I have found that more often than not, I am grateful for my obnoxiously large sunglasses when out and about in Kenya; while browsing the crafts markets, I can pretend to examine a piece of jewelry or a plate that I could care less about while really deciding how much I’m willing to spend on a piece that lies nearby. If the vendors see me looking too interested in a certain piece, they know they can charge an arm and a leg and I’ll still pay it. If lost in city centre, I can dart my eyes around frantically, trying to recall a landmark or street name, all the while maintaining a cool exterior, in the event that I am being staked out by a potential mugger. During my visits to some of the less reputable areas of Nairobi, I find I can direct my gaze straight ahead, while simultaneously taking in the scene that lies before me without fear of reproach.

I was especially grateful for my glasses the other day in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, as there was a lot to look at. Until recently, it was second largest to Soweto, in South Africa, however Soweto has apparently recently been upgraded and is no longer considered a slum. This makes Kibera the largest slum in all of Africa, with anywhere from 500,000 to 1,500,000 people living in just 650 acres of land (just smaller than Central Park). There is no official population data on Kibera as the Kenyan government, though the owner of the land, does not acknowledge Kibera as an authorized settlement. To put this population in perspective, Peter, a volunteer from CT, estimates that in Greenwich, CT, there would be about 800 people residing in that same 650 acre area (allotting 2 acres of land for families of 4).

I was woefully undereducated about Kenya when I arrived here six months ago; in fact it’s safe to say I knew very little about 3rd world countries as a whole until this adventure. In order to be as accurate in my description as possible, I googled Kibera to get some statistics regarding its size and population (I didn’t need google to tell me about the conditions of the slum – the images from that visit are forever burned in my memory), and discovered some unbelievable statistics about this place. Kibera accounts for less than 1% of Nairobi’s total area, yet it holds a quarter of its people. Since the Kenyan government refuses to officially acknowledge Kibera as a settlement, there are no basic government provided services; this includes schools, clinics, running water and lavatories. Any services that are provided are privately owned; take a wild guess as to how many people living in this slum can afford to pay to use a toilet or to send their children to school…. There are 2.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya; it is estimated that 1/5 of them live in Kibera.

All 42 tribes that exist in Kenya are present in Kibera; since the majority of violent conflict present in Kenya (at least over the past decade) has been tribally motivated, take a wild guess as to how that tribal unrest manifests itself in the .9 square miles that comprises Kibera. As I walked around and saw the congestion of homes, I wondered aloud to Lusweti and our guide, who grew up in Kibera, what the post-election atmosphere (which was infamously brutal in even less populated areas) was like in such close quarters. It seemed to me that there is no where to run or hide; if there is any sort of widespread violent conflict, I can imagine that you become a part of it by default. Our guide confirmed my suspicions; the scale and extent of the 2008 violence was overwhelming in the slums.

Given its location, I have passed the slum from afar several times when coming to and from the airport; from a distance, it looks just like you would imagine a 3rd world country slum would look: thousands of corrugated tin roofs crowded into a crater-like landscape. From half a mile’s distance, that’s about all I have ever seen of the slum until last week. With less than 2 weeks to finish up my orphanage visits for Oasis, I had yet to cross Kibera off the list of Nairobi areas to visit. I wasn’t putting this trip off for any particular reason, but as we have to arrange to get somebody familiar with the area to take us around, it took a little more coordinating than the other places, so for one reason or another, we always ended up somewhere else.

No sooner had we entered the slum on foot when we rounded a corner and I found myself staring straight at the body of a dead man. Now, I’ve seen my share of dead bodies in Kenya, but in all circumstances, I was separated from the body by a good 20 feet and car door. Had Lusweti (my Kenyan Oasis counterpart) not turned around to warn me, I very easily could have walked straight into the makeshift stretcher which was carried by four civilian men, I was so distracted by everything else around me. So, with that as my first impression, I continued walking with not a small amount of trepidation.

It’s virtually impossible to put this experience into words; I thought that my time in Mathare (the second biggest slum in Kenya) would have served as a good segue to the Kibera experience, but when I mentioned that to Lusweti (shortly after the corpse was carried by 12 inches away from me) he shook his head and said (rather sadly, I’ll add), nothing can prepare you for this. Everywhere I looked, there was devastation; children sat playing in piles of trash and human/animal waste; cats trotted by with their lunch in their mouths (perhaps the only mammal in the .9 square mile area who can be sure of a regular meal) and fly-infested, emaciated dogs that make our emaciated dogs at the centre look like sumo wrestlers languished everywhere I turned, too weak to move out of the way as people, wheelbarrows and other animals walked over, and on top of them.

I was grateful for my tennis shoes as I looked at the ground I was trodding on; this was no ordinary dirt road. My sneakers seemed to sink into the ground with each step and more often than not, I was walking on trash. Again, I was enlightened when reading up on Kibera; apparently, one of the (many) barriers to constructing solid structures is the lack of a solid, sturdy ground to build on, as nearly the entire slum has been built up on refuse and human waste. When talking a couple of months ago with Lusweti, he told me about the common practice of waste disposal in many slums. As I mentioned earlier, there are no government provided services in Kibera, which includes public toilets; running water does not, and I would venture to guess, can not, exist in these shacks, let alone a toilet. Lusweti told me that for lack of a better system, families utilize a plastic bag to collect their daily waste and at nightfall will swing the excrement-filled bags helicopter style over their heads and send it into the night. When reading up on the slum I learned that this practice has a name: “Flying Toilets.” Apparently the night is filled with the sound of these “packages” falling on the corrugated roofs of the unlucky residents within. Lusweti said that you went outside at night at your own risk as (aside from the other dangers), you were in jeopardy of being hit with a flying bag of shit. While grossed out by this story, I didn’t doubt it to be true. However, it was one thing to talk about these things in an objective conversation, and quite another story altogether as I found myself fighting my gag-reflex and side stepping plastic bags which overflowed with the daily yield of a family’s bowels in varying stages of decay. A handful of toilets could be seen, built port-a-potty style here and there, with 8-15 latrines lined up in a row, but nearly all of them had locks on the door, leading me to believe they were privately owned, rented toilets, and not for public use. At one point, I came knee-to-ass with a little boy’s butt as he dropped trou and proceeded to pee on the side of a shack; I was the only one to even give him a second glance.

The slum has been built up in a crater of sorts, with very high walls and a low valley, which of course is the source of massive flooding problems during the rainy season. We were at the top part of one of the sides of the slope heading down to one of the homes in the valley. As I gingerly made my way down the nearly vertical muddy path that wove its way between two rows of homes, Lusweti called back over his shoulder: “don’t step on somebody’s roof.” Because of the slope of the hill and the way the houses have been constructed, my feet were parallel to the tin roofs of one row of houses on the left, while the houses on my right only began at my feet. I was hesitant to use either structure for support as visions of the entire slum collapsing domino-style from the pressure of my hand played through my mind. My sneakers slid nearly uncontrollably in the sewage and when my feet found level ground I breathed an audible sigh of relief.

My parents sent me a couple Christmas presents this year, one of which was the book “Say You’re One of Them,” which is comprised of short stories from various African countries. I have only made it about ¼ of the way through this book as I find that I’m gravitating towards fictional, non-Africa related books while here. It’s a bit redundant to read a book that reflects many of my daily experiences here; I need a little variety in my literature. However, the first fictional short story in this book was about a family living in an unnamed urban slum in Kenya. While I recognized some of the vernacular and locations the author named, I was slightly unconvinced that there were actually families that lived in such atrocious conditions in the country. I knew that poverty was rampant, and that there were some nasty slums where people committed unspeakable acts to survive, but some of the anecdotes seemed a little too “out there” to actually be common occurrences. For example, in the short story, the boy and his brothers and sisters sniff precious fumes from a container of glue in order to stave off hunger pangs when there is no food to eat. While I never doubted that there were people who existed this way, to me, it was still a fictional story.

Driving into the slum, I noticed a man sprawled among the refuse that is the roadside with a plastic fifth bottle up against his nose. I dismissed him as another drunk until I saw a little boy walking along the street doing the same thing; after a few more sightings of this practice, I asked my driver Kenneth what they were doing. He very matter of factly told me they were sniffing glue, as it drove away the hunger. I was instantly sick to my stomach as I realized that this practice was not reserved for a desperately poor fictional family in a book; I was watching an 8 year old child sniff glue in order to make it through the day without passing out from the hunger pangs.

The other day I conducted visits of rescue centres for both girls and boys, directed by one of Lusweti’s colleagues who was familiar with and had done some work with one or two of them. While driving between the centres she told us about her time working with the street boys; she said that for the first month of “classes” that she taught, she had severe respiratory and chest problems from the fumes of the glue the boys were addicted to. While one of the program goals was to wean the boys off of this deadly practice, it was a gradual process and it took over a month for the fumes to stop giving her respiratory problems. I guess I can blame my own naïveté for not understanding sooner that this is a real problem among the impoverished in Kenya.

When hearing our matrons and other Kenyans talk about Kibera, I can’t help but make comparisons to the “welfare state” that exists in parts of America. Due to its high profile status as a major African slum, Kibera is a hotbed of NGO and aid organizations; when I expressed concerns about being a muzungu woman in such an impoverished area, I was told to rest assured, I’d see more muzungus in Kibera than I have during all my other days of visits combined. For do-gooders looking to make a difference in Kenya, Kibera is a very appealing destination. The problem, as pointed out by my driver Kenneth and Lusweti, is that a number of the residents of Kibera have no motivation to find a steady job, move out of the slum or improve their lives, as they know they can count on NGO and charity handouts on a regular basis. In a way, the criticisms of residents of Kibera and welfare recipients are alike, in that the poor people in question have come to rely on welfare and handouts as a source of income, rather than a supplement to gainful employment. I am by no means an expert on either subject, but couldn’t help but see the parallels as they spoke on the situation.

I am at a loss as to how to address the Kibera problem; it seems too big to wrap my head around and I can’t even imagine which problem needs to be addressed first, or if there’s even a light at the end of the tunnel for Kibera. The government has begun building a huge apartment complex alongside the slum, the hope being that they will be able to relocate the citizens of Kibera in a timely manner, demolishing the “houses” as families move out. I believe the ultimate goal is to raze the slum once all inhabitants have been relocated, however one (of many) key flaws in this plan is that the government is constructing only a fraction of the units required to relocate all 1.5 million (the highest estimate) citizens of Kibera. Additionally, at the rate they’ve been relocating families, it has been estimated that it will take 1,718 years to complete the move. The rent in these new apartments is set at 10$/month, which seems like a steal, but according to people I’ve spoken with in the slums, current rents for a one family shack, run about 3$/month. Tell me how tripling the rent of a family is going to improve their situation. A small number of people have been moved to the new apartment complex, and the results are not encouraging. There are cases of multiple families sharing apartments so that they can make rent, and some cases of families renting the unit out to middle class families and moving back to the slums themselves. I hate to criticize this operation without being able to offer an alternative, but it seems to me that there’s gotta be a better way.

I apologize for the lack of continuity in this post, but I found it difficult to keep my thoughts and observations in any semblance of order. I also wish I had some of my own photos to share, but bringing my camera in with me would have been akin to walking around with a neon sign above my head flashing “rob me;” anyway, I don’t think that one-dimensional pictures can offer an adequate alternative to seeing this place with your own eyes; Kibera is a three-dimensional experience.

This was an experience that I can’t imagine forgetting anytime in the foreseeable future, and one which I am grateful I was able to have, as it really helped to round out my “Kenya experience;” as for the immediate future, I have the flea bites all over my ankles and feet to bring it all screaming back.

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7 Responses to Kibera

  1. Frannie says:

    Hi Hannah,

    Thank you for the post about Kibera. You have an amazing way of describing your first impressions almost as if you are writing in real time.

    As for the election violence, in a recent article Bono mentioned a DJ who helped calm some of the anger and violence in Kibera ( The power of a little Bob Marley in times of crisis truly is amazing.

    Thanks for writing!

  2. Leslie says:

    Hannah, dear- Thank you.

  3. Rebecca Wild-Wesley says:

    Hannah, come home soon! Love, Mom

  4. themoonisdown says:

    happened upon your post while searching for kenyan blogs and wanted to say hello and that your post was an eye opening read. i’ll be traveling to kenya this summer w/ a returning team to work w/ ghetto light youth and homecare fellowship; indigenous groups who work and live within the kibera slum.

    i’ll be reading the rest of your posts!


  5. baresytapas says:

    I reached this blog by accident, but I found very interesting. Greetings to all visitors to this page.

  6. Jenna Hills says:

    I met you and Frannie at a medical clinic in Kibera May 2011 at the Salvation Army Compound. You walked around to do home visits with Jason and I. This post sums it up, the way you described Kibera made me feel that I was back there. And I read Say You’re One of Them too and felt the same way. I remember thinking people cannot actually live like this, with this much desperation but it is true. Thanks for sharing. You guys do great work.

  7. Shellie says:

    Hannah – thanks for your poignant thoughts. It was a pleasure and a blessing to have met you in Kibera. Keep up the good work.

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