were an eclectic mix of Africans, crossing ethnic, geographical, and religious lines. The British seemed to favor Sudanese soldiers for they were said to be loyal and obedient.
During the creation of the Ugandan Railway, which went straight through Kenya’s capital, the KAR was sent to protect this valuable British asset. After serving in Kenya for many years and gaining an attachment to the land, many Sudanese veterans decided to retire in Kenya and not return to their homeland.
The Sudanese veterans began to gather and settle around the land they had been protecting; a forest approximately 5 km outside of Nairobi. The British government started to feel uneasy about these forest inhabitants but had little ability to relocate them seeing as the British were indebted to the Sudanese soldiers for their previous services to the Crown.
This settlement would eventually evolve to become Kibera. Through a dynamic process of intermarriage (Sudanese marrying Kenyans) and assimilation (Sudanese embracing Kenyan culture and vice versa), a unique group of people was formed: the Kiberians.
As time progressed and Kibera grew, Kenyans from many different ethnic backgrounds migrated into the settlement from rural areas across the country due to its close proximity to the capital.
Today, Kibera is a product of this historical event and the consistent flow of people from rural areas to this urban slum is now a century-long trend.
Although today Kibera is undeniably overcrowded and underdeveloped, many Kenyans see it as an opportunity to find work in the capital city. For those who are born there, they may know nothing else other than the concrete jungle that surrounds them.
A film created by the United Nations in 2011, entitled Slum Survivors, highlights the struggles and hardships for those living in Kibera. The documentary starts by following the life of a young woman named Jane who just gave birth to her eighth child, on the floor of her home constructed by tin and mud. Jane could not afford to give birth in a hospital, so she was forced to do so without any medical attention. Jane states, “Giving birth is easy, the difficulty is feeding them.”
Slum Survivors is a brilliant way to understand the lives of those living in Kibera. Some images are hard to watch, but for those living in absolute poverty in urban Kenya, this is their daily reality.
Please click here to be redirected to a YouTube link.
Parsons, Timothy. “Kibra Is Our Blood: The Sudanese Military Legacy in Nairobi’s Kibera Location, 1902-1968.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 30, no. 1 (1997): 87-122.