Disconnected: Faith and poverty in Nairobi (2)

Posted on October 27, 2011


Continued from previous blog post.

Church service over, there was no rest for the wicked (or, I hoped, slightly less wicked given my morning holiness). I was straight on a bus from Karen into the centre of town, where I spent a good hour waiting for my fixer to arrive. In the UK, this would be enough to get the blood boiling. In Kenya, you just have to deal with it. When someone tells you 12.30pm, they actually mean 1.15pm at the earliest.

I took advantage of the chance to wander round CBD for an hour, which was bathed in sunshine and full of locals horribly confused by the site of a lone mzungu strolling around taking pictures of buildings, trees and statues. After quick visits to the central park and an interesting Maasai market, where I was inevitably hassled by every vendor as they presumed since I was white I had pockets overflowing with spare cash to spend on tribal masks and furniture material, my guide finally arrived and we took the bus out of Nairobi to the slum district of Kibera, not so long ago the subject of a Comic Relief documentary back in the UK.

Whereas the journey from CBD to Karen had been one of steely city to idyllic countryside, the twenty-minute bus ride to Kibera brought to my attention the severe differences between Nairobi as East African business centre and Nairobi as home to the second largest urban slum in Africa. No sooner had we left the city limits than we were looking at poverty on an immense scale, with views of thousands upon thousands of makeshift shacks.

Apologies, I called Kibera a “slum”. The technical term for this sprawling mass of humanity is actually “informal settlement”, the government’s attempt to euphemise the crime against humanity that exists a short bus journey away from country mansions and government ministries. The 2009 census suggested the population of Nairobi was 170,000, though this is widely known to be drastically incorrect. Few can put an exact figure on it – my fixer’s family live in the slum but even he couldn’t give me even a ballpark number – though it is widely accepted as being more than a million. I imagine it is a figure that is constantly in flux, given the arrival of Kenyans from the regions, looking for a better quality of life near to the city. Rates within Kibera are much more affordable than elsewhere, hence the popularity as a destination for Kenyans arriving from other parts of the country, as well as other East Africans settling in Kenya. This was clear to see from the moment I entered Kibera, walking through dusty, rubbish-ridden streets through makeshift shops and houses. Occasionally, when one reaches a decent vantage point, all that can be seen for miles around is corrugated roofing so densely packed it appears ridiculous that anyone could live there. Ten percent of residents own their own shacks, while others sub-let. Thousands of others are essentially tenants with no rights. The average size of a shack is 12ft by 12ft, with mud walls and a corrugated tin roof.

Kibera was allowed to grow by the British, but after Kenya’s independence the form of housing used by most of its occupants was declared illegal. Though the government owns all of the land upon which Kibera stands, this illegal status and its continued refusal to recognise it as a settlement, it has been exempted from providing basic services such as schools, clinics, running water and toilets. Thus it is left to private companies and NGOs to organise these services in the Kibera. The slum is heavily polluted with human refuse, garbage and dust, while the open sewage system and the regular use of “flying toilets” (thankfully for me usually at night) have made it a breeding ground for various diseases. The latter has become common due to the fact that it is normal for one hole-in-the-ground toilet to be used by up to fifty families. Many within the slum work in the relatively lucrative sex industry, increasing the spread of HIV. There are also myriad social problems. Potentially lethal home-brewed alcohol, the most popular being the 50%-or-more Changaa, is common, while drugs and glue-sniffing are on the increase. With half the adult population of the slum unemployed, these problems and high incidences of violent crime are inevitable. Hence the need for a fixer, as a mzungu walking alone around Kibera, no matter what their intentions, would always attract potentially dangerous attention. This level of poverty exists just 5km from Nairobi’s busy business district. Walking along the railway track that runs through the settlement – the thrice-daily train from Mombasa passes so close to shacks and shops that a stray arm would be severed in a flash – we came across several makeshift rubbish dumps where residents queued to deposit bags. My fixer did not know when they would next be cleared, but one sensed probably not for a while.

The slum has become a melting pot for tribal differences as well, a microcosm of the tribalism that infests every aspect of Kenyan society. Different tribes tend to congregate within different areas of the slum, though my fixer told me that this is starting to change due to sheer pragmatism and overcrowding. The Luo have become the biggest tribe in the slum, and Prime Minister and presidential hopeful  Raila Odinga is MP for a large area of it. As a result, Odinga is able to bring out a formidable demonstration force very quickly. Kibera has been a base for ethnic violence in recent years, particularly after the 2007 election, and will be an important hub of unrest should difficulties arise next year.

Some moves are afoot to improve the situation within Kibera, with increased international attention drawn to the appalling situation many of its residents have to live in. About 20% of it has electricity, and UN-HABITAT is in the process of rolling that out across the slum, though in many cases the Sh900 per shack is simply too expensive. Organisations are moving to tackle sanitation problems, collecting waste and making it into fertiliser. The European Union has become involved in creating e-learning centres within Kibera, where many children either cannot afford school or are forced to work from an early age to help out their struggling families.

Yet perhaps most importantly, the government is now starting to become involved in Kibera, possibly as a result of international pressure and the embarrassment of eminent international organisations helping to solve a problem that sat, ignored, on their doorstep. Nairobi City Council has teamed up with the World Bank to upgrade some parts of the slums after fire outbreaks. and various NGOs have joined the UN in upgrading the slum, yet this process is complicated by factors like crime, lack of building foundations and the cramped nature of the settlement. More controversial is a government clearance scheme, which is already in its formative stages, backed by the UN and Odinga. Yet faces legal challenges and attacks from urban planners and will also cost a princely $1.2bn. The government had said that it may resort to evictions in order to put its plans in place, citing the fact that landlords are standing in the way of progress. This was confirmed by my fixer and others in the slum, who said that new government-built housing on the outskirts of the slum – which certainly looks more comfortable- is merely being rented out in order to make money rather than actually helping those in need.

I have mentioned that I would fear for my safety walking alone in Kibera, but I must put in a word for the resilience of the majority of residents of the place. I was greeted in a friendly manner often as I walked down the muddy streets, strolling past tiny shops, bars and even hotels that had been set up by locals desperate to make the best of their lot. The matriarch of one family I visited – I was welcomed into their home with Coca-Cola and a crackly television set – had recently had a party to celebrate her graduation from a human resources course at a Nairobi University, making ends meet by purchasing second-hand duvets from the market. This is typical of the attitude of many people here, for though the violence and dangerous aspect of Kibera gets the news, the numerous small businesses and the things people are willing to do just to get on strikes me as a community that is well-used to being ignored by the government and looking out for themselves. The community has developed its own infrastructure, and any government activity to help them must be in conjunction with community leaders.

Posted in: Experience, Issues