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Author Topic: Nairobi slum life: Into Kibera  (Read 27820 times)
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« on: May 07, 2004, 09:17:39 AM »

Nairobi slum life: Into Kibera

Private contractors run water into Kibera - and charge double

By Andrew Harding
East Africa correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya  

The first in a four part series looking at what life is like for Nairobi residents in Africa's largest slum.
I am sitting on a narrow bench, squashed between a postman called Akhmed, who's already snoring, and two schoolboys - Harrison and John - who are busy elbowing each other and pretending to look at a battered old maths book.

It's 4:45 on a Friday evening, and any second now, the train we're on is going to lurch out of Nairobi station, pass under Uhuru Highway, slip through the cutting next to the golf course, and struggle up the hill towards the biggest, poorest slum in Africa. A place called Kibera.

It's pleasantly cool today. Nairobi is more than 1,500 metres above sea level. At this time of year, a hot sun prowls above the thick grey clouds - but rarely breaks through.

The schoolboys look smart in their bright white shirts and grey shorts.

Harrison says his dad works as a messenger at Barclay's Plaza. Not a great job, but enough to pay, most terms, for Harrison's school fees and enough to rent the family a wooden shack in the slum, with a mud floor, and a tin roof - but no loo, or running water.

The train gives a gasping whistle - and moves out of the station. Only to squeal to a halt, a minute later, in what looks like a patch of waste ground.

Another ten people clamber up into our crowded carriage. An earnest young man in a red cap decides there's room on the bench between me and the postman.

For a while, we all sit and stare through the open window due south towards Nairobi's National Park. A small plane - probably full of foreign tourists - comes in to land at Wilson airport.

Behind us, three women are crocheting - standing in tiny circle - their bags piled up on the floor between them.

Ditch life

The man in the cap is called Julius Mzembe. He's an assistant at a wholesale shop in the city centre. He works from nine to five, six days a week, and takes home just under $75 a month to his wife and two daughters.

As you reach Kibera, the smell greets you

"I usually walk in to work in the mornings," he says. "It takes me two hours, but it's downhill, and I save ten shillings on the fare".

That's about ten pence or 15 US cents. Tomorrow is a working day - Sunday is for church and chores.

Julius smiles politely, but he's in a bad mood. The government has just raised the price of a loaf of bread by four precious shillings.

Suddenly, the light changes and we both look out of the window as the train emerges from a dark cutting. We're in the slum.

"Home," says Julius without looking at me.

The smells leaps into the carriage. Wood fires, fried fish, excrement, rubbish - the rich stench of 800,000 people living in a ditch.

Which is, basically, what the Kibera slum is. Six hundred acres of mud and filth, with a brown stream dribbling through the middle.

You won't find it on your tourist map - or any other map. It's a squatters camp - an illegal, forgotten city - and at least one third of Nairobi lives here.

The train stops again. Akhmed wakes up. He, Julius and the schoolboys all say goodbye and head for the door. I stay on. I've arranged to meet someone at the next stop.

By now the light is fading into a hazy, blue glow. From the train track at the top edge of the slum, thousands of corrugated roofs look like the dull brown scales of a giant snake.

Quiet beer

I climb down onto a muddy slope, and start to follow the crowds, hopping over the puddles - the ground is littered with thousands upon thousands of tattered plastic bags.

After payday things go crazy here. Everyone gets drunk - the muggers have a field-day

John Kanyua  
"I thought we have a beer," says John Kanyua.

He's a tall, confident 25 year old in a tracksuit and almost impossibly clean sneakers. He's lived here all his life, and has agreed to show me round.

First we have to get through the crowd of laughing children who are grabbing my hands and shouting "Howareyou? Howareyou?!"

"Tssst," says John sternly - trying to clear a path through them, and still keep his sneakers clean.

"We don't get many white faces here - especially not in the evenings. It can get dangerous - please stick close to me."

We set off into the darkening maze. Rap music thumps out from a row of wooden shacks - two barbers shops, a carpenter, and a dark room with a television flickering inside and sign saying hotel on the door.

We duck under a clothes line and down a steep alley - barely three foot across - with a stinking ditch running through the middle.

Five minutes later, we're sitting in a tiny, mud-walled bar. It's empty.

"Corner of the month," John explains. "That's the third Friday - when no-one has any money left. Next weekend - after payday - things go crazy here - everyone gets drunk - the muggers have a field-day."

Kibera rules

Behind the bar, a fading official portrait of President Daniel arap Moi stares down at us. John drinks his beer, and explains the ground rules of Kibera.

This place is like an island - it's not really part of Kenya at all. The state does nothing here. It provides no water, no schools, no sanitation, no roads, no hospitals.

And why should it bother? As I said, this is an illegal squatters camp.

Kibera's water is piped in by private dealers, who lay their own hosepipes in the mud, and charge double what people pay for the same service outside the slum.

The security comes from vigilante groups - who, for a price, will track down thieves and debtors.

Usually, the Nairobi police are too scared to come here. But if they do, they're just looking for bribes.

And as for the sanitation.... John smiles.

"You remember all those plastic bags you were talking about. Well they're called flying toilets. At night, when it's too dangerous to leave your home, some people do their business in bags, and fling them out the door."

John's friend, Isaac turns up. They're both footballers, working as coaches for a charity organisation that teaches the game to young kids.

"The hard part is finding a pitch," Isaac complains.

"We've only got one left for the whole slum. Landlords bribe the local chiefs to let them build shacks on them instead."

Nairobi slum life: An evening in Kibera

Danger lurks in Kibera when night falls

By Andrew Harding
East Africa correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya  

The second in a four part series looking at what life is like for Nairobi residents in Africa's largest slum.

Sunsets are early and quick on the equator - like a garage door slamming shut.

By 1915, the muddy valley outside Nairobi is already submerged in darkness.

It is a dangerous time. Muggers and pickpockets mingle with the crowds heading home quickly along narrow alleys, jumping nimbly across open sewers, their paths occasionally lit by the lamps and candles of stall owners selling fruit and fried fish.

"Do you want to meet a drug dealer?" asks John - the young football coach who's agreed to guide me round Kibera with his friend Isaac.


We squelch and duck and feel our way along the alleys. Or rather I do. John and Isaac seem to know every ditch and every scrap of jagged metal.

A rat scuffles past my foot. Round one corner, we almost stumble on top of an old man, squatting in the path.

Tom Moya is busy rolling joints when we arrive - lining them up on a wooden box into piles of 10. He lives in tiny smoke-filled room, lined with cardboard.

In the dark corners, half-naked white women smile from the torn pages of magazines. There's a sign on a chest of drawers which reads: "Real women don't hit men."

Tom doesn't sell hard drugs. Just marijuana - or bhang, as it's called here. "I used to collect fares on a Matatu," he says, licking the edge of the cigarette paper. "Now I do this. That's poverty for you."

Matatus are the overcrowded minibuses which tear round Nairobi with a death wish. Most have strange, macho names painted on the sides - Kosovo Conflict is a current favourite. Death Wish and Death Warrant are old classics.

"This job sounds a bit safer," I suggest to Tom. "Yup. But the pay is worse. And the police still hassle you. They come in maybe once a week asking for money - I give them 100 shillings and they go away."

At that moment, two boys come in and sit down next to me on a filthy old sofa. Then three more crowd in. They're all 12 or 13 years old. A joint works its way slowly round the room.


"Relaxation," says Samuel Mwangi, in his best Rasta accent. The others grin - and punch each others' fists in a salute. Samuel is 13.

A high price is extracted by both muggers and the police

He's wearing flip-flops and shorts. "School? Yeah I go to school sometimes," he says. But he's an orphan, and he sleeps at his grandmother's home just along the alley.

Often there isn't enough money to pay the school fees. Or buy dinner. His friends all chime in, looking at me andtrying not to grin: "Yeah we haven't eaten dinner either. Maybe you could buy us something!"

A few minutes later, the tallest boy in the room passes a joint to his neighbour, stands up and declares: "We are His Majesty's Boys."

That, it turns out, is the name of their football team - His Majesty being the Rastafarian icon Haile Selassie.

Then Samuel takes a long puff on the joint and starts lecturing me about dreadlocks. "God gave you hair, and you mustn't shave it."

"But you have," I say, pointing to his closely cropped head.

"Yes," he says, patiently, leaning back on the sofa, "but I'm a cub scout."

John isn't a fan of the Rastafarians. "They're a bad influence," he says, when we're outside again. "They just smoke, and try to look cool. But we're coaching his Majesty's Boys at football - trying to keep them busy, and away from the Rastas."


The slum is getting quieter now - the music has stopped. The lights of Nairobi glitter in the distance. The soft light from a paraffin lamp catches John's teeth as he grins and says: "Now, how about some home brew..."

And so our slum pub crawl moves on to another dark wooden hut. Inside, Evelyn, Tonica and Orasa giggle and start clearing the tiny room. Evelyn makes room for us, by leaning over and picking up two small children who are sleeping on the floor. They both wake up and stare quietly at me, then crawl into a corner.

Chang'aa is a spirit, usually distilled from maize or sorghum. The good stuff is not unlike vodka. The bad stuff can be topped up with methanol - last year more than 100 people died in Nairobi from one particularly lethal brew.

I let John go first. He swigs it back from what looks like a shampoo bottle. "Good stuff," he says, through clenched teeth - and passes it to me.

And he's right. Sort of. It's like dirty brandy.

The sisters have lived here for seven years now. Like most people in Kibera, they came from the countryside, not far from Lake Victoria, hoping to find jobs. Evelyn sits on the bed, watching us quietly. One of the children - three-year-old Marcus - is hers. But there's no father about. Orasa takes 50 shillings from me for the drink, and goes outside to buy some milk for the kids.

Brewing chang'aa is illegal in Kenya. So the police come to collect a bribe once in a while. They pester us, says Evelyn. Sometimes they stay for an hour or two...

I'd already guessed that the sisters were prostitutes. All three of them, working together in the one room - the sleeping children pushed out of sight into the corner. The youngest sister, Tonica, doesn't look more than 14 herself.

John tells me later that she's the big attraction. "Men are attracted by her youth," he says. They spend an evening with the sisters, drink chang'aa, have sex, then fall asleep. The women steal a little extra money from their pockets."


Two dogs follow us, as we walk back up the hill towards the railway line. We turn a corner, and a drunk man lurches into us. He's got a bandage wrapped round one hand, and a rotten avocado in the other.

I can sense John and Isaac tense up, then relax as the man stumbles past.

"That fellow is the most dangerous man in Kibera," Isaac says. "Even when he's drunk. I've seen him take on four people. He's crazy."

In the dark, we can see small groups moving along a path, maybe 20 yards away. "Muggers," John whispers. "It's nearly 11 - this is when they go off to the estates, looking for people coming out of bars."

Just then, four men turn and head towards us. "Don't worry, I recognise these guys," John says, stepping forward to punch fists, Rasta-style. We all follow suit.

The men move off, laughing, walking along the railway track.

We stand for a while, looking back down the hill towards Nairobi. The clouds have cleared, and the sky is cold and full of stars. "Good," says Isaac. "No rain tonight, so no burglars in the slum."

"It's the noise," he explains. "The sound of rain on all those tin roofs. You can shout all you like, but no-one will hear you."

Nairobi slum life: Kibera's children

Kibera's children face a future full of risks

By Andrew Harding
East Africa correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya  

The third in a four part series looking at what life is like for Nairobi residents in Africa's largest slum.

In the grey gloom of first light it looks like a pile of rubbish - a clutter of cardboard and cloth on a damp pavement.

There is a loud clunk, as the wheels of a city bus lurch through a nearby pothole. Then a small hand reaches out from the middle of the heap, and tugs at a black plastic bag.

I don't think I have a bright future

19-year-old Musa  

It's 0600 and 11-year-old Eric Omondi is waking up. He's usually the first. Some of the others have sniffed solvent the night before, to try to take the edge off the cold. Eric doesn't like the solvent - it makes his chest hurt.

There are four boys in all, huddled under their cardboard blankets on the edge of Africa's largest slum.

Eventually the others get up. Twelve-year-old Evans, John who's 13, and the oldest Musa - who's just turned 19.

The boys leave their bedding where it is. It'll probably be stolen during the day - but they've got nowhere else to put it, and they need to start work.


It's about half an hour's walk to Adam's Arcade - a cluster of shops on Nairobi's Ngong road. The boys aren't allowed inside - they'd be chased away by the security guards.


But they can beg nearby, and sometimes people need bags carrying. There's also a place on the other side of the road where they can sit and shell peas for a local businessman - who pays them 20 shillings - about 30 US cents - for a full bag.

Eric arrives at the Arcade wearing everything he owns. Two t-shirts, a pair of green and red shorts, and a battered set of flip-flops. He's eaten nothing since yesterday afternoon.

So he stands near the road, asking for money from the morning commuters - as they squeeze on board mini-buses bound for the city centre.

Someone gives him five shillings. Eric slips it into his grubby shorts and gives his nose a good pick.


An hour later, all four boys are sitting on a patch of grass behind the arcade, sipping steaming porridge out of plastic mugs. They seem to have got used to me tagging along.

Stealing could see you lynched in minutes

Eric is holding an old football. "It has a hole," he says, squeezing the leather.

"It belongs to us four - we share it. There's a businessman across the road who locks it up for us at night in his shed." Clothes apart - it is their one and only possession.

The boys were all born in the nearby slum. A cramped and filthy squatters camp called Kibera. Home to some 800,000 people - who can't afford to stay anywhere else.

At least half the population of Nairobi live in Kibera and other nearby slums - hidden away like a dirty secret along railway embankments, and beside rubbish dumps.

Eric ran away from home in December, when tribal violence erupted in the slum. He got separated from his family and hasn't seen them since.

Evans left home when his mother died, and his father simply drifted away. John says he was chased out by his mother. Although now he thinks she was actually his step-mother.

"She was bad," he says matter-of-factly.


Musa, the oldest boy, has been on the street for longer than he can remember. He's spent time in a juvenile detention centre in Nairobi.

"I was lucky," he says. "I was not raped."

He'd like to get a proper job, but none of the boys have identity cards, which means the police can round them up whenever they like.

"I don't think I have a bright future," says Musa solemnly.

They all hate the police. When we talk about jobs - that's the one thing they don't want to be.

"All they to is take bribes and beat people," Musa mutters. Although to be fair, the police here earn so little, that it would be absurd to expect them not to demand bribes.

Eric, who had been dozing, stirs and sits up - looking around at his friends, and the potholed street outside Adams Arcade.

Quietly, he says "I think maybe we'll live like this forever."


Eric is in a good mood. He's already earned 30 shillings today.

He can afford dinner, and then maybe an action movie in one of the crowded video shacks on the edge of the slum.

Without ID cards jobs are hard to secure

A shower costs five bob (shillings). Eric always tries to spend what he's earned. Otherwise someone will just steal it from him in the night.

"There's a big boy called Marcus," he says. "He's a nightmare. He terrorises all of us."

Eric has tried stealing for himself. So have the others. A mango from a stall. A few shillings from a commuter. But it's a very, very risky business.

In Nairobi, in fact anywhere in Kenya, a lynch mob can form in a matter of seconds. The reflex action of a poor community with no faith in the police or the courts.

"I saw one boy I know getting lynched," Eric says. He starts acting out the scene. Showing how the crowd put a car tyre round his neck and set fire to him with petrol.

In the evenings, private vigilante groups patrol the slums, looking for troublemakers. Musa saw one group in action last week. "They'll burn you if you steal one shilling," he says.

And with that, the four boys start wandering back towards Kibera.

An orange sun is already low on the horizon. Just above it, a row of black clouds has formed along the edge of the Rift Valley - half an hour's drive to the west.


The boys are laughing now - kicking a stone instead of their punctured football. And it makes me smile to think that these four dirty, hungry, lonely humans are still children at heart - still able to have fun.

Nairobi is full of street-kids who have lost that instinct. The dead-eyed zombies who patrol the roundabouts down town.

Ten-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement - ready to thrust them into an open car window - to force the driver to pay up.

A little later, Eric and his friends stop to pick up scraps of cardboard and coal sacks - tonight's sleeping bags. Later, when it's dark, they'll return to their usual spot on the pavement.

They pay five shillings a night to a watchman who guards the area. There's normally some iron sheeting they can use to shelter from the rain.

By ten o'clock on a weeknight, the slums are quiet. A few campfires flicker in the darkness.

Under a starless sky, Eric, Musa, Evans and John arrange their bedding and huddle down on the cold roadside. A familiar routine. John and Musa on the outside - the two younger boys sandwiched together in the middle.

Forward to a united Africa!
Senior Member
Posts: 605

« Reply #1 on: May 13, 2004, 02:40:34 PM »

Nairobi slum life: Escaping Kibera

Businesses do thrive in Kibera despite the filth

By Andrew Harding
East Africa correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya  

The last in a four part series looking at what life is like for Nairobi residents in Africa's largest slum.

Elizabeth Wambui has been plotting her escape for years. She is 22 years old and is beautiful. Her long hair is meticulously straightened.

She's standing inside her mother's shop in the middle of the Kibera slum. The small courtyard outside has been swept clean. An old portrait of President Moi hangs above a fridge full of coke and sprite bottles.

I want to become an IT specialist. I'll earn good money and move the whole family out of Kibera

Elizabeth has just come back from her lessons at Nairobi University. She's studying commerce. "I have to be home well before seven," she says. "It's very dangerous here after dark."

A couple of the girls in her class know she lives in the slum. "But I try to keep it a secret," she says.

"The teachers talk about Kibera like its some sort of filthy jungle. Like no one intelligent could possibly live here. They're snobs. Sure, it's dirty. But we can still afford the basics."


Elizabeth is a member of the Kikuyu tribe - the largest and richest tribe in Kenya. Her parents built their brick house in the slum years ago.

Over the years, they've built other wooden shacks nearby to rent out. They've also got the shop - and a water pipeline - half a mile of tubing which they've connected up to the city mains. The tap in the courtyard is a lucrative business.

Elizabeth's mother, a large woman called Teresia, shuffles in slowly on her flip-flops, wiping her hands. She's been manning the tap all morning. Three shillings to fill a jerry can - maybe a hundred customers a day.

"I'm not telling you how much we earn," she says. "But business is ok. I moved here from the countryside in 1987 to be with my husband. He was born here."

Like her daughter, Teresia is immaculately dressed. Her cream shirt is like a gesture of defiance. A two-fingered salute to the mud and squalor surrounding their little courtyard.

"This place is not so bad most of the time," she says. "But the clashes were terrible. We thought we'd all be burned alive."


On 4 December 2001 - the slum suddenly turned into a battlefield: a blur of machetes, gunfire, burning huts and fleeing crowds. By the time the fighting stopped, a week later, at least 15 people were dead.

It costs three shillings to fill a jerry can

The roots of Kibera's violence go way back. In fact, if you're looking for someone to blame - you could try the British.

In the 1920s the British colonial government here decided let a group of Nubian soldiers settle on a wooded hillside outside Nairobi. The Nubians - an ethnic group from neighbouring Sudan - had been fighting on the side of the allies in World War One, as part of the King's African Rifles.

They had done a good job, and the British were toying with the idea of keeping them on after the war. But then the colonial authorities had second thoughts, and told the Nubians they could put down their guns, and live on their hillside.

For some reason, though, the British never gave the Nubians the title deeds to their new land. The soldiers built homes, and set up businesses. But they were squatters - with no legal rights. They called the place - Kibra, meaning jungle.

Over the years, other tribes moved into the area. Some managed to carve out their own plots of land. But most became tenants - renting their huts off the Nubian landlords.


Fast forward to the present day and the population has exploded - from a few thousand to almost a million. The country has been independent for almost 40 years.

But the Kenyan Government has done precisely nothing for Kibera. No title deeds, no sewage pipes, no roads... no services of any kind. And of course, they have the perfect excuse - after all, the slum is still illegal.

From time to time, politicians do come to Kibera - but for their own purposes. Usually to whip up support from their own tribe, by lashing out at the Nubians.

Which is exactly what happened last December. President Moi, who lives - some of the time - in a mansion overlooking Kibera, blithely announced that the rents there were too expensive. A local MP from the Luo tribe parroted the same line - and within a few days - the Luos and the Nubians were killing each other.

Elizabeth and her family survived, unscathed behind their courtyard gates. But the violence left her more determined than ever to find a way out of the slum.

"I'm the oldest child," she says. "My parents have sacrificed a great deal to put me through college. I want to become an IT specialist. I'll earn good money and move the whole family out of Kibera."

Unfortunately Kenya's economy has been going through it's worst recession since independence. "The job market is bad right now, " Elizabeth concedes. "But maybe in five years' time..."

She sits down on a chair and switches on a small television. "I like the soaps... Days of Our Lives, the Bold and the Beautiful."

The family got electricity installed in the house quite recently. The bill comes to a PO Box in town. "Imagine a postman coming to Kibera," Elizabeth laughs.

"There are no streets here. No house numbers. They would never find us."

Outside, a thin electrical cable snakes over the courtyard wall, and across a corrugated field of brown tin roofs.


Forward to a united Africa!
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