Life in Kenya slum sheds light on growing global reality

 

Jacktone Otieno's daughter Benta poses outside her home in Kibera, Kenya. Jacktone brags that Benta is at the top of her elementary school class. (Photo by Abby Higgins)

I first met Jacktone Otieno when I was doing research on women’s rights in Kenya.

A group of Seattle University graduate students I was working with had hired him to drive us to a rural project site.

We became close quickly. I was the only American who spoke Swahili and our conversations broke up long drives through the dusty Rift Valley. When my Swahili foundered on serious topics, his perfect English swooped in and filled the gaps.

“You have to come to my house for lunch so you can meet my family when we get back to Nairobi,” he told me as we stopped at a small roadside town. I nodded eagerly.

“It’s not far from your apartment,” he told me, “we live in Kibera.”

When he said that, everything about my perception of him shifted. His perfect English, his neatly pressed clothing, his easy sense of humor–none of it resonated with what I knew about Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya.

Beneath the overlapping tin roofs, residents of Kibera bustle between restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies. Slums like these house one sixth of the world's population. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Beneath the overlapping tin roofs, residents of Kibera bustle between restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies. Slums like these house one sixth of the world’s population. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

The Kibera I’d heard about, but had never visited, was a sprawling, ramshackle settlement built from materials cast off by the rest of the city.

Cramped alleyways and mishmash structures lean into and grow out of each other.

Population estimates range wildly from 200,000 to over a million people.

It was like different city–lawless, crime ridden and full of diseases I was pretty sure I hadn’t been immunized for.

Around the world, 1 billion people–one in every six of us–live in slums like Kibera.

This number grows constantly as 200,000 people move from the country to cities every day, most of them settling in slums. No formal systems of clean water, sanitation, healthcare or schooling exist because, as far as governments are concerned, residents are squatters.

Schools in Kibera are mostly private run and lack support from the Kenyan government, which views the slum as an illegal settlement. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Schools in Kibera are mostly private run and lack support from the Kenyan government, which views the slum as an illegal settlement. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

A couple weeks after our first encounter, Otieno and I met in downtown Nairobi and he took me by minibus to the edge of Kibera.

I was genuinely excited to meet his family. But another side of me was morbidly curious to see the poverty I’d heard so much about.

Otieno led me down a cramped alley that made up one of the many entrances to the slum. We turned a corner, and he extended his arm outward like he was presenting a painting.

“Here it is, we’re home,” he said.

Kibera stretched out in front of us, massive. It was a sweeping valley of rusting corrugated iron, unlike anything I had ever seen. From above it looked peaceful, quiet, and uninhabited.

A woman who runs a vegetable stand at Toi Market, Kibera's largest informal market, negotiates for her bulk supply every moning. (Photo by Abby Higgins)
A woman who runs a vegetable stand at Toi Market, Kibera’s largest informal market, negotiates for her bulk supply every moning. (Photo by Abby Higgins)

We crossed a dribbling brown stream to enter the slum and everything came to life.

Kids careened down the rocky, dirt streets at full speed, giggling and weaving between food stalls, chickens and mangy dogs. Music soared out of a set of speakers at a record store.

I was surprised by all the businesses. It hadn’t occurred to me that Kibera would be a thriving economic hub. There wasn’t a square of street front property unoccupied by activity: pharmacies, butchers, restaurants, grocery stores, and cell phone shops lined the streets.

We entered a narrow compound of ten or eleven overlapping houses.

“Dad’s home!” Two toddler twin boys shrieked, colliding into Otieno’s legs as we approached the house. We ducked into a doorway formed from mud packed walls.

As my eyes adjusted, darkness gave way to a room filled with activity. Cynthia, the eldest daughter, was prepping beef stew for lunch. Her mother Joyce emerged from behind a curtain that made a partition behind which the family slept. Two children from next door hunched over a toy car in the corner of the house.

I paused at the doorway taking it all in. It was really pretty idyllic; the kind of family scene many of us aspire to.

Plates clattered to the wooden table as Joyce set a steaming bowl of stew and ugali, cooked maize meal, in the center of the table.

“Cynthia wants to be a journalist when she grows up,” Otieno told me about his eldest. Her younger sister Benta giggled. She’s at the top of her class in an elementary school in Kibera.

But the Otieno family isn’t immune to the difficulties of life in a slum. Otieno wishes he made enough money to move them into a safer part of Kibera.

Jacktone Otieno (center) poses with his children (from left to right) Benta (11), Blesssing (3), Gift (3) and Abigail (1) outside of their home in Kibera. (Photo by Abby Higgins)
Jacktone Otieno (center) poses with his children (from left to right) Benta (11), Blesssing (3), Gift (3) and Abigail (1) outside of their home in Kibera. (Photo by Abby Higgins)

The family hadn’t planned for a fifth child, but recently had one when a local pharmacist sold them counterfeit birth control, stretching their tenuous budget even further.

“Kibera has its problems, but it’s a good place to live,” Otieno told me slicing into the thick pile of ugali. “At least [here] you can get a little bit to get by. Back at home it’s really hard to survive.”

Otieno struggled when they first moved to Nairobi from the rural village where he grew up. He didn’t have any skills and turned to petty crime to make a living.

More than once, he stole a cell phone from the wrong person and had to limp two hours back to Kibera after being beaten almost to death.

A cousin helped him pay for driving school. Armed with a license, he was able to get jobs driving tourists on safaris through Kenya’s National Parks. Two years ago he opened his own safari business.

After lunch, the entire family climbed into Otieno’s oversized van so they could drive me home.

We watched Kibera pass by outside the windows. It was early evening and the crowds streamed in from their jobs in the rest of the city. Men in business suits picked their way through the streets, grabbing up last-minute items before settling home for the night. It was peaceful, even beautiful.

A Masai man cleans his shoe off in a puddle in Kibera. Masai, known to be fierce fighters, are often employed as personal bodyguards inside the slum to walk residents home late at night. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
A Masai man cleans his shoe off in a puddle in Kibera. Masai, known to be fierce fighters, are often employed as personal bodyguards inside the slum to walk residents home late at night. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

As I watched, I thought about why slums make us so anxious. Why as Westerners, we’re so fascinated by documenting their tragedies and trying to solve their problems.

I realized that the way we talk about slums—the squalor, the sewage, the gripping poverty—is a way to distance ourselves from a reality that hits too close to home.

Slums are the living, breathing results of an overstretched planet. They are the direct reality of the pollution, the overpopulation and the urbanization we talk about a lot but rarely see first hand in the West.

For the first time in history, more people in the world live in the city than in the country, and a third of those urban residents live in slums.

Whether we like it or not, they may be the future of our planet.

If we have any hope of surviving this new global reality, we have to stop looking away.

Funded with KickstarterThe Slum Rising project was funded by The Seattle Globalist using the online fundraising website Kickstarter.

 

 

21 Comments

  1. Hi, I would like to be on the mailing list that gives people like me the opportunity to support journalism like this. Can you let me know when there is a Kickstarter campaign for Globalist projects? Thank you for bringing this thoughtful point of view to readers.

  2. Do you realize your very first sentence causes 50% of your audience to not bother reading your article? Last thing I want to hear is another feminista-rant blabber on men-hating. Teach all these women how to not get pregnant and the problem will go away.

  3. POlioLio, you are not fair, to Higgins, Advocates and women in general. If you had not rushed to conclusions and read the rest of the article you would have realised that this is not a “feminista-rant blabber on men-hating …”. That said, the article is scores well except for this “……The family hadn’t planned for a fifth child, but recently had one when a local pharmacist sold them counterfeit birth control, stretching their tenuous budget even further…..” There must be a better way of portraying the issue without adversely impacting the dignity, indeed, the future of the fifth child. Remember that she is here and will be reading this one day. In In African culture, whatever the constraint, especially one beyond your control, Children are considered a blessing (Not necessarily equated to wealth as some argue) Emphasizing the fact that she is a ” burden ” on the families’ limited resources overshadows the issue of questionable medicines being supplied to the poor and why “counterfeit” drugs have a market among the poor. Higgins is clearly already on the path to cultural propriety and dignifying her subjects but a little improvement never hurt.

  4. Well,i think its a balanced article that is not for once looking down at the residents of Kibera but is written from within.The writer clearly has made effort to see the dignity of the residents.This dignity exists in every human being irrespective whether one is rich or poor.I didn’t hear anything about being condemned to this life forever,i heard hope and faith in the irrepressible ability of man to overcome adversaries,true to man since time immemorial.From a Kenyan perspective it is a welcome article.

  5. Really 200,000 people move from the country to cities everyday? At that rate then i assume our countryside is empty by the end of the year can you please justify that number???

    Also you still have to throw in the 1,000,000 estimate like all the lazy NGO’s fake themselves around with. Ok at least the 200000 figure shows you probably know the correct estimate. If you go to the ministry of planning you can get the last census results to have a good estimate or just do a google search.

    1. The 200,000 people moving from the country to cities everyday is worldwide, not just Kenya. The source is the book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth

  6. Thank you for seeing the humanity and not the income level of the people who call Kibera home. Some of the most wonderful people I know live in Kibera and they are just like everyone else who wants to make enough income to feed and care for their family. The cost of housing in Kibera allows them to see work in Nairobi and meet their needs. It is a difficult place, there is no question of that, but the beauty is in lives of the people.

  7. Thanks for you comment Patrick!

    If you’re on Twitter, we would love to have you tweet a similar statement to our hashtag #SlumRising. We’re collecting stories via Twitter about new perspectives on slums and publishing them along with part 3 of Abby’s series. Would love to have your story!

    Sara Stogner
    Editor, The Seattle Globalist

  8. I am a Kenyan living in Kenya, and have over time come to be offended by such articles that consistently make rounds in the US media, leave alone Seattle media houses.
    First, Africa has a vibrant growing economy of which American multinationals benefit from, for example GE, Microsoft, Google, etc have offices in Nairobi Kenya, the same place this article was written from. Alot of innovations in green energy through Geothermal power and in communication technology are being achieved; yet American mainstream media is refusing to report on this Renaissance in Africa, and choose to dwell on the ‘slum dog millionaire’ type of stories.
    Please let it be known that the US did not develop from handouts and aid, but from commerce. Hence report on stories that will be beneficial to both people in US and Kenya, stories related to commerce and investment, rather than mingy dogs in a overcrowded slum.
    At the end of the day we live in a global village, and we refuse to be labled negatively, so as to make others feel fortunate, lucky or earn a quick buck.

    1. Hi Jackson!

      Thank you for your comment on our story and your perspective you bring to this type of media coverage.

      I’ll encourage Abby to respond as well, but I just wanted to say that our direction we brought to this coverage is not far off what you’re talking about. The reason Abby wrote about Kibera and slum innovations specifically, instead of bigger corporate/NGO projects you mention (which are valuable stories to tell), is because it comes from a place of experience and her long-running relationships in Kibera.

      Her approach to this series is not one of negativity or pity, but showcasing the incredible innovations, ingenuity and community that has thrived from within Kibera despite a long history of controversial aid and development work.

      We are also very much aware of the perspective and privilege that comes with the reporter as a white American, which we value our transparency on. As part of the series, we also ran coverage from a Kibera native living in Seattle, which you can read here (http://bit.ly/12Ncijb). Our approach from the beginning was to tell a different story of slums, not as something to be feared or pitied. But as a hotbed of innovations that may very well provide answers to crisis in sustainability, energy, and housing for an ever expanding global population.

      Thank you for your comments! We love being challenged on your coverage because it means there is always more work to be done!

      Sara Stogner
      Editor, The Seattle Globalist

  9. Hi, I am doing some research into Slum upgrading projects in Nairobi as part of monitoring of the government’s obligations to provide adequate housing and I just came across this wonderful article (Never too late).

    Two things, most middle-class (and higher) Kenyans go around the internet raging at the unfairness of foreign media every time an article talking about slums (their existence, their implications, the realities of the lives of slum dwellers etc) is published. The argument is almost always that Foreigners are always out to paint a negative picture of Africa/Kenya. The sad reality is that most of these people have NEVER set foot in the slums, probably too afraid that they will be robbed or worse. To these people i say, the authors of this article have seen places in our country that most well-off Kenyans will never bother to see. So instead of berating them for giving an honest opinion of their experiences we should applaud them, for taking that leap, and bringing this information to us.

    Secondly, pretending slums do not exist is not going to get us anywhere. Not writing about them, or focusing more on “stories that will be beneficial to both people in US and Kenya, stories related to commerce and investment, rather than mangy dogs in an overcrowded slum” as one person put it is not going to deal with the problem. what is the point of being celebrated in the media as a haven of innovation and potential when more than half of our population lives in the most appalling conditions? Our government has so far failed the millions who live in slum areas. we have failed them. each and every one of us. If this kind of journalism is able to ignite even a spark of interest in any and all people of goodwill, enough to make them want to do something to help, then by all means write! Because at the end of the day what really matters is making a change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *