Crowded House: Living and Dreaming in Kibera

Kenya 2012

By Sanchita Sharma

June 19, 2012

Sanchita Sharma, health editor at Hindustan TImes, is blogging from the International Reporting Project's reproductive health-themed trip to Kenya.

Breakfast at Lord Delamere Terrace at Nairobi's historic Norfolk Hotel is delightfully charming. Named after the eccentric British colonialist Lord Delamere (1870-1931) who infamously jumped his horse over dining tables on a whim one summer, the gabled hotel -- since it was set up in 1904 -- has been a hub for settlers and adventurers out to explore east Africa.

Visiting the hotel still tops the "to do" list of the rich and the famous residents and visitors to Kenya. Visiting Kibera, Nubian for "forest" or "jungle", however, does not, even though the place was made famous by John le Carre's bestseller The Constant Gardener, the thriller about a man tracking the killers of his wife who was brutally murdered in northern Kenya's Rift Valley,  also called "the cradle of mankind" because early humans first started walking upright and using stone tools here 2 to 2.5 million years so.

Life is no less brutal in Kibera today, and much like the le Carre hero, people living here refuse to give up. Kibera is the biggest slum in all of east Africa, with its population of 1 million making it home to almost one in three people living in bustling Nairobi with its 3.38 million people.

Unlike the rest of Kenya, the only wildlife in this jungle is dogs and rats, with a liberal sprinkling of mosquitoes and bedbugs.

The only pucca houses towering over mud and tin patchwork shanties are churches and mosques. Its one million residents get the council's water supply twice a week and share 50 paid toilets between them. "Flying toilets", human waste put in polythene bags and flung away as far as possible, are not uncommon.

Most people are part of large single-parent families living in a hovel on one meal a day, yet they don't stop smiling. A dollar-a-day per person per day is unimaginable wealth in almost every home.

Benta Atieno, 16, lives with her mum, five younger brothers and two hens in a 10x10 feet shanty. I got to meet her because she's not at school today. She hasn't paid the school fee. Her mother rarely has the 6,000 kenyan shilling (KS) --$75 -- needed for a school term. "When we have money, I take some to school, and the teacher lets me attend classes for a few days and then I'm back home till my mum gets a job," says Atieno.

Her mum Monica Acheieng is just 30 years old, Atieno was born when she was 14. She leaves home every morning to camp outside swish apartment buildings in hope of being hired as domestic help that would get her 200-300 KS --$4-6-- to feed three of of her own and three of her sister's orphaned children. "Sundays, we have two meals a day," says Atieno, smiling in recollection.

"Life is nasty in Kibera, you have to struggle. Nothing comes to you without a struggle," says Atieno, who wants to be a doctor because she does not want to see people dying. She doesn't recall her dad, whom she lost young. "He died. I don't know what happened, but he died," she says.

All she wants for herself and her family now is a "good life".  A good life is not a house with a pool and a big, shiny car. "I want a life without problems," she says.

Like Atieno's mum, Phillis Asmy, 50, had her first child at the age of 12. Now she is a grandmother of 4, all of who she raises alone because her four boys and one girl have moved out to find work and have no one to look after their kids. She makes 100-150 KS selling roasted corn by the roadside. "It's little money, but we always have supper.  I always feed the kids before they sleep," she says. All meals are the Kenyan staple of vegetables with ugali, a sticky porridge made with maize flour. She doesn't remember when she had meat, the rich Kenyan's staple. "We eat what we get," she says, giggling like a schoolgirl.

Across continents, life's little different for the marginalised. Much like Mumbai's Dharavi and Delhi's Seelampur, it's not unusual to spot unemployed young men hanging at street corners when they're not volunteering at youth centres, or young children missing school to look after younger siblings while their parent's are away at work.

Possible employment for the jobless?  With elections coming up in 2013 and going by Kenya's recent history, you would think it could well be election-related rioting, which destroyed much of Kibera in 2007. Much like in India, jobless young men here can be hired by the day to pelt stones and riot.

Kibera residents are not as pessimistic. Next year's elections won't be as violent, predicts Job Andayu, from Kilyo, a  community-based youth group that works to improve the health and sanitation. "Young people want change, they want education and real jobs. Violence is down, you couldn't have walked around with your cellphones and cameras a year ago."

And the other upside is that religious rioting that killed 52 in northern Nigeria Kaduna town on Sunday has not created a ripple here. "Lots of Muslims live here, but there's no problem. We inter-marry and help each other. If we don't, who will?" says Abdul Ali Hussain, 27, whose great-grandfather was among the first settlers in Kibera when it was established by the British as a settlement for the Nubian soldiers of the King's African Rifles in the early 20th century.

Hussain's got it right. From what I saw today, it's not likely to be the government any day soon.