An American in Kibera

Sunday September 26 2010

Abdul 'Cantar' Hussein, in the living room furnished after years of hard work. His family has lived in Kibera for generations. Picture by Andrew Doughman

Something is wrong when international organisations like the United Nations inflate their estimates of Kibera’s population by hundreds of thousands of people.

Since the Kenya government’s September census report showed that Kibera boasts just about 170,000 inhabitants — not the 800,000 figure so often cited — I wondered what other myths about Kibera had morphed into truths over the years.

If anything, the inaccuracy made me more curious about life in a place I had only read about.
I had met and befriended a number of Kibera residents in my short stay in the country, so I called them to arrange a visit.

I hoped that by living in Kibera, its neighborhoods would reveal to me a side they did not display in the official discourse on slums.

So I “visited” my friends, only that this time, I would stay for four days and nights.
I journeyed into Kibera not to gawk, but to chat. I wanted to let Kibera soak into my skin for a few days.

Maybe then I could understand, at least partially, this beast they call a slum.
I had no plans except to meet people during my four-night stay in Kibera’s Lindi and Makina neighbourhoods.


Not quite knowing what to expect, I boarded a matatu and said goodbye to my Ksh24,000 ($307) per month room in Gigiri — home to the United Nations complex and the US embassy, and host to Nairobi’s ritziest homes and shopping mall — Kibera’s conventional opposite.

I was now in Kibera. I watched the early evening news from a plush couch, the refrigerator humming behind me.

On the TV screen, a man from the Kenya Wildlife Service was imploring Kenyans to visit the national parks to see the country’s wildlife.

The problem, the man lamented, is the notion that Kenya’s wildlife is only for foreign tourists. What went unspoken was the idea that foreigners are only interested in Kenya’s wildlife.
True enough, in the 1930s, American author Ernest Hemingway was too busy blasting away at every lion, kudu and rhino that crossed his path to have anything to do with the Kenyans he called “savages” in his book Green Hills of Africa.

Today, the tourists are still shootingwith their cameras wildlife, the same Hemingway shot with his rifle.

When they do take an interest in Kenyans, they flock to the so-called slums for urban safaris that absurdly mimic a jaunt through the Tsavo National Park. They gape and gawk and shoot with their cameras.

It’s no wonder that earlier this year, Kibera dweller Kennedy Odede wrote in the New York Times that he “felt like a tiger in a cage” when tourists trudged through his neighbourhood, cameras flashing.

The crucial difference, though, between touring a game reserve and a neighbourhood is simple. Humans speak and zebras don’t. Hence the absurdity of mutely snapping that shutter at Kibera’s dwellers.

A Nubian tale

Close up: The man from the Kenya Wildlife Service on the television. Zooming out, the living room has a varnished wooden television stand, DVD player, speakers and a football signed by Brazilian star Ronaldo.

Further out, the plush rug, sofa, refrigerator. Then pan to a kitchen with a microwave, a washroom with a bathtub, the children in their own room with their own TV.

Finally, the wide angle view: rusting steel roofs, gutters choked with garbage and a sign near the District Commissioner’s office that reads “Kibera Estate.”

I was a guest of Abdul “Cantar” Hussein, a Kenyan of Nubian descent who answered his calls on an Apple iPhone.

An iPhone?

When the Nubian’s economic prospects rise, they have no upcountry homes in which to invest, Cantar explained.

Though they are few in number, they have sunk their roots in Kibera, which the British had given them for service in the two World Wars.

Unlike other communities in Kibera, the slum came to them, not the other way around.
Their farms had become tiny plots.

Kibera, from the Nubian word Kibra, meaning forest, had little open space, poor sanitation and lacked infrastructure.

Still, a Nubian man named Ibrahim Suleiman told me over dinner that having a title deed would be the surest sign of improvement. As is true in so much of Kenya, land insecurity was the order of the day.

Lindi Blues

Felix Onditi had a different story. He was like many who migrate to Kibera: No roots in the neighbourhood, little savings and few possessions.

I sat with him in his one-room home in Kibera’s Lindi village, and he told me his story. He had arrived here with just a suitcase in late 2007.

He struggled through college before landing a job at the YMCA, which was where I had met him several months ago.

“I’m longing for a better life, bwana. But for the better life you start from scratch,” he told me.
I could hardly think of any better definition of “scratch” than arriving in Kibera with no job and just a suitcase.
Throughout his one-day weekend, he spoke to me of work. I could hear the gears turning in his head, a little poverty-eradication loudspeaker squeaking “job, job, job.”

A friend might help him get a catering job; he might open a market stall to sell clothes; he might apply for an Australian government scholarship.

At night, Felix said he could even be a soldier. He’d be a cook in the army, make lots of money and eventually open a five-star hotel.

On his lap, the day’s newspaper was open to an ad for an upcoming military recruitment drive.
This man was a thinker and a hustler. He would make it somehow, I thought.

But his hopes were so fragile. He earned Ksh7,000 a month ($89.7). A robbery, an accident or a debilitating disease could delay his dreams for years or even squash them outright.
At least he had come this far.

Felix was sincere when he stood outside his moonlit home next to an open sewer and said to me: “God has been kind to me.”

Kibera helping Kibera

Wangari Maathai writes in her book The Challenge for Africa, that communities should feel empowered enough to “undertake their own development and learn to assume responsibilities.”

I stood atop a hill, looking down on the sun-drenched, Friday-afternoon Kibera. Was this such an empowered community?

A gray stream of water flowed through a cesspool of garbage and tried to call itself a brook; the sound of hammers bang-bang-banging upon nails, the clean note of men at work, rose from the valley; a blue train-engine with a yellow and black cow catcher thundered down the tracks, nearly sideswiping the adjacent shops; schoolchildren ran around their various schoolyards at lunch hour, their red, green and blue uniforms making them appear like soldiers in so many manoeuvring armies.

This was neither misery nor prosperity. It was just Kibera.

I saw life everywhere, signs of the sort of empowered community envisioned in Maathai’s book.
A Kenyan crew volunteered their time and money at a Saturday afternoon football tournament.

A group of older men coached a Sunday football club through which they hoped to teach the youngsters about discipline and hard work.

A community acrobatic troupe called Kibera Hamlet performed near the District Commissioner’s office and interspersed their high-flying stunts with a skit about saying “no” to unwanted sex.

John Adoli, the 26-year-old director of Kibera Hamlet, told me that the performance was for the community, by the community and relied on community resources.

Were things improving here? I heard variously “yes” and “no.”

Kibera contradictions

But Kibera is a place of such contradictions. My bed in Cantar’s house was the largest I had slept in since arriving in Kenya, but it was also the only place I had seen a cockroach the size of a fistful of ugali. (A shocking discovery, to be sure. Imagine, a huge cockroach in the bed!)

The house also had a self-contained bathroom, in the literal sense that the room contained a bath tub. It was the first I had seen in Kenya.

Public toilets were another story. They really put the toil in toilet. I’ll spare the gruesome details.

Finally, watching the Kenya Wildlife Service man on the early evening news, one of Cantar’s many friends asked me: “What is life in the US like?”

I thought for a second and said: “It’s just like this.”

I waved my hand in the air, gesturing around me.
“The US is just like this living room,” I said.

I’m not sure if he believed me. I’m not sure if I even believed myself.

The man on the television was inviting us to the game parks.