Monthly Archives: January 2015

Tacky Tourists and Trash


Photo via Carolina for Kibera.

Something immediately noticeable when you enter Kibera: trash is a dominant component of the landscape. The informal settlement, which does not have any paved roads or public services reaching the people living in its depths, is littered with scraps of food, plastic bags, crumpled water bottles, torn clothes, and washed-out pieces of paper. Along the streets, deep ditches in the reddish-brown dirt carry waste and water downhill towards huge trash piles, where stray cats, dogs, and chickens can be found scavenging for snacks. Trash is absolutely everywhere, and in some areas, the smell of rotting food and wet garbage is almost overwhelming.

But Carolina for Kibera is doing something about it.

On Monday, I sat down with Moses, a smart-dressed, bespectacled man who heads the Economic department at CFK. The idea behind the Taka ni Pato, or “Trash is Cash” program is twofold, he explained: cleaning up the community, and creating economic opportunity for youth. The program consists of a trash collection program, through which young people provide houses with garbage bags and then come collect the bags for a small fee each week. Then, the trash is sorted, and different items are recycled and repurposed in order to turn a further profit. The meeting itself was brief, as Moses was adamant about me actually seeing the program in action. Our sit-down chat quickly turned into a foray into Soweto West, one of the 12 villages in Kibera.

As we rounded the corner out of CFK, we passed by some of the only foreigners I had seen so far in the slum. They were dressed in tacky tourist attire, complete with big green safari hats, colourful shirts with city names emblazoned across the chest, cargo shorts, and the quintessential camera around the neck. They were looking around in pity and horror at the scene unfolding around them. This, I deduced, was one of the “slum tours” I had heard about online – for a fee, tourists can take a detour from their expensive safari and come marvel at the lives of people in poverty. To me, the notion of these tours is partially ridiculous, partially unethical; the people of Kibera are not a tourist attraction. I deliberately avoided making eye contact with any of the participants as they passed.

The tour was quickly forgotten as my focus turned to staying upright on a steep, dusty road leading towards the Kenya-Ugandan railway that bisects Kibera. Overlooking the tracks and blocking a view of the houses below was a huge, ten-foot-tall garbage pile. We did our best to gingerly step around the mounds of trash, eventually taking a running leap in order to scale a particularly wet area, and then crossed back into the mass of tin-roofed houses. Just beyond the tracks lay our destination: Victorious Bones Craft.

Outside of the building, a man named Jack lay hunched over a basket of white heart-shaped carvings, delicately painting their points a sparkling gold. He looked up and greeted us with the traditional warm Kenyan handshake, and welcomed us to the workshop. As we were led inside, my eyes immediately started to water from the white dust floating around in the air. The workshop was filled with six or seven men, working at rotating saws, whittling down bones into various shapes. Small piles of bones littered the floor. Jack explained the operation over the overwhelmingly loud roar of the saws: the bones, which are collected from both community garbage pickups and local shops, are cleaned and whittled down into various shapes. They treat the bones with a chemical solution that keeps them white, or apply paint to dye them various colours. After that, the products are polished, and sometimes holes are drilled to make them into earrings or beads. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “We don’t use human bones here!” He then led us into the little shop that lay under the same roof as the workshop, where the finished bone products are sold. The gorgeous jewellery and keychains in front of us were unrecognizable from the motley pile of cow bones that were stacked in the other room. We left kicking ourselves for not bringing any Kenyan shillings along.

Our next stop was the Taka ni Pato Recycling Centre, hidden away in a bright blue building resembling an oversized storage crate. Outside, the manager of the recycling centre, Wilson, greeted us. Wilson is also an entrepreneur, Moses explained. Thanks to a Kiva loan he received through CFK, he has started a transportation business out of his home. His employees use huge, wooden carts to deliver goods across various villages in Kibera.

Inside the dark room, piles of various items were stacked in different corners: one for bottles, one for plastic bags, and one for large plastic crates. Wilson showed us a huge metal machine that chews up the plastic products and spits out smaller pieces at the bottom. The pieces are then bagged and sent off to various factories in Narobi. Business had been a little slow lately, Wilson explained, since the factories are still trying to use up their own stock from the previous year. “But things will pick up soon!” he grinned.

The Taka ni Pato program is an amazing example of the entrepreneurial spirit that lives within the heart of Kibera – a spirit that the tourists snapping photos of run-down homes undoubtedly missed. It’s all too easy to take a quick look around and pity all the poor people living in filth. However, it takes much more effort to really understand the place – I have been here for almost two weeks and Kibera is still finding ways to surprise me. While it isn’t easy, the effort is worth it in the end, as it shows all the amazing things the people of this community are doing to make Kibera a better place. And that reveals more about the life of those living in poverty than any tour ever could.


Photo via Carolina for Kibera

Akinyi’s Home Life

It has been a little over a week since I first stepped off the plane into the Nairobi sun, and many things in my life have changed as a result. I have begun to get used to being perpetually sweaty thanks to the 30-degree weather. I have begun to accept the fact that my mug in the morning will likely be filled with milky tea instead of coffee (although this acceptance hasn’t stopped me from seeking out caffeine wherever possible). I have begun adapting to communicating with my loved ones and scheduling interviews in accordance with an 11-hour time difference.

The biggest change, however, has been adjusting to my homestay. After living on my own for almost four years, being back in a house where I needed to answer to an authority figure was a bit of a shock. That being said, my homestay experience has been awesome so far, and I wanted to use this post to give some insights into my home life in Kenya.

On Sunday, our trusty cab driver Peter pulled up to my new home in Ayany, the so-called “middle-class” area of Kibera. From outside, the house looked pretty modest by North American standards, but was far and away more than I was expecting from a house in a slum. The building standing in front of me was a three-story grey stone home, with a ten-foot blue gate blocking the front door from sight. I lugged my ridiculously large backpack out of the trunk and was led up to the second floor apartment, where my new Kenyan mama was waiting.

“Mama Mary”, as I call her, was sitting in her living room watching music videos on TV in Swahili, but when she saw me standing in the doorway she leapt up with joy and ran over to envelope me in a huge, warm hug. “This is my new daughter!” she exclaimed to Otto with happiness. “Karibu, karibu. You know what ‘karibu’ means?” I replied with the standard, “Asante sana,” and she squealed, wrapping me in another hug. “Come, let me show you your new home.” The interior of the house was small but comfortable. The living room, where we had entered, was painted a bright orange colour. Two couches and two matching armchairs flanked the sides of the room. In the corner, next to the large TV, was a mini-shrine covered with trinkets and pictures of her family. Mama Mary pointed out the people in the pictures excitedly, and told us that her son and grandson would be coming over to visit later. I had a bathroom all to myself, and a shower with hot water – an amenity I had definitely not expected in Kibera. My room faces the east of the house, with two twin beds framed by mosquito nets, a huge closet, and a window overlooking the rooftops of Ayany. “If you ever get sick of one bed, you can switch to the other!” Mama told me.

Mama Mary is absolutely hilarious, always joking around, dancing, or making silly faces. She is in her sixties, a retired primary school teacher who has lived in Kibera for many years. Her husband lives up-country, but she loves Kibera so much that she stayed here when he moved away for work. She loves watching ridiculous game shows on TV, and will teach me Swahili words during the commercial breaks. She constantly tries to urge me to eat more at meals, piling food onto my plate when she thinks I’m not looking. She also belongs to the Luo tribe, which is one of Kenya’s 42 diverse tribes and the third most populous in the country. In accordance with Luo tradition, Mama Mary gave me a name according to the time of the day at which I was born. Since I was born early in the morning, my name has become Akinyi (which she often calls me since, like most other people I’ve met, she has difficulty pronouncing my name). Last night, Mama had a friend over whose Luo name is also Akinyi. She was so excited to meet her namesake that she spent the rest of the night trying to convince me to marry her son.

One of the things I had been most afraid of before coming to Kenya was the food. Being a notoriously picky eater, I worried that I would spend the next four months with a growling stomach. This hasn’t been the case in the slightest – the food I’ve had so far has been absolutely delicious. I have fallen in love with a type of bread called “chapati”, which is like the heavenly lovechild of tortillas and naan. Other staple foods are ugali, a spongy, moist bread, and kale, whose name in Swahili means “push the week” since those with little income often eat it all week to fill their stomachs. We eat most of our meals with our hands, since, as Mama Mary says, “You have two perfectly good forks at the ends of your arms!”

However, one thing I haven’t quite gotten used to is being waited on constantly. It is very common in Kenya for people to have live-in help, and Mama Mary is no exception. She has a young Luo girl named Cynthia working for her who does the dishes, scrubs the floors, washes clothes, and takes care of pretty much any other task you can imagine. As someone who has been doing all of these things for myself for years, it’s been tough getting used to someone preparing my food and cleaning up after me. To help combat this, I’m trying to help out around the house as much as possible, but I think it’s just something I’ll need to accept while I’m here.

Overall, I am so happy to be living in a homestay during my time in Kenya. Despite the perceived lack of freedom, it is giving me a great introduction to Kenyan culture and customs. I have learned more about values and tribal relations through conversations with Mama than I ever could have through online research. Furthermore, living in the place where I am working, rather than just leaving the slum at the end of the day, has made me feel more connected to the community, which I think will improve my ability to contribute in the workplace. These are some of the reasons why I wanted to participate in this experience – it is not simply a volunteer trip. I am participating in a true cultural immersion program, and I think that I will come out of it with a better understanding for Kibera and the people residing within it.

Karibu Kibera: First Impressions of a Slum


Welcome to Kibera.
Photo via Carolina for Kibera

I awake from my first night in Ayany to the sound of a sweeping broom, barking dogs, and playing children outside my window. Groggily, I slither out from underneath my mosquito net and toss back my antimalarial pills before heading to the dining room for breakfast. With excitement and nerves, I devour my breakfast of scrambled eggs, whole wheat bread, fresh bananas, and an overflowing mug of Kenyan tea. Today, I am entering the heart of Kibera for the first time. Before I could even down the rest of my milky tea, Otto, my tour guide for the day, arrived at my door. I bid a quick farewell to Mama Mary, and the two of us begin our trek into the massive slum.

The first thing you notice in Kibera is how lively it is, no matter the location or time of day. People are absolutely everywhere, cooking fried potatoes and chapati on makeshift stone stoves, walking to work in perfectly pressed suits, pushing around carts filled with frying oil and flour, and adding airtime to their cell phones at local shops. Mangy stray dogs stroll around, rummaging through the intermittent piles of garbage looking for something to eat, chickens and roosters occasionally walk across the street in front of us, and small children sit on doorsteps and look at us curiously as we walk past.

Walking down one of the many dirt roads winding through the masses of houses, we pass colourful little stores constructed out of metal sheeting, blasting music and selling everything from charcoal to bananas to football cleats. “Kibera is very business-minded,” Salim, the executive director of Carolina for Kibera had told us. “If you are my neighbor, and I see you are successful at selling water, I will start selling water.”

Water and electricity are expensive commodities in the more impoverished parts of the slum. Since the city doesn’t recognize Kibera, power lines and water mains do not run through the property. Instead, local gangs tap into the electricity illegally and sell access to the highest bidder. Wires are tied around the power lines that run along the highway overlooking Kibera, extending downwards into the mass of houses below.

As we continue down the seemingly endless slope into the slum, the houses begin to become more ramshackle. Concrete-walled homes are replaced by small houses made from dried mud packed around wooden beams, covered with a roof made from metal sheets. Ditches filled with garbage run along the sides of the path, and occasionally we need to avoid a splash of soapy water as someone in a nearby house empties a bucket in front of us.

Our first stop this afternoon is the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic, where the organization offers free medical care to Kibera residents. Otto’s family provides catering for the clinic’s staff, and he has an invoice to deliver that day. We tag along behind him like children, and follow him through the courtyard and waiting room into a small administrative building. There, I meet two of the clinic employees, Sally and Cecilia, who both give me a warm welcome and start telling me a bit about the health care centre. Sally tells me that deliveries and primary care are their main services. “We also offer a lot of chronic care, which makes us unique in Kibera. We provide care for hypertension, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.” Mama Mary will later tell me that this is where she gets her cholesterol and hypertension medication. Sally and Cecilia invite me to come back on Sunday, when they will be running a training session on how to manage HIV/AIDS and hypertension. “We will also be able to show you around a bit, when the rooms are not all full,” Sally says. Otto takes his copy of the invoice, and we head back out into the midday sun.

It is the first day of the new school year in Kenya after a weeklong teachers’ strike. We pass by several small schools nestled in the hills of Kibera. We stop at one of them, a girls’ school run by a NGO called Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO for short. Outside, young girls run around in their bright purple uniforms, skipping rope and bouncing basketballs on the dirt field. We meet Otto’s friend Lily there, who introduces him to some students as her brother – Lily had lived with Otto’s mother a few summers ago, and now works in Kibera full-time. She shows us around SHOFCO’s mini-campus, and explains the organization’s holistic approach to development. “Our belief is that all aspects of development are interconnected,” she explains. “You can’t have health without education, or clean water, or a sense of community. So we try our best to incorporate all of that here.”

SHOFCO is one of many non-governmental organizations that have taken up residence in Kibera. We pass many free clinics and community centres, eventually arriving at the one where I will be working: Carolina for Kibera. The organization resides in a white building with a huge painting of blue hands extending towards the sky, cupping a bright yellow sun between them. Underneath, in large letters reads: Tuungane Tuangaze (Let’s Unite and Shed Light). Since my work visa is not ready yet, we only pass by the building where most of my days will be spent from now on. Then we continue the steady climb back up to our comfortable homes in middle-class Ayani.

While one may think that slums are places filled with misery, this is definitely not the case in Kibera. As Salim had told us over the weekend, “You find people with extreme poverty but also extreme happiness.” The faces of Kibera are not the hopeless-looking faces that stare out at you from adopt-a-child advertisements. They are faces of community, joy, and hope for the future. There is so much more I could write about Kibera, but I’ll finish by saying that I am looking forward to be working in this confusing, complicated place for the next few months, and getting to know more about what life here is really like.

Rhinos, Giraffes, and Impalas, Oh My: The Adventure Begins

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent into Nairobi.”

I awoke from my all-too-brief nap about the Ethiopian Airlines flight, rubbed my eyes, and peered out of the oblong airplane window at the ground below. Vast plains and rolling hills extended to the west, while the city of Nairobi sprawled to the east. A ripple of fear and excitement coursed through my body as the city’s skyscrapers slowly rose up to meet us. I was about to touch down in my new home.

For the next four months, I will be living and working in Nairobi, Kenya, as a part of UBC’s International Service Learning program. More specifically, I will be undertaking an internship at Carolina for Kibera, a non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the lives of those living in the Kibera slum. Along with another UBC student, I will be helping out with the organization’s health program, monitoring the nutrition status of the local population and implementing malnutrition interventions for at-risk children.

Kibera is widely touted as the largest slum in Africa, despite nobody really knowing for sure how many people live there. Estimates range from 500,000 to a million people, all living in an informal settlement to the south of Nairobi’s metropolis. Originally set aside as land for Nubian soldiers under British colonial rule, Kibera is now home to people flocking from rural areas of Kenya in search of work and opportunity in the capital. Kibera’s residents are among Nairobi’s poorest, with some households earning less than 1000 Kenyan shillings, or about $12 Canadian, in a month.

That being said, Kibera is very diverse. The slum is massive, and is divided up into twelve different neighbourhoods, each with a different personality and cultural makeup. Ayany, the neighbourhood where our homestays are located, is a more formal settlement, with street addresses, running water, and electricity. The people living there are mainly Luo, which is the third most populous tribe in Kenya. Kibera sits on a huge slope, bordered by a highway to the south and running down towards a small river in the middle. Generally, the further downhill you go, the more poverty you encounter.

I would need to wait a while before seeing Kibera, though. After making it through immigration, we was swept away from the city to the Syracure Wildlife Research Centre, which sits on the southern border of Nairobi National Park. There, I began to acclimatize to life in Kenya and underwent my in-country orientation sessions. The research centre is a cluster of buildings, one still under construction, overlooking the southern end of Nairobi’s national park. When I came down from my cozy room in the main house for afternoon tea, I met Dr. Abraham, a former secondary school teacher, passionate conservationist, and the founder of the research centre. In the open-air dining room overlooking the savannah, he cheerfully explained the history of the national park, and the issues that plague the Kenyan conservation movement – notably, the displacement of indigenous people from their native territories. This conversation quickly halted, however, when Dr. Abraham spotted a giraffe making its way towards us. It was a young animal, strolling on its own from one acacia tree to the next and eating leaves as it went. I was in awe, amazed that I was already spotting Kenya’s wildlife, and from our dinner table, no less! This wasn’t the only animal I would see that weekend. Over the next few days, I spotted buffaloes, antelope, rhinos, and more varieties of birds than I could count – so many animals, in fact, that Dr. Abraham joked that he should have charged for a safari.

The weekend wasn’t all fun and animal sightings, though. On Friday night, we were joined by three people, all of whom would be a large part of our Kenyan experience. Salim Mohammed, the charismatic, wise-cracking executive director and co-founder of Carolina for Kibera, was going to be leading our sessions that weekend, giving us a better idea of what to expect when we started work. Otto Olouch, a perpetually smiling marketing student, pastry chef, and underground hip hop artist, would essentially be our designated friend during our time in Kibera – he would show us how to get around, help us get our phones set up, and help us adjust to life in Kibera. Our third visitor, Ben, was a tall, kind-eyed man who would be supervising us at the organization. He spoke passionately about CFK’s health program, asked us about our future goals, and professed his undying love for maple syrup.

That weekend I was introduced to my role within the organization, did some goal setting, and took a day trip into the Nairobi city centre. But before I knew it, it was time to pack up and head to Kibera. That’s where I am now, sitting on a couch in my new living room, listening to the rolling thunder and rainfall outside. The rain seems fitting – washing away my comfortable Vancouver life and clearing space for all the new experiences I am about to have. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, but at the same time, I really can’t wait to get started.