Kenya Post 3: Trip to Kibera Slum


Kibera is one of the biggest slums on earth. Out of 5 million people in Nairobi, up to 1 million (the number depends on who you ask) live in Kibera making it larger than even supposedly big American cities such as Detroit, MI.

Like slums everywhere, Kibera’s resident flow in from all impoverished areas seeking job opportunities and better lives for their desperate families. Like slums everywhere, Kibera plays an important role in Nairobi’s economy, serving as a source of cheap labor specifically in the manufacture and distribution of hand fabricated goods and migrant agricultural work.
Like slums everywhere, the greater economy depends on keeping the area poor. Public services are sparingly doled out, just enough to keep the residents from rioting, but not so much that the prices of goods coming out of Kibera will rise.

Public sanitation is the greatest challenge in the area. There exists no effective method of handling the large amount of human waste and trash that the area produces. Households will leave waste outside their doorways, where it eventually gets burned or washed away by the rains. One group has created public toilet facilities that composts the waste and uses the methane discharged to allow for cooking by residents. Other public pit latrines are visible in the area, but they are, as yet, too few in numbers to effectively serve the demands of the large numbers of local residents. It is important to note that toilet facilities are not free. If households do not have the money, they will not use them.

Clean water is in plentiful supply, but carefully managed through a system of gouging the public system. The city has run a haphazard series of municipal water pipes through Kibera. Residents either legally or illegally tap into the pipes and then sell the water to other residents. If the tap is legal, the resident must pay a fee to the city. All taps, legal or no, charge for their services. Locals imply that this is merely the market capitalizing on a surrounding demand, but the reality is that the poorest of households cannot afford the water fees. They either illegally procure water from unmanned taps or fetch water from the river which is polluted with human filth. The result of this commercialization of water resources is that poor households have no access to clean drinking water.

Health services are mostly unavailable to resident outside that which is provided by proactive NGOs and private clinics. Though health services are available at low costs from government run clinics, the nearest facility is too far away. I spoke with Elizabeth Akinyi of the “Power Women Group,” a community based organization which supports HIV positive women by selling handmade goods to tourists. She said that anti retrovirals (ARVs) are available from the public clinics, but that the clinics are so far away that even the sickest will not attempt to make the journey. Thus, HIV positive residents depend on the good graces of donor agencies and NGOs to provide medications. Medications, however, are not free so the revenues from the groups store are essential to keeping these women alive and, as they put it, “living positively”.

It should be obvious that the greatest challenge to poor Kenyans is being able to bear the costs of services. As one person told me, “in Kenya, the only thing free is the air.” In addition to water, the city provides power to some parts of Kibera, which also must be paid for. Homemade television antennas can be seen over just about every household. Every once in a while, one can see a satellite dish. Public schools exists, but slots are too few to accommodate all of the children in Kibera, so many go without. Local groups have stepped up to attempt to provide basic education to children but without formal education, the children of Kibera have little future.

All of this, however, should not distract from the incredible resolve of Kiberans to make a better life for themselves. Everyone in Kibera has some kind of business. Street sellers, small fabricators and small businesses are to be seen everywhere. Some follow western models of individual entrepreneurship such as that of the owner of “Apokolipto Cinema” a small DVD theater that runs showing of bootleg horror and action DVDs from morning to night. Many of the larger operations, however, do not. Employee owned fabrication groups produce products for sale in Nairobi, but split profits amongst themselves and provide for school fees of employees’ children such as that of Kibera Jewelry, who make necklaces and other goods from recycled bone products. Kibera tours, the group that allowed me to visit the area, is a mixture. Though owned by one entrepreneur, the success of his tour depends on cooperation with local groups. Profits from his tour group are split between himself and the groups who participate.

It could be said that unemployment is rampant throughout Kibera, but then it could be said that not a day goes by where Kiberans are not doing something to make some money for themselves. A lack of access to capital and dependable city services, however, prevent the area from reaching its true potential.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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