Friday, March 30, 2007

Scenes from Kibera

In previous postings, I have mentioned the names of the neighborhoods where the Red Rose children live in Kibera. I hope these photos from different parts of Kibera will help give you a mental image of what those names look like in reality.
This picture from Karanja Road would be a typical kitchen corner in any Kibera 'flat' made of two rooms each measuring 10 by 12 feet. On the floor there is a green kerosene stove, basins for washing up, recycled containers for fetching and storing water, and a wire mesh for grilling fish, meat or corn cobs over the charcoal stoves known as jiko in Kenya. On the table are more plates, cups, cooking pots, and assorted recycled jars for storing things like salt, sugar, tea-leaves, rice, ands other left-over foods. There is no fridge. For many homes like these, there may be no electricity. If there is any electricity, it is probably illegally siphoned from the grid or provided by the landlord for a few hours a day. In this set of 'flats' on Karanja Road, the landlord turned on the electricity from 6 pm to midnight on weekdays and from noon to midnight only on weekends. The residents have transistor radios, small television sets, and some even have VCD players. Listening to local soccer broadcasts on the radio on weekend afternoons or watching English, Spanish, and Italian soccer leagues rank as some of the leading pass-times in Kibera. On television, West-African dramas, Mexican and Philippine telenovelas, as well as old American soaps such as the Bold and the Beautiful are a great hit. So too are recent series such as Jailbreak, 24, and CSI Miami.
Construction in Kibera draws upon the ingenuity of the residents. Mud, sticks, corrugated iron sheets, recycled metal barrels, plastic, and cement are common materials used for the houses, businesses, and places of worship. The red earth structure on the left is a church.
Wealth disparity in Kenya is very dramatic. In the horizon, you can see nicely manicured neatly arranged homes of the middle class Langata/Otiende/Ngei estates with their unmistakable red-tiled roofs. In the foreground are the slums of Gatwekera and Kisumu Dogo in Kibera. The powerlines overhead carry electricity to the middle class homes, bypassing the people of Gatwekera and Kisumu Dogo, whose homes are all considered illegal squatter settlements. On the right hand corner at the front of the picture is a public toilet where residents of the slums can pay 3 shillings each time to use the facilities and 5 shillings to take a shower. For one US dollar, you could take 14 showers in this facility. Business thrives even in the slums, and shops advertise their wares, which include the Coca-Cola soda that is a luxury in Kibera, but not so up in the middle class Langata/Otiende/Ngei estates just a walking distance away. A typical child in Kibera may only afford to drink/taste Coca-Cola or any other soda about five to ten times a year. A real treat my friends, a real treat.
Olympic Primary School is a very good public school, one of five such schools in walkable distance for children from Kibera. The school was designed to accommodate about 1200 children, but it now serves 2,400 children. The student to teacher ratio is 1:77. Learning has ground to a near halt since a poorly planned government-mandated universal primary education program was rolled out in 2003 but no extra resources were provided to match the rise in number of students. For the additional enrollment of 1000 students, Olympic Primary received only four new teachers. A typical classroom for first and second graders has 85 children while the 6th to 8th grades will have about 75 children per classroom as more kids drop out. This is one of the best public schools in Nairobi with very dedicated teachers who actually show up and try to do their work.
A path in the slums from Karanja Road heading over the railway to Kisumu Dogo. Women in Africa are inevitably the beasts-of-burden in such circumstances of extreme poverty. Here we see a vegetable lady (mama mboga) toting sacks of produce on her back for resale in the neighborhood. The three kids playing on the right hand side are lucky because they have flip flops to protect their feet as they play around. Many children in Kibera come from homes where they can not even afford shoes.
I took this picture from the railway line overlooking Gatwekera slums in Kibera. The stream of sewage has become filthier and murkier as more and more people have moved into the slums from rural areas, but have failed to find good jobs or other decent housing in the city. When I was a kid, this stream that ends up at the Nairobi Dam about three kilometres away was much clearer with tadpoles, frogs, worms, and little fishes living in it. Although it was almost always brown/red from the soil erosion, we would try swimming and diving in its deeper spots, people fetched water for washing or came to do their laundry in it. We called it Mukuru River. I never became much of a swimmer, but one of my friends actually ended up on the Kenyan national swim team after starting his swimming lessons in Mukuru River. Nowadays, it is not a real river with life in it anymore. The black water just drags along slowly bearing the trash, sewage, and other pollution dumped into it towards the Nairobi Dam.
Karanja Road estate was planned as a housing project for low-income workers in the 1960s. The roofs are asbestos and as they decay, there is no telling the impact of the asbestos dust on the health of the residents who consider themselves lucky to live in homes with real cinder-block walls and some basic plumbing. Laundry is done by hand, and the space between the homes is cultivated for extra corn and vegetables. City-supplied water is rationed, often flowing for a few odd and unpredictable hours at a time. It is clean but not safe for drinking unless first boiled. Cholera and diarrhea are major problems from drinking unsafe water. The sporadic supply forces many people to install storage tanks like the black plastic one in the picture above to save as much water as possible. These families have it good compared to others who must pay for water by the gallon from a commercial tap and bring it back to their homes in 20-litre (five-gallon) containers. See pictures below. The owner for such a water tank in the slums makes a fortune selling their water to the desperate customers at prices more expensive than gasoline.

Once again, the powerline overhead link up electricity supply between different middle and upper class neighborhoods, bypassing the nearly 700,000 people who live in Kibera slums. Enterprising landlords and residents, some times in collusion with corrupt employees of the power company, find ways to tap into the grid and siphon off some power into local businesses and even homes. Otherwise, many people use rechargeable car batteries to power their small electronics or kerosene lamps and candles for light at night. For children studying in Kibera and completing their homework in the evenings, this is literally burning the midnight oil.