The slums of Kibera in Nairobi

The Kibera slums of Nairobi are wild. It is muddy and smelly; it is vibrant and energetic. Hope lives alongside desperate poverty. It is a vestige of the flight from rural poverty to urban opportunity, where a new world awaits those who are willing to live amidst squalor in the hope of a better life.

It is also a magnet for aid organizations, well-intentioned volunteers and program planners.  Celebrities, politicians and filmmakers flock to this heaving monstrosity of humanity — it is estimated that up to 1 million people live in the Kibera slums; half are under the age of 15.

The rent for a small 10-foot by 10-foot place, made of mud, corrugated iron and the cast-offs of the city, is cheap compared to other urban alternatives. There are no services — like water, sewage or electricity — because the government considers the residents of Kibera illegal squatters. So the sewage swirls down pathways and alleys and long poles prop up wires of illegally-poached electricity.

Visiting Kibera is fascinating to me because as the founder of The BOMA Project, I know that this is one of the Nairobi slums where the livestock herders of the north arrive when they have given up life as a nomadic pastoralist.  They come and stay with other herders, who are typically hired to guard the huge canvas billboards that line the city highways and boulevards.  Their income is sent home once a month to wives and children who are left to survive on their own. During a village assessment of one northern Kenya village, we documented a million shillings per month coming back to families from Nairobi security guards.

When the guards return home, typically once or twice a year, they bring the city with them. HIV infection rates in Kibera are twice the national average. So the disease sometimes comes home too, along with the benefits of being a security guard of a billboard. During one rainy season in Northern Kenya, I was surprised to come upon a Rendille village where almost every skin hut was covered with strips of discarded canvas billboards advertising all the materialist necessities of middle class life. The pastoralists now cover their homes with billboard canvas scraps that they cannot read.

I don’t discount the opportunities that slum life provides. Many will argue that slums are strategic springboards for former rural residents who have lived in poverty for generations.  And the ambitious energy of Kibera is palpable and exciting. But it is also a place of great risk. Clean water is hard to find, and with few public or private toilets, sanitation is practically non-existent. According to Amnesty International, one out of every five women in the Kenyan slums is raped.  There are no police. Unemployed youths often resort to robbing or mugging their way out of poverty.

I once had a well-known philanthropist suggest that if the poverty in Northern Kenya is so bad, “Why don’t they just move?” This is the place that they would move to. This is the life they would have if they gave up their traditional lives of herding cattle and goats.

As we made our way out of Kibera, hopping over rivers of sewage and picking our way through the garbage, I wondered what must be going through the mind of a herder from the north on his first night in the city. To come to the point in your life where you leave the stars and moon behind, the fresh air, your family and the songs of your village. Does he wonder if he has arrived in some  version of hell?