I made my first of several visits to Kibera this week. It is infamously known as one of the largest slums in Africa, an epithet that has boosted the slum’s repute as the place to go for any journalist looking for a quick story on poverty in Africa. Andrew Cawthorne sardonically writes that in Kibera, we’d be able to find an “Africa poverty story” in half an hour. Or less, I say.
The Government of Kenya approximates that Kibera’s population is 500,000, but this is the most conservative estimate. Local NGOs and most residents triple this amount, setting the number closer to 1.5 million, half of Nairobi’s population. Regardless, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. Kibera’s residents live on an area of land roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, five percent of Nairobi’s total landmass.
Upon the culmination of my first day in Kibera, I was asked to describe what I saw: Was it dangerous? Was I scared? And did I take pictures? (The answer to all of these questions: No.)
Of Kibera, what can I say that hasn’t been said before? I could paint you a picture by conjuring up all of the tired and cliché (but nonetheless heart-wrenching) images of poverty and slums: children with distended bellies, shacks made of scavenged metal scraps, heaps of garbage. All of this has been described before, and more eloquently and poignantly than I will even bother to attempt here.
“You see these children, and it’s just heartbreaking to think that they will never have a home like you and I do,” she told me. Her words struck me, and immediately I wanted to retort, “How do YOU know?” I like to think I’m a firm believer in the “anything-is-possible” philosophy, the mantra that encourages us to dream big, because our wildest dreams can come true. But in hindsight, she’s probably right. Fine, she is right. Poverty isn’t going to disappear in my lifetime, and Kibera, as it stands today, isn’t going to vanish in the next ten years, whether or not the Government of Kenya will admit it (They won’t. I asked).
I’m following Genesis through the maze of Kibera’s alleyways on my first day here. He shows me a rift has been re-purposed to serve as a dumping ground.
Children barrel their way into the garbage, searching for scraps. One thrusts his arms into the air enthusiastically, displaying his creation for his friends to behold. He’s fashioned a toy out of an empty bottle, a plastic bag and cardboard scraps, attached by a maze of wires. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That’s what they say, right? And that’s literally what he’s doing — turning trash into treasure. Sort of. As I observe his obvious pride in his innovation, I realize that this is — and will probably always be — his equivalent of a new toy train set or those Matchbox cars that every boy seemed to love when I was a kid.
I look back. Genesis is already several paces in front of me, and I must catch up. I get to move on.
In recent years, Kibera has become the all-you-can-eat buffet of slum tours, where tourists can sample everything on the laundry list of issues plaguing the slum: lack of sanitation, water shortages, health hazards and diseases, the sale of illicit alcoholic brews, a lack of access to education, HIV/AIDS. These tours exoticize slum dwellers’ day-to-day lives, making a mockery of their situation in the least amusing way possible. (For more on the evils of slum tourism, read this article by Andrew Cawthorne and this op-ed piece recently featured in The New York Times.)
I don’t blame them for resenting the trigger-happy tourists that traipse through their neighborhoods, for these unwelcome visitors aren’t the least bit hesitant about pulling out their cameras and snapping away. They’re fascinated by the novelty of it all. Never before have they seen the likes of Kibera’s multi-purpose shacks and mud-ridden pathways, which are worlds apart from their own green lawns and paved concrete streets.
I feel a compulsion to distinguish myself from these one-time visitors, who flock to Kibera on slum tours that are growing increasingly common. I grimace at the thought of being confused with just another tourist who visits Kibera on a whim. Still, I know that no matter how much time I spend in Kibera, I will never fully understand what it means to live in Kibera. Because I’m not living it. And although at the end of this project I will have spent countless hours here, it still won’t be enough.
But thankfully Genesis trusts me and my intentions, and this reassures me. He doesn’t know who or what will bring change to Kibera, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop trying to make a difference in whatever way he can. He encourages me to ask him questions, no-holes-barred. And so I ask.