In the Kibera slum in Nairobi, over one million people live in just 2½ square kilometres. Bex Wiles reports from one of the world's largest slums, where the relentless struggle for food, education and survival is both harrowing and inspirational.
Mzungu, eh mzungu Ow are yoo? Ow are yoo?" A choir of small grubby children in woolly hats, perched on heaps of rubble, unite in a chorus of greetings for the strange foreigner who is walking past their homes again. They shout and compete for my attention, but most keep a safe distance away. Some of the brave ones approach tentatively and grab my hand or pinch my skin: and I wonder, as I do every day, whether they consider me a celebrity or a freak. I have been walking this way for three months and every morning I am treated like an alien – not able to forget for a moment that I am an outsider. It is a profound experience being the odd one out in a community of over one million people. Many slum residents are friendly and greet me in Swahili, some shout out 'mzungu' like the children – which means 'foreigner' – and some avoid me, perhaps suspicious about my reasons for being here. The minority are hostile, angry, not at me personally, but at what I represent, my white skin a painful reminder of years of colonialism.
Nevertheless, I feel that I am slowly being accepted by most of the slum residents I pass each day on my fifteen minute walk to the school: the two large ladies who jokingly heckle me with their children and giggle hysterically when I reply in broken Swahili 'I'm not a foreigner, I'm Kenyan'; a young guy named Sissa who every day tells me how much better the Western Province of Kenya is compared to Nairobi and takes it as a personal offence that I have never been there; an elderly gentlemen who always asks me the football scores; the endless amount of people that want to know if I am a friend of Obama; the group of young men who once put a rubber snake in my path and laughed together when I screamed. They might be living in intense poverty but these wonderful Kenyans have certainly retained a strong sense of humour.
Indeed, many Kibera residents display such solid character and resilience it is hard to fully appreciate the many challenges that they face. It is midday on a Friday and Standard seven (the thirteen-to-fifteen-year-olds) are having a spontaneous breakdancing competition. There is no music but that doesn't put anyone off: everyone is laughing and clapping for Dennis, who is attempting his infamous robot dance. Every now and then individuals glance towards the door, where the younger children are walking past holding broken bowls filled with steaming 'githeri': a filling mixture of maize and beans. When it's their turn to be served the dancing is immediately forgotten and everyone runs to find their container. For many of them this is their only meal of the day. They each return cradling their food and sit down in small circles together – perhaps one of them has an avocado which they will undoubtedly share between everyone. It is incredibly moving to sit with them during this time: they have little but they are incredibly selfless. These young people don't walk round with constant pained and hungry faces, for them receiving just one meal per day is an everyday reality in their lives and they get on with it. Whilst they eat, the lunchtime routine usually consists of them asking me endless questions about England:
"Bexi, what's the staple food in England?" "Bexi, do you have a president?" "How many tribes are there?" "Do you know David Beckham?'' "What do people in England think of us in Africa?" I tell them about my town, my little brothers and sister who are so similar to these Kenyan teens and about the Queen. They have heard in the news that Kenyan officials have just spent huge amounts of taxpayers' money on new cars and they ask "Bexi, is there corruption in England?" I tell them truthfully 'yes'... I tell them how much I love being in Kenya with them and they laugh and say "Bex, sasa, wewe ni mkenya!" (Bex, now you are a Kenyan!) They are passionately interested in the world outside of Kibera, which is a world that many of them will have never seen.
Similarly, I am fascinated by their world. Forty boys sharing a small dorm: three levels to a bunk bed and two people to each mattress, zero complaints. Standing on the stairs to the dorms looking out over a sea of rusty tarpaulin roofs, I wonder what they think of the view from their bedroom window. This is home. Do they look over to the skyscrapers in the city centre and feel a sense of injustice? Anger? How does it feel to lie on a shared mattress at night, listening to the breathing of countless brothers and sisters, the sound of the rats on tarpaulin? Do they feel terrified when they hear the sounds of gangs patrolling the streets at night, or are they simply used to it? The sense I got from many of the young people in the orphanage is that they feel incredibly lucky to be there: it is a far better alternative to being on the streets. Indeed, Siloam is a wonderful family: a haven of peace in the chaotic maze of the slum.
However, the children have their worries: they confide in me their fears about illegal power lines, water-borne diseases and tribal conflicts. There was a huge level of violence in Kibera during the 2007-08 election rioting, and many of them were witness to horrific and terrifying things. A number of the children in Siloam were orphaned during this violence. Recently Kenya and Uganda have been contesting the ownership of water surrounding an island in Lake Victoria, and many of the young people fear that this will lead to more violence. Evans, a cheeky 15-year-old, handed me this letter and asked me to get it to the president of Uganda:
To the president of Uganda, PO Box UgandaDear Sir,I take this opportunity to salute you sir. I'm really sad to hear that you are fighting for a land which is on the border of Kenya and Uganda. I'm afraid of the loss of people and blood in both countries, so I would like you to sit with the president of Kenya and discuss this issue and maintain peace because people in both countries are anxious.Yours faithfully, Evans
It is a simple request for peace, but Evans is not alone in his fear of more violence. Evans likes rock music, supports Liverpool FC and likes making fun of me: he is almost exactly like my brother, but the two of them could not be more dissimilar in the issues that they face in daily life.
The biggest question for me upon leaving Kibera is simply: what are the options now for these young people in the slum? In many ways slum residents are excluded from aspects of Kenyan society as without qualifications it is incredibly difficult to find a job that will bring in enough money to move out of the slum. The high unemployment rates in Kibera have translated into high alcoholism and drug abuse rates, high teenage pregnancy rates and an increase in gang culture. Nevertheless, many determined individuals have managed to transform their own lives as well as others, for example Sabina. There is no one correct solution, but my biggest hope is that the amazing young people that I have met can be empowered through education so that they have the resources to change their own lives. When the class asked me over lunch 'What do people in England think of us in Africa?' I was not sure how to answer. We often see in the media horrific pictures of famine and poverty in Africa, and though in Kibera that is a stark reality, slum citizens are incredibly dignified people and they do not want our pity. What they do want is equality: trade sanctions that allow Africa to compete with the rest of the world, a cut in global carbon emissions to stop the changing weather conditions that are ruining crops and increasing rural poverty, and for all global citizens to be living lifestyles that are sustainable for all. The only way that this can happen is if we are willing to make a change. To quote Nelson Mandela: 'Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.'
The first thing you notice about Sabina is her infectious giggle that lights her face into a beautiful smile. Only a little over five feet tall, she has a powerful personality that draws people to her and inspires complete confidence. My first day in Kibera slum, stumbling and tripping over animals and boulders behind Sabina marching ahead nonchalantly in kitten heels, I remember thinking 'I am looking forward to getting to know this lady.'
She has a powerful story. She was brought up in the slum so faced all the challenges of overcrowding, lack of sanitation and tribal conflicts. Her parents sent her to a school outside of Kibera: she was teased for being a slum-child and frequently disciplined for having muddy shoes, an unavoidable reality when walking in the rain. She was living in the slum during the 2007 election riots and witnessed the terrible tribal conflicts that followed for a significant time afterwards. Thanks to her education she has been able to get a job and has now moved to the outskirts of Kibera. She is pragmatic and philosophical about her experiences and uses them to benefit others. She now works for a charity sponsoring children through school in Kibera and is starting a sanitary campaign in her free time: raising money and awareness about the girls who are forfeiting their education because they are unable to afford sanitary pads.
For me, one of the biggest challenges of working in Kibera slum for three months was coming home afterwards and trying to reconcile life in the UK with life in Kibera. This was my third experience in Africa – having spent one month in The Gambia and six in Uganda, and each time I come home I have hundreds more questions: What is the value of a human life? Do we value people differently depending on where they come from, or who they are? How far can we justify our lifestyles in Sevenoaks when as a nation our wealth has come at the massive cost to many other countries?
I don't have any answers, but I do know that I can't justify living a lifestyle that forgets the developing world anymore. As the West, we got our wealth off Africa's back: we took resources from diamonds to slaves to oil, and then we put rules in place that have made it incredibly hard for Africa to enter the world's economic trading system. I have been forced to question my moral values as to how my lifestyle affects those in the developing world, considering the coffee I drink to the clothes I wear. I am incredibly grateful to all the amazing people in Sevenoaks who have been so supportive of the work in the slum: I cannot emphasise enough the impact that will have on the lives of the young people in Kibera.BEX WILES
How you can help
Kibera is the largest slum in Africa and one of the largest in the world. One in four Nairobians live there.
In Kibera alone there are estimated to be between one and two million people within 2½km2. To put this in perspective, there are 18,500 people in Sevenoaks in 15½km2.
Kibera was formed after the First World War when Nubian soldiers from Sudan were allowed to take up settlement by the then British colonial government, as they were formal servants of the British Crown. The slum grew massively as rural poverty lead to mass migration to the urban areas.
One pit latrine in Kibera is usually shared by up to 75 people. Often people are required to pay to use the facilities and so the alternative option of using a plastic bag is more frequent: this practice is known as 'flying toilets'.
The Kenyan government has recently launched a 'Slum Upgrading Programme' but many Kibera residents are fearful of this as rent is set to significantly increase, which many will be unable to afford.
If you want to see the work going on for yourself, please visit www.kibera.org.uk
Contact Bex at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute towards the school fees of the young people in the slum, or support Siloam School.An alternative charity that works in Kibera is Kibera In Need – www.kiberainneed.org.
For more information visit Bex's blog: http://bexkibera.blogspot.com