Staying Healthy in Africa’s Largest Slum

Kenya 2012

June 19, 2012

The International Reporting Project (IRP) is traveling in Kenya with a group of 11 influential bloggers from around the world, examining reproductive health issues in that East African country.

Top two problems: toilets and sanitation. Also walking.

Photo: Martin Robbins

On the trip, they will see a cross-section of Kenyan life. The bloggers began with a visit to Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, on their first full day in-country.

“Kibera is the biggest slum in all of east Africa,” wrote Sanchita Sharma, health editor of India’s Hindustan Times, “home to almost one in three people living in bustling Nairobi.” One young resident explained to Sharma that all she wants is a good life: "a life without problems."

Chido Onumah, a blogger from Nigeria, described the visit as an emotional experience. “Nothing prepares you for this kind of misery,” he said. Kibera’s residents live in extreme poverty, he wrote, “without adequate sanitation and potable water. The houses are shacks with an area of about 10ft x 10ft built with mud walls and concrete floor and generally take only a medium-size wooden bed. Each shack has an average of 6 or more people with the children sleeping on the floor and parents sharing the bed.”

Photo: Martin Robbins

Reproductive Health for Families

The bloggers first met with families in the community to discuss their level of access to family planning, HIV/AIDS education and access to contraceptives.

Irin Carmon, a staff writer for Salon in the U.S., picked up on the awkwardness of asking health-related questions to a stranger in a slum, writing:

“Hello, nice to meet you. Would you have married your husband if you’d known he had HIV? Why did you change your mind about that abortion you wanted? How do you feel about the fact that you can’t afford to treat your 1-year-old’s encephalitis?”

For Carmon, the day in Kibera was a brief and broad introduction to the country’s reproductive health challenges.

Photo: Martin Robbins

Who Lives Here?

The bloggers then took a tour of the slums with some of its youth, who belong to one of the most vulnerable groups within Kenya’s population due to their numbers, their lack of economic opportunities, and susceptibility to unplanned pregnancies and HIV/AIDS. 

Brazilian blogger Juliana Resende tells of children in Kibera asking the visitors: “How are you?'' The question was unexpected, wrenching, and heartbreaking, she wrote (in Portuguese). Yet, despite the deplorable conditions of the slum, poverty-stricken children still laugh and play and ask foreign visitors how they are. It’s a question that stayed with Resende.

 “We spent the day in a slum, which was fascinating, horrible and uplifting all at the same time,” reported Lynn Schreiber, a blogger from the UK. She was startled by the sharp contrast between the slum and other parts of the city. However, despite the squalor she encountered, Schreiber was impressed by the resilience of Kibera’s inhabitants. She and other trip participants met entrepreneurs who scraped by selling goods and services, workers who walked home from jobs in the city and young people trying to improve their lives and the lives of others.

This school is much more cheerful than it looks.

Photo: Martin Robbins

Forces for Change

The bloggers also met with grassroots organizations to discuss the social and sanitary conditions of one of the world’s largest slums.

When Jeff Sharlet, a U.S. author and journalist, met a woman who couldn’t pay for treatment for her encephalitic infant, he was at a loss for words. But Kibera’s sanitary conditions quickly grabbed his attention.  “The number one development issue according to Nairobi slum locals I met isn't schools or clinics- it's toilets,” he said, adding, “Apparently, there are about 60 toilets in Kibera, Nairobi slum. For 1 million people. Or 2 million. Or 3.”

Like many others who work in Kenya’s slums, Sharlet struggled to get a handle on how many people, exactly, live in Kibera.

The local water supply--a single tap--runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays only.

Photo: Martin Robbins

The number varies wildly by source. Later, several participatory mapping organizations in Kibera contacted him with lower numbers, explaining that population estimates in areas like Kibera are often inflated by NGOs. One mapping project shows many more toilets for far fewer people, Sharlet discovered.

 “New to Kenya, I didn't realize Kibera slum's a disputed ground, ideologically, for many NGOs,” he explained.  But by inflating population figures, Sharlet points out, these organizations “may obscure the very real sanitation crisis.”

Martin Robbins, a journalist at the Guardian, agreed. “I suspect there may also be some differences over definition of 'toilet', plus also access issues,” he said.

Sub-Saharan cyber-cafes and mobile phone shops are not uncommon.

Photo: Martin Robbins

Robbins concluded that the situation in Kibera is very complex. “It's a weird place,” he commented, “uncounted thousands living in the grip of an unseen force.”

What will help residents of Kibera? More jobs, better infrastructure and less corruption, Mark Thoma says. “I'm starting to understand how corruption interferes with the development process,” the U.S. economist wrote. “It’s easy to call for more social services, and the government sometimes answers, but how much of it reaches its intended destination? I don't know the exact figure, but it's nowhere near what's allocated from what I heard today.”