Kibera: Nairobi's Biggest Slum Challenges the Development Narrative

Posted by Abby Higgins

 
“You see their face change immediately,” Emily said of when she tells people that she lives in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. She says she feels the gaze of people throughout the world, “looking at you like your life is not worth living.”
 
Emily is soft spoken, but when she speaks, she spits fire. She’s the coordinator of an adolescent girl’s group in Kibera. She is aware of the difficulties of life in a slum—lack of water and sanitation, high rates of sexual assault and disease—it's why she does the work that she does. She’s also aware of another side of Kibera, the side of it that she and her family have called home her entire life.
 
“Why do they talk about people in Kibera like they’re not normal?” she paused, not necessarily waiting for an answer. “Kibera is also a place, there is air here too, just like everywhere else.” 
 
She is articulating a phenomenon I experienced often during the two years I worked there. I could never reconcile the things I read and heard about Kibera with what I experienced on the ground. 
 

 
 
There is a great deal of press about Kibera, probably as a result of the large degree of foreign presence that exists in the slum. It is as if writers, filmmakers, and aid workers compete to describe its horrors in increasingly drastic and shocking ways. They gleefully provide definitions for ‘flying toilets’, describe the smell of rivers of sewage, and paint pictures of barefoot children in garbage piles littered with starving and abused dogs.
 
Travel author Bill Bryson wrote that, “whatever is the most awful place you have ever experienced, Kibera is worse,” without a trace of his typical tongue-in-cheek tone.
 
To many, Kibera has become an entity, a word used to describe a modern phenomenon. It is the tale told to show what occurs when globalization and poverty collide and produce devastating results. 
 
Outsiders watch it with fascination, trying to glean some understanding of how global cities will look and aid will work in the future. After all, one in six people in the world now live in slums and that number continues to grow.
 
Kibera often feels like a testing ground for foreign aid. It is packed full of theater groups, toilet accessibility projects, photography exhibits, bead making, reproductive health clinics, slam poetry competitions, community gardens, and sanitary pad distribution centers. These are the summer projects of Americans from liberal arts colleges, the byproducts of religious mission trips, and the work of long defunct Dutch organizations. A colleague once told me that there are over 600 registered community-based organizations in Kibera.
 
I once met someone who wants to start an espresso bar in Kibera and another who is working on a project that would make Kibera wireless. My friend said to me afterwards, “Imagine Kibera three years from now with an espresso bar and wireless: it’s going to be the Brooklyn of Nairobi.”
 

 
 
The best NGOs in Kibera help bridge the huge gaps in services left open by the Kenyan government. The worst entrench ideas about foreign saviors and fuel corruption and dependence on aid.
 
They all seem to tell the stories of what Kibera is missing, the gaps that need to be identified and filled, usually by outsiders. The stories they don’t tell are of the things Kibera is not missing, has never missed.
 
“The love that people in Kibera share,” Emily explained, “means that everyone is always concerned about each other… we’re not relatives, we’ve only met in Nairobi, but we treat each other as if we are.”
 
Emily said she had recently been hospitalized with typhoid. Her room was filled with visitors every day.
 
“In other places, only your family would have come and visited you, but I had visitors every day. People brought food for me, and stayed with me overnight… In Kibera, you have so many people who care about you and look out for you, because we all share the same experience living here,” she said.
 
These are stories that are rarely, if ever, told about the slums that over a billion people in the world call home.
 
Want to hear more stories like Emily’s? Support our Kickstarter campaign to produce Slum Rising, a three part series about the growth of slums published by The Seattle Globalist. 
 
Slum Rising will be published in March in time for Kenya’s presidential election. This is the first election since 2007, when over 1,000 people were killed and well over 150,000 were displaced when violence broke out after contested results. A lot of that violence occurred in Kibera, making it so important that nuanced, in-depth reporting about Kibera is produced.

This project was featured on the GOOD hub, Push for Good— our guide to crowdfunding creative projects.