Sunday, 25 July 2010


My roommate and I went to Kibera yesterday. I wanted to see the slum; she wanted to take pictures. As I mentioned last post, Kibera is a famous and massive slum settlement within the jurisdiction of Nairobi Area. Kibera was originally a well-to-do settlement occupied by Nubian soldiers who had been granted land by the colonial government in gratitude of their service of Great Britain in the First World War. Over time, more and more people from outside Nairobi moved in to Kibera and rented out simple rooms or built makeshift homes out of simple materials. Today, it's gigantic, with a hard-to-gauge population estimated between 600,000 and 1.5 million residents. (As I stated last post, it's widely considered Africa's largest slum. This is probably accurate, although it depends on the estimate you use for Kibera's size). It's very poor, with dangerous health conditions, lack of good drinking water and a constant risk of crime, especially after dark. In addition to the usual, everyday struggles of Kiberan life, the residents have to cope with frequent flooding, police violence ( and occasional slum clearing efforts that force the residents out of their homes (for a positive spin, see In a nutshell, life is tough. Another fact: a number of movies (including The Constant Gardner) have featured scenes shot in Kibera... so you may have seen it before.

Instead of trekking around the settlement, we spent part of the afternoon at a community center in the "upper class" part of the slums. The idea of an upper-class slum sounds like an oxymoron, but poverty and poor living conditions are relative in Kibera. The area where the community center was located was pretty decent -- vehicle-accessible, equipped with running water, and dotted with little businesses that seemed relatively prosperous (my favorite was a women's clothing store: "Ghetto Fabrics. Respect Tha Motherhood").

The fact that we ended up at the community center shows just how tightly-knit the expat scene is in Nairobi. On Thursday, I went to the birthday party of a guy I just met, where I met a French guy who has recently taken over sponsorship of a women's group in Kibera from another girl. Since the original sponsor left, the French guy had taken it upon himself to go every Saturday and play with the children who come when their mothers are at the women's group. He invited me to go. Bizarrely enough, when we got there, I ran into Josh, a fellow development person that I have run into all over the place: Kampala, Boston, and now Kibera. It turns out that he's working on a project in Kibera for an extended period. The chance of running into someone you know inside the slum seems slim indeed.

Playing with the kids was great. We did some dancing to Nigeria, East African and American hits, kicked around a soccer ball and did airplane rides (an exhausting activity which consists of me throwing the kids up into the air and catching them). I particularly loved that the kids - unlike older Kenyans - were more than happy to speak to me in Swahili. When I speak to an adult Kenyan in Swahili, he or she will almost always switch to English immediately. Maybe because they haven't spent much time in school yet, the kids were immediately comfortable with Swahili and played right along. I guess those with younger siblings were probably used to speaking with someone who talks like a 3-year old.

Here are some snaps. The first picture is mine:

The second picture comes courtesy of my roommate, a professional photographer with some great African work -- In this photo, we are dancing to one of Nigerian favorites. In case you were wondering:

I was feeling pretty sick on Saturday so we didn't end up staying very long. Playing with the kids was a blast, though - I'll be back there on other weekends.

Before I go, a quick note about Map Kibera, Josh's project. As you might guess about a giant, unplanned settlement like Kibera, there isn't much in the way of official maps. For proof, look at Google Maps, which does a great job of Nairobi if you're looking a nice restaurant in Westlands - Kibera is essentially a grey area ( The lack of maps isn't a major problem for residents, who know their communities very well. It is a problem, however, for development practitioners and government planners looking to provide much-needed basic services to Kibera. Without an accurate mapping of residential areas, businesses, religious centers, schools, hospitals, pharmacies and places to get water, it's very difficult to ensure that interventions best serve the needs of the million-ish residents of Kibera. Enter Map Kibera (, an interesting collaboration project that's working to map the key resources within Kibera. The project is substantially underway and has mapped a huge part of the settlement with the help of tech-savvy resident trainees. It's worth taking a look at his interesting example of information technology being harnessed for development (this type of thing is known in the biz as ICT4D).

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