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From the village to the slum

 Street News Service 21 November 2019

As we left the tarmac road and navigated a labyrinth of mud-soaked paths, we walked deeper and deeper into a decaying mass of corrugated iron sheets that people here call homes. This is a far cry from what many visitors come to Kenya to see. (1172 Words) - By Rosa Parks


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A street in the Mitumba area of Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Benard Kimani

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Set of loos clearly marked Men/Women in Kiswahili slum, Nigeria.Photo: Rosa Parks

SNS_From the village to the slum_Ablution sign showing the rates for toilet and shower use in Kibera slum, Nairobi.

Ablution sign showing the rates for toilet and shower use in Kibera slum, Nairobi (Portrait picture - Download to see full image).Photo: Rosa Parks

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Communal toilet in Kibera slum, Nairobi (Portrait picture - Download to see full image).Photo: Rosa Parks

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Hole in the wall Maria's house, Kibera slum Nairobi.Photo: Rosa Parks

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Murky foot path through Kibera slum, Nairobi.Photo: Rosa Parks

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Partition between sitting room and other multipupose room in a house in Kibera slum, Nairobi.Photo: Rosa Parks

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A sitting room in a house in Kibera slum, Nairobi.Photo: Roas Parks

Indeed, most tourists are here for 'the big five': the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard but over the last years one peculiar tourist attraction has been added to that list. The sixth item is not a world renowned African animal but rather a phenomenon created by human beings - the slum.

One of the most famous slums anywhere in Africa is Kenya's Kibera. Indeed, such is its infamy and draw that Kibera - which is situated in a middle class area of Nairobi called Langata - has attracted world dignitaries such as the American politician Jesse Jackson but earlier this year Kenyan MP Njeru Githae was fighting hard to prevent foreign visitors visiting the settlement because - according to him - it portrayed a negative image of Kenya.

Granted, what visitors see at the slum is certainly not the post-card image Kenya would like to portray to the world but yet the reality is an image that largely characterizes the lives of an estimated 1.5 million of the inhabitants of Nairobi.

It is estimated there are several hundred slums in Nairobi alone, most of them constructed on road and rail reserves, on private land and some on government land. The one I visited is called Mukuru Fuata Nyayo, the particular village called Maasai - (nothing to do with the Maasai people). My chaperone, Maria (not her real name), said that since she came to Nairobi she had lived in two slums.

When she left her village in Eastern Province 26 years ago, it was to join her husband who was working in Nairobi's industrial area. She said the early years in Nairobi were difficult for her. "I couldn't sleep at night because of the noise", Maria explained adding that the change from a laid-back village life to the hustle and bustle of the city became too much and so she went home. However, as there was not much in terms of work her village, she soon returned to the capital and began selling vegetables as well as running a small eatery to earn an income.


Maria's story is much the same as thousands of other people residing in Nairobi. The statistics are revealing - 65 per cent of Nairobi dwellers occupy only 1 per cent of the residential land and are squatters. (Source: Akiba Mashinani Trust). Conversely, 35 per cent occupy some 99 per cent of the residential land in Nairobi. Shocking statistics, indeed, and when one actually ventures into an informal settlement, the reality dawns hard.

When we arrived at her home, Maria opened the rusty iron sheet that acts as her front door. We entered the shack and Maria bolted the door from the inside to stave off intruders as burglary here is rife. The room was around 10ft by 20ft. The walls were made of corrugated iron sheets and were paper-thin and we could clearly hear everything the neighbour did or said. The room was divided into four areas - a bedroom, storeroom, sitting room and grocery area. Next to the "sitting room", was her husbands' carpentry storage space which was stacked to the roof with all manner of pieces of wood and unfinished products such as stools and chairs.

As we chatted, it started raining and we had to halt our conversation because we couldn't hear each other as the rain pounded the roof's iron sheets and began seeping through the cracks. When the downpour stopped, Maria showed me the ablution block she had earlier mentioned. Her "village" has an estimated 920 rooms similar to Maria's and an estimated population of 3000 people.

Most of us dream of going home in the evening to a warm scented bath or shower but not so for Maria. She has no privacy when it comes to the two most private actions for a human being. Here, two communal toilets and two communal bathrooms serve the 3000 inhabitants. They pay Ksh5 to use either facility. Maria dreams of having a toilet and a bathroom of her own one day but for now she must contend with sharing with thousands of close neighbours.

Although this is just one shack in an estimated 100 slums or so in Nairobi, it is representative of the quality of life for the majority of Nairobians and indeed millions of other Kenyans. According to a UN report, Kenya is ranked 143 in the world in terms of human development of its citizens. The report, Human Development Report 2011, Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All, points out that the poor are most affected by environmental degradation and that the world's 2.6 billion continue to cook with firewood, straw, charcoal or dung.

Around the same time I visited Maria in the slum, a mega-show dubbed "Kenya Homes Expo" was taking place in the central business district of Nairobi where thousands of property-related businesses drummed up trade. It was the largest of its kind in East Africa and exhibitors attempted to impress potential homeowners and real estate investors with a vast range of interior decors, magnificent house designs, gardening and landscaping ideas.

Apart from real estate developers, the expo drew in roofing, tile and sanitary-ware providers, banks, interior décor firms, cement providers, cable TV providers and insurance companies. For some people, it was rather inspiring to see a different group of Kenyans checking out ideas in order to make their homes more charming. But this is a world apart from Maria's world and the existence most Kenyans endure.

Housing policy

In 2004, the Kenya National Housing Policy shifted the responsibility of providing shelter from the state to the private sector but there is little appetite on the part of the latter to provide decent affordable homes. For its part, the Kenyan government is placing much hope on the ongoing construction of road networks to free up land for the construction of new residential houses and it hopes this will reduce pressure on traditional property areas and lead to a halt in slum construction in prime areas of Nairobi.

Whether that will happen is a moot point, as is the likelihood of Kenya meeting one of the Millennium Development Goals - number seven -  which states: "Ensure environmental sustainability," and "halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation". Moreover, target 7.D says: "By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers." The success of Kenya achieving the above targets is anchored in a review of laws regarding shelter as a basic human right but behind the post-card images of the "Big Five" lies a morass of murk and filth that simply cannot be swept under the carpet.

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