How the Other Half Live

I spent the first morning chatting to people in the hostel – many of whom were also waiting to start an overland tour, like me – but soon realised that there was no way I was going to stay within these gated confines for another full day. The guidebooks had hinted that there wasn’t exactly a plethora of traditional ‘sights’ in Nairobi. However, studying the activity book in the hostel, I was impulsively drawn by the idea of a visit to the local slum, Kibera. In for a penny, in for a pound! More than a quarter of Nairobi’s population live in this neighbourhood – an estimated one million people – despite the area only covering 2.5 square kilometers! So I recruited a couple of other travellers from the hostel, and we arranged for a guide to pick us up the following morning.

Kibera, with the new housing in the background
that residents don't get because of corruption
Having feared the very thought of coming to Nairobi, Day Two saw me stroll out of the fort-like hostel compound and towards Africa’s second largest urban slum. No taxi to take us there – we would be walking in with the locals. Our guide was an inhabitant of Kibera and assured us that we would be safe as long as we stuck with him and didn’t take pictures of people without asking. Still, I was surprised at the casual nature of this visit. As we ambled down the road from our hostel, we joined a steady stream of locals all headed towards Kibera, some in suits and carrying briefcases, some in rags without shoes. Looking at the residences we were passing, it became clear that living inside fenced and alarmed enclosures is obviously the norm (for the middle and upper classes). We passed gated apartment blocks that would not look out of place in smart suburbs of London and neat, colourful bungalows with beautiful gardens but fronted by high barbed-wire fences.

It turned out that Kibera was a mere ten minutes walk down the road (which might explain the tight security measures in the area). I don’t remember reading that on the hostel website! The road soon changed into a wide dusty track, lined with people selling all manner of goods on make-shift stalls or tarpaulins laid out on the ground. They were flogging anything and everything – from grilled corn-on-the-cobs, gigantic avocados and mangoes, potatoes, coal, Manchester United shirts (!) and a range of what might generously be described as bric-à-brac (the most random selection of electrical items!). As Kibera opened up in front of us, the paths became muddier and we gazed at the filth and squalor of our surroundings. The housing consisted of stand-alone mud huts with tin rooves or corrugated iron shacks in terrace-like formations. We were walking on rubbish and sewage – layer upon layer of rubbish that forms the community’s foundations.

Amidst the evident poverty, we were surprised by the presence of electricity pylons and televisions, and even in an African slum you cannot escape the global craze for mobile phones, ringtones and accessories. There also appeared to be an obsession with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – which I later found out is not just confined to Kenya! As we trudged deeper into the heart of Kibera, I was struck by the way that people were simply getting on with their daily lives around us. There was hustle and bustle everywhere – people doing washing, preparing food, selling goods etc – and music blared from stalls or bars, creating a certain vibrancy. The adults mainly ignored us (apart from the odd shout of ‘hello white woman!’), and young children in filthy clothes ran up to us in hoards, wanting to hold our hands and screaming “’Ow are you!”. Only one child begged from us, but we were under strict instructions not to give handouts that “perpetuate the begging culture”.

Somehow I had imagined the slums to be ‘no-man’s-land’. But our guides spoke of paying rent and utilities. Apparently, after Kenya gained independence in the 60s, Kibera was declared an illegal settlement but it continued to expand nonetheless, and the landowners started renting out dwellings to a far greater number of tenants than legally permitted. These days, there are supposedly slum ‘upgrading’ initiatives run by the Government to improve housing and sanitation, and of course organised aid work. Actually we saw scant evidence of this. There was a brand new toilet block (paid-for facilities that apparently nobody can afford to use) and on the horizon, cranes indicated the construction of modern housing. But our guides said that corruption is rife and the rich landowners simply take the new houses.

We were invited into the house of one of the residents –  a man in his 30s with HIV. Our guides told us that around half of Kibera are HIV-positive (although that doesn’t seem to tally with online reports that state around 20% – a shocking statistic anyway). We squeezed through the jagged iron door into a dim, small room with a bench, bed and curtains partitioning them from their neighbours. As we sat there, it was unnerving to hear the noise of their neighbours through the curtains going about their daily lives. With his wife and baby next to him, the man told us briefly about his life, which was a depressing tale of various diseases, going blind, not being able to work, eating only one meal a day and being ostracised by his family because of HIV. Despite his situation, he frequently stated defiantly: “I do not have AIDS – I have HIV and I’m on the tablets”. Our guides told us afterwards that there is a huge social stigma attached to HIV despite the vast number of people infected, and also denial about how it is spread.

It seemed we were expected to ask questions, but like my experience with the Rwandan man on the plane, we simply felt uncomfortable. For instance, I didn’t know whether the residents referred to their own community as a ‘slum’. Sadly it was a relief to leave their hut. We began to make our way out through the mud and filth, and I remember thinking it was strange that we hadn’t encountered any animosity as we were so obviously out of place. But I was very glad to have seen an area so far off the tourist track, and it would be interesting to compare Kibera to the townships we would see later in South Africa.

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