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.

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