Category Archives: Kenya

i’m calling bullshit.

A potentially inflammatory headline for an undoubtedly inflammatory situation: Bulldozers enter the Kyang’ombe slums in Nairobi, Kenya. But this isn’t the inauguration of some urban redevelopment program or slum upgrading initiative. It’s almost midnight, and the bulldozers are there to tear it all down. Their engines run throughout the night and into the following day. In the end, fallen homes, schools and businesses, now nothing more than an amalgamation of timber and iron sheets.

Before I proceed, forgive me my theatrics and let me betray my vested interest in this issue, in the spirit of full disclosure. On Monday, I awoke to find a frantic email in my inbox. It was from a close friend I met in Kibera, where I spent most of my days last summer working on a research project. The subject line reads, “Homeless,” a spoiler that immediately betrays the outcome and leaves no room for ambiguity. My friend and his family are among the more than 200,000 people who have lost everything, I discover.

His account includes details that have been left out of reports by independent media, telling omissions that reveal something about the state of journalism in the country; its one that dillydallies somewhere between offering detached stenography and emotionally-charged diatribes that lack a broader explanatory context.

My friend writes that he received no warning, that the electricity in the slum was shut off, that police disembarked from their vehicles clutching guns and canisters of teargas, that he hardly had time to save any belongings, that the soundtrack of the night was a symphony of screams, that he’s grateful his family is alive.

Some journalistic instinct kicks in, and I hardly pause to process before I begin sending messages to former colleagues and previous sources in Nairobi. I enter a state of search engine-induced delirium, knowing all along that I am looking for answers that don’t exist. I imagine that the parties privy to these coveted answers have sworn to maintain secrecy during some corrupt back-room deal, complete with a satiating dose of bribery and political posturing. My theory is corroborated by reports like this. I can’t confirm their legitimacy beyond reasonable doubt, but they claim that the government evicted residents because private developers acquired the land (illegally, of course) by tapping their powerful connections. For someone somewhat familiar with the customary wheelings and dealings in Kenya, the land of “TKK,” it’s convincing enough.

The government is toting the line that the slum was demolished because it obstructed the flight path of planes headed toward the nearby Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I’m not asserting that this territory is indisputably safe. But I challenge the officials who issued this statement to consider how many slums are located on land that’s less than ideal, often near road, power and railway reserves. For instance, the Uganda Railway Line cuts through Kibera’s muddy hillsides, and a steady flow of pedestrian traffic runs along and across the line. Squatter settlements emerge on these tracts of land precisely because they are otherwise undesirable. They remain vacant until prospective tenants occupy them in a desperate search for shelter. So why start with Kyang’ombe, of all slums? Surely there are other settlements that rest on land where dangers permeate tenfold.

The inhumanity of it all strikes me, and it’s what compelled to write this blog post instead of copious cover letters. For instance, Gerald Mutiso was sleeping when a bulldozer entered his home. Who considers the hours between 10 p.m. and midnight as optimal to engage in such decimation? Surely, they realized that there were families nestled within the feeble walls. The same account reports that schools, too, weren’t spared.

***

I will not claim to rank among the cognoscenti who are experts on economic development, humanitarian issues, slum redevelopment efforts and so forth. But my instinct (and common sense) tells me that this situation reeks of human rights violations. First, let me point out what should have been obvious to the wily power players who signed off on the demolition: Destroying one slum will not decrease the number of slum dwellers in Nairobi, in Kenya. Those who lost their homes and businesses with the demolition of the Kyang’ombe slums will most likely relocate to one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other slums that pepper Kenya. The presence of these slums is simply a manifestation of the various issues that wrack the country. Nairobi’s distorted housing market and the absence of prospects in the countryside drive tens, even hundreds of thousands of people to Nairobi’s urban slums every year. So demolishing informal settlements like Kibera and Mathare and Mukuru is an impossible task; where does the government expect their residents to go?

Based on my experience in squatter settlements, I argue that slums are thriving informal economies in their own right. Sure, there are vendors who scheme, selling jerry cans of water for ten times the market value, and they get away with it. Salesmen solicit to passersby, fanning their pirated DVDs, Bollywood and Hollywood movies alike. But in an environment where the government fails to provide basic services for its citizens, third parties also step in to provide what the government either cannot or will not. Schools, clinics and even latrines, which cost a few shillings per use, are provided by private entities. And because of these well-meaning individuals and organizations, children have schools to attend and fields to play soccer on. Restaurants (confusingly referred to as “hotels”) and shops abound, so when the political cronies and the bulldozers team up to raze homes, they destroy livelihoods as well.

For those who find themselves compelled to relocate to urban centers and unable to afford middle class housing, living in informal settlements like Kyang’ombe is the only option. Until, of course, the government does something that actually addresses the issues at hand. Barring demolitions like the one that occurred last Friday would be an acceptable start.

piga picha.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Shouldn’t this axiom be the anathema of every (print) journalist? Perhaps not, and yet it’s definitely mine. After all, I write. I believe that writing is one of the most effective ways of communicating—of sharing news, experiences, ideas, challenges. But this maxim disagrees: Prevent wasted ink, wasted time and carpal tunnel; snap a picture instead, it says. In my mind, the saying surmises that no matter what I write, no matter how much time I spend trying to craft a gem of a sentence or a perfect paragraph, one click of my camera could accomplish the same feat.

But pulling out a camera in Kibera is the equivalent of wearing the perennial “KICK ME” sign, as looks of disparagement shoot my way. I might as well show up wearing a banana suit or some other ridiculous attire. When I pull out that Canon, I feel like the slum tourist who callously invades another’s home, snapping away at artifacts of his or her daily life. The camera is a reminder: Remember, I’m a journalist. Remember, I’m not from here. Remember, beware.

I delayed it for as long as I possibly could. So long, in fact, that Genesis began to wonder where my camera was. He assumed that pictures are a component of my project. He also assumed that I might be reluctant to unmask my camera, for fear that those around me might then begin to resent my presence. He was right, as he has been all too often.

Soweto East is bustling, teeming with people who hasten up and down the only road in Kibera. The occasional vehicle hoots, and pedestrians scuttle out of the way. I’m surprised by the number of people I see in Soweto East, one of twelve or thirteen villages in Kibera. My astonishment is based on an interview with a staff worker at the KENSUP Secretariat, who reassured me that Soweto East is nearly empty now that its former residents have been relocated to a decanting site while their neighborhood is renovated. She assured me that Soweto East remains virtually vacant, that I might find a dozen people there, but no more.

She’s wrong. Since their relocation, others have moved in, claiming those shacks as their own. Genesis and I joke that we should take a picture and show it to my liaison at the Secretariat. And then I decide that I will.

Enter the camera.  I have a paranoid-but-not-altogether-delusional sense that I’ve suddenly made myself more noticeable, tenfold. Using my budding photographic skills (not really) and the few techniques that I’ve mastered (really, only the Rule of Thirds), I snap a few quick pictures and put the camera away, eager to revert back to my not-so-conspicuous ways.

Genesis says, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

But it was, and I’ll just have to pretend that I didn’t notice the stares.

not another poverty story.

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.