Kibera is Nairobi’s biggest and most notorious slum, burrowed in the heart of the city, with the river Kibera flowing – or rather stagnating – through it.
The slum, which houses between 300,000 and 1 million inhabitants (I’ve not heard the same population figure twice!), is as notorious for being Kenya’s ‘celebrity slum’ as it is for the poverty, health, crime and violence which afflicts it. Over the years, it has seen its fair share of development interventions, but little seems to have done much to address these deep seated challenges its inhabitants face.
We visited Kibera as part of our research into the implications of environmental issues for peace in Kenya, which we are carrying out for International Alert’s new initiative, the ‘Peace Audit’.
Flooding is a regular seasonal risk, obviously affecting those living right on the river banks worst. But it was soon clear that the floods themselves were not the problem; rather it was the reason why people had no choice but to live in such a risk-prone setting: poverty. No matter who we spoke to, it all came down to the same issue – income and livelihoods. Rent is cheapest in the worst possible places to live, so those who can’t afford anything else have little choice but to live with the risk. We spoke to Jamaldene, a religious elder in the community, who summed it up: "People don’t listen to government advice not to build along the river. The problem is not the river; the problem is poverty. Until and unless you address poverty, you won’t address the real issue and these problems will persist."
The government has recently started a major slum resettlement plan, building big new concrete tower blocks to replace the unsightly sprawling shacks which occupy premium real estate in the heart of the city. But the Kibera residents we spoke to are sceptical about whether this is a genuine solution to the challenges of the mega-slum. Some even think the government’s plan is to turf them out and then sell the new blocks to middle class residents. I’m not sure they’re too far wrong.
One key problem is the ‘decantment sites’ – giant ‘holding areas’ where the thousands displaced by the new constructions have been moved until ‘their new homes’ are ready. These decantment sites are far (often an hour’s walk) from the community in which people lived and belonged. And in a society where life is based on social capital, bartering and community support, one Kibera resident remarked: “they may as well have been moved to Lavington” (a very upmarket area of Nairobi where there would be no chances of fitting in and making a living).
Later, we spoke to Simon, a resident of the human holding area and a skilled carpenter by trade. Simon told us that, whilst the accommodation itself is fine, being so far from Kibera has meant the loss of their community and the market where they could make any hope of a livelihood. He can now only trade with other residents of the decantment site – which is not really a market interested in his carpentry construction skills. Simon now makes small wooden animal figures. He barely sells any – now and then a few to friendly neighbours, but they’re hardly the thing that very poor people in temporary shelter tend to buy.
As we bought a couple, I had to wonder what kind of official could have devised a housing plan without the slightest consideration of how people might make a living. Simon would go back if he could, and many others indeed did. Kibera, to Simon and its many hundreds of thousands of residents, might be challenging and environmentally vulnerable, but it’s a vibrant, bustling community which is home.