Joanne arrives at 2pm to take me from KADET’s head office to the Kibera slums, where a large portion of her borrower portfolio resides.  This is the only borrower visit that I specifically requested and for which I had to convince the protective KADET staff that I could handle. Hilda, Alice, Makanga, Joshua and Machira (most of the Operations Department at head office) finally acquiesced– on the condition that I go under the careful supervision of a special credit officer, Joanne, who also happens to be Machira’s wife. (I am constantly grateful for the extent to which KADET’s staff looks out for me. Their insight, guidance and invitations to experience Kenyan life with them make me feel like a member of their family.)

With one final promise to be careful, I tuck my money into my bra (I’m told not to carry a bag with me) and Joanne and I wave goodbye. We descend the three flights of steps and exit the building to the street outside. We walk up a hill, past the Kenyan Ministry of Health, to the nearest matatu stand. I can feel my skin burning under the intense glare of the Kenyan sun. Joanne uses a handkerchief to wipe at the moisture gathering on her forehead. Within five minutes, however, a #33 matatu pulls up and Joanne tells me it’s one of the many making their way to Kibera.

We climb in. This matatu has blue and pink seats, an orange and white vinyl ceiling and photos of Rihanna, Chris Brown and Destiny’s Child plastered to its windows. We take our seats in the third row. As we gain speed down the busy Nairobi streets, the driver increases the volume of the car’s speakers and the R&B music blasting overpowers  Joanne’s and my ability to converse with one another.

The ride isn’t long. Kibera is located less than three miles southwest of Nairobi’s Central Business District. It is just 2.5 square kilometers, accounting for less than 1% of Nairobi’s total area, yet holds more than 25% of its population. Estimates of the population vary due to the difficulties of collecting accurate statistics in shanty towns, but most think that over 1.5 million individuals reside in the slums of Kibera. The population density is said to be 30 times that of New York City, and Kibera does not have multi-level housing. This makes Kibera Africa’s largest slum, second in size only to Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Kibera, which is derived from the Nubian word kibra meaning forest, is a sprawling urban jungle of shanty town housing. The neighborhood was thrust into the Western imagination when it was featured prominently in The Constant Gardener, a film based on the book by John le Carré.

The British established Kibera as a Nubian soldier’s settlement in a forest outside Nairobi in 1918, allocating plots to soldiers as a reward for service in WWI. At the time, the British colonial government also felt indebted to the Nubians (Sudanese Muslims) because of their former status as servants of the British crown, and therefore permitted the settlement to grow informally. After Kenyan independence in 1963, the government rendered housing in Kibera illegal on the basis of land tenure. But, this new legislation inadvertently allowed Nubians to rent out their property to a significantly greater number of tenants than legally permitted.  Kibera’s tenants are highly impoverished and are unable to afford legal rental housing. Joanne told me that a typical family home, a one room earthen house with a corrugated tin roof, no water or electricity, is rented for about 700 Kenya Shillings a month (~$9). On average, more than seven individuals reside in such a home. The number of Kibera residents therefore has increased accordingly despite its unauthorized nature.

An emaciated dog saunters by near one of Kibera's main entrances

The Kenyan government still technically owns all the land upon which Kibera stands. The government’s official stance is not to acknowledge the settlement. Its map of Nairobi still depicts the vast slum as a wooded forest. No basic services are provided; schools, clinics, and other services that do exist are all privately owned. The Kenyan government has the perfect excuse for not providing such services – after all, the slum is illegal.

Like Mathare (Nairobi’s second largest slum, which I described in an earlier blog post),  Kibera is a microcosm of many of the world’s most vexing issues: poverty, poor healthcare, high transmission of HIV infection, lack of women’s rights, ethnic conflict between tribes, severe food shortage, little or no access to electricity, clean water, and sewage disposal.

A song about President Barack Obama sends vibrations through the matatu, and as I’m thinking about its lyrics –Obama will save Africa– Joanne pats my arm and motions to the door. We’ve arrived. I step out of the vehicle and am hit with the smells of fried food mixed with diesel, pollution and human waste. Next I take in the sounds around me: the blasts of honking matatus and their conductors calling to prospective passengers, a man honing knives on a foot-pedal powered sharpener, children giggling as they kick around an empty soda can, and the shouts of people selling their wares. To my left, a woman sits with a wooden board covered in illegal DVDs imported from China and used books. I glance at the titles: Junior Mathematics, Primary English, Arts and Crafts for Kids. The cover of this last title depicts four Caucasian children building a home from popsicle sticks. It seems unlikely that the little money these individuals have will be spent purchasing a book whose cover boasts a toy house much bigger than any that exists in Kibera. Which Kibera child has the luxury of using markers, glue, and pipe cleaners to create for the sake of creating?

Knowledge of the intricacies of Kibera’s endless trenches, alleyways and open sewers seems a privilege accessible only to those that live in the slum. Even Joanne relies on her borrowers to greet her on the outskirts and navigate the confusing twists and turns to their business sites. As we wait for our first borrower to find us, I continue to absorb the busy scene surrounding me. An elderly woman sells bunches of kale from the top of a pile of rubber tread stripped from old tires. Vegetable stands add splashes of bright yellows, reds and oranges to the dusty air and rusted tin rooftops. Used clothing is spread out on dozens of blankets and their owners call to passerbys to purchase an additional skirt or pair of shoes. Slabs of deep red meat hang from the ceiling of tin kiosks, pools of blood gathering underneath. Heaps of black charcoal are sold in large tin paint cans. Women braid one another’s hair and paint each others’ nails with pink polish underneath a wooden sign that reads Mary’s Salon.

Joanne turns to her right and shakes hands with a woman wearing a sleeveless brown, green and yellow top. Ruffles adorn the edges and her long navy skirt reaches down to her ankles. I introduce myself to our borrower, Margaret Kaloki, in Kiswahili. She speaks no English.

With Margaret leading the way, we head towards her shop. One alley turns into another and then another and another. The route is extensive, a seemingly endless marketplace filled with the sounds of giggling children and bustling business. Goods are sold everywhere: sacks of lentils, beans and maize serve as roadblocks, their owners requiring a brief stop to pause and perhaps purchase some for dinner. A crowd gathers in front of a video-cinema shop, where a small television displays the latest Nigerian drama. Hundreds of structures comprised of cow-dung walls with corrugated tin roofs lie in every direction. Thick mud coats the road, a result of the recent rain, and I stop several times to tug my feet free from its sticky grips. A railway line (heading to Kisumu) intersects Kibera and the tracks serve as a main thoroughfare. Hundreds of individuals sell basic provisions along the tracks. I’m told when a train comes, everyone grabs their goods and jumps out of the way.

Finally, we step off the loud, crazy street and cross over a bridge that leads directly to Margaret’s shop.

Kibera's landfill takes the form of a stream running through the slum

Under the bridge, a muddy  trash filled river slowly meanders towards the center of the slum. I hear pigs snorting and realize there are several walking through the shallow stream. Discarded plastic bags and old banana peels hang from their mouths. I’m told these pigs will be slaughtered and eaten in the near future. A man unzips his pants and relieves himself to my left, completely ignoring my presence. A crowd of children is following me, calling out “Mzungu, Mzungu, how are you!”

Margaret smiles with pride as we step up to her shop. She motions for us to sit down on two overturned buckets. Her shop is made from wooden poles and a burlap ceiling, its back rests against the mud wall of someone else’s home. A long table holds her wares: charcoal, bananas, oranges, eggs and matches. During the week she also makes githeri (made from beans, maize and onions) to sell to casual workers. I lean back against the mud wall and it crumbles. I immediately sit up as not to disturb the wet clay again.

The interview is conducted in Kiswahili and Joanne translates for me. Margaret started her business in 2006 and selected these items to sell because she anticipated they would have the quickest turnover, therefore providing her with a continuous cash flow. Three years later, she still isn’t able to hold on to her merchandise for long. Although many borrowers I meet have several sources of income, this is Margaret’s only business. She is taking out her first loan, worth 20,000 Kenya Shillings (~$260), in order to add to her stock of charcoal, fruit and eggs. With the anticipated extra profits, Margaret wants to include kerosene in her customer offerings. “There is high demand for kerosene,” she tells Joanne in Kiswahili, “many people use kerosene to heat their stoves and do their cooking.”

Margaret and her shop

Margaret is married with three children who are 8, 16 and 19 years old. None of her children were born in a hospital or with the assistance of a medical professional. Her husband is “a handyman that mtu wa mjengo builder pays on a daily basis.” In addition to her own three children, Margaret tells us that she cares for four orphans. Later in the conversation we learn that these orphans are in fact her husband’s children from his previous marriage. Their mother died from a health issue that Margaret doesn’t want to discuss, and now Margaret pays for their schooling from the profits from this business.

I ask Margaret why she moved to Kibera. She tells me she lived upcountry in a small village and moved to Kibera 12 years ago in order to earn a living. I ask if moving here met her expectations. She laughs, a great deep belly laugh. “I miss my family upcountry. I miss the life there,” she says.

A small crowd has gathered as we conduct Margaret’s interview and photograph her business. The woman whose kiosk lies directly opposite from Margaret’s on the narrow street, however, completely ignores our presence. She is digging through thick waste with a shovel to create a passageway for stagnant sewage to continue flowing towards the stream under the bridge.

The woman whose shop is across the narrow street from Margaret's sells almost the exact same items. I purchased bananas from both of them.

We wrap up the interview and Margaret guides us back to the main area, where we were dropped off by the matatu. Joanne makes a series of phone calls and then tells me we are going to go back to head office. Our other borrowers are busy with customers and Joanne is unable to find their businesses without their help. Directions are impossible; there is no such thing as a map for Kibera.

Concluding Thoughts –

The residents of Kibera face deep challenges. Up to 20% suffer from HIV/AIDS,  four out of five individuals are unemployed, and a violent history of bloody ethnic and religious conflict continues to plague Kibera’s population. In each case of collective violence in Kibera, the combatants are predominantly unemployed youth between the ages of 16-30 years old. Education is a luxury afforded to less than 40% of Kibera’s youth, and even the most promising lack opportunities to receive a decent education and live healthy lives.

Arriving back at head office, I step off the elevator on KADET’s floor to the reliable smile and warm greeting from Joash, KADET’s security guard. “Hello Madame,” he says, “How are you this afternoon?” I tell him that I just visited his neighborhood. We chat for awhile before I head inside.

Kibera is filled with insightful, hard working individuals like Margaret and Joash. I am confident that armed with the right resources, Kibera residents can increase the chance for a better life for themselves and their neighbors.


One Response to Kibera

  1. Mikel Maron says:

    “there is no such thing as a map for Kibera.”

    until last November …

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