Glimpses of Hope in Impoverished Kibera
Corrugated jungle that is Africa's second largest slum was one of the flashpoints of ethnic violence following Kenya's 2007 election. By Blake Evans-Pritchard - International Justice - ICC ACR Issue 276, 12 Nov 10
A little short of breath in the stifling Kenyan heat, I pause at the top of a slight incline, where the rusty tracks of a railway snake into the smoky distance.
My guide - a tall, genial university student - points to the other side of the ridge, where the land falls away and is replaced by a thick tangle of corrugated iron roofs. Narrow streets, strewn with rubbish, wind their way through this corrugated jungle. Whoops of children float upwards on the gentle breeze, and the acrid scent of raw sewage tinges the air.
This is Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa, where perhaps as many as one million people are crammed into no more than a few square kilometres of living space. It was also one of the flashpoints of the ethnic violence that engulfed the country following the 2007 election. An estimated 800 people lost their lives, many reportedly gunned down by the police.
Trains still run occasionally along the railway upon which we are standing, ferrying people between Kampala in the west and the Indian Ocean, although today the tracks team with swarms of traders, hawking goods. There is not a train in sight.
I am told that when Kibera residents become really upset with the government, they cause chaos by tearing up the railway tracks.
My guide points into the middle-distance, where a few unfinished red-brick buildings huddle together, looking naked amidst all the chaos and dirt.
This, he tells me, was a new housing project launched by Raila Odinga, the country's prime minister and local member of parliament, in a bid to clean up the slum and provide decent housing for its inhabitants.
When President Mwai Kibaki won the election in 2007, amid serious allegations of vote-rigging, those living in Kibera felt cheated: their man, they felt, should have won. The ensuing violence was a direct result of the feeling that, once again, Kenyan politics had swindled them.
"Odinga is our man," one local resident says, swaying unsteadily on his feet and smelling of cheap alcohol. "You won't find anyone here who doesn't support him." He holds out his hand expectantly, into which I thrust a few loose coins.
My guide turns away from the forlorn half-built housing, and indicates something else in the distance, which I cannot see.
Just beyond my vision, on the edge of the Kibera slum, lies the oldest golf course in Nairobi. As the last of the haphazard shacks falls way, the visitor to the slum suddenly understands the vast difference between rich and poor in Kenya.
It is just this other side of Kibera where former president Daniel Arap Moi once lived in palatial surroundings, and where now the nouveau-riche come for a quick round of golf before getting back to running the country.
I stop looking at what I cannot see and turn my gaze downwards to something that has caught my eye. A group of mzungos - white people - are scrambling clumsily up the slope from the rubbish-strewn streets below. A Kenyan with a straw hat is leading the group. The woman at the back appears to be wearing thoroughly inappropriate footwear.
"Tourists," mutters my guide, by way of explanation.
But not everything about Kibera reminds the casual visitor of desperate poverty. Living conditions may be unsanitary and opportunistic beggars sometimes seem ubiquitous. But one can also catch glimpses of elegance and order, and perhaps a little hope for the future.
As we come from the railway embankment, a bespectacled man, clutching a handful of books, scurries past us. I glimpse the title of one of them. It is Hamlet.
A little distance away, I see a group of smartly-dressed young men, leaning on a fence post, talking and laughing. One of the group is wearing Nike trainers. On the T-shirt of another, I can make out the Lacoste label.
At first, such brand consciousness looks oddly out of place in the destitute wilderness that is Kibera. But then I notice that they are not out of place, but part of the wilderness itself.
This is Kibera. A place of often desperate poverty - dirty, unhygienic, overcrowded. But one, also, where ordinary people still get on with their lives. They go to university, they work, they earn money. And they hope, one day, for a better life.
Blake Evans-Pritchard is IWPR's Africa Editor.