Friday 6 February 2009

Day 3: Kibera - Africa's biggest slum

The words ‘slum’ and ‘poverty’ are well used. Maybe you’ve read Shantaram, which some believe romanticises these terms. Trying to tread the line between, on the one hand, outright horror and on the other, sheer awe at the spirit of human nature to exist, it’s impossible to say that, up close, it isn’t everything you’d expect, and worse, without also saying how much more to it there is than just squalor.

So far, we’d only seen Kibera from a distance. We’d stopped at the side of the road with Francis and looked over at the unending spread of corrugated iron roofs. Even if we’d wanted him to take us there, he’d be lost in a minute, he told us. But as we approached with Bill, and came up to the stepping stones through a stream of bright blue sewage that was our entrance to Kibera, with the memory of Alex falling in the river in Scotland suddenly vivid in my mind, I had a moment where I thought, “I’m not sure I want to do this”.

I have a problem with heights. They don’t have to be big heights, even small, stone-high ones make my hands sweat and, even more uselessly, my legs shake, especially when they’re in the middle of streams of raw sewage. I looked at Alex, who shrugged and said “Oh well, in for a penny…” He was already in charge of my camera, which is more important than I am, so to avoid us all falling in at the same time, Bill came back to help the useless white woman.

Once over the stream, we began the climb up the hill through the dwellings, stepping over the ravines of sewage laced between them in every direction. As we climbed, Bill explained how the rain causes the dwellings to collapse as the earth beneath them falls away down the hill. He stopped and pointed at a bare piece of land, dwellings that once were before the rains had come. Imagining the personal belongings and, perhaps, the people that had been lost in the erosion, I couldn’t think of an appropriate response. I think I said “wow”.

Bill had contacted a friend of his, Milly, who works in a pharmacy near Kibera, who in turn had phoned a friend of hers called Patrick to show us the way, and following him, we weaved our way between the dwellings. Too busy minding my feet and keeping my balance, avoiding people, children, dogs and sewage, I had no idea what direction I was going in and was totally dependent on our guide. Although both Jane and Alex had remarked on the heat since we’d been in Nairobi, this was the first time I’d broken into a proper sweat. Not only is the slum a bad place to be ill, it’s also a bad place to be unfit, and my western lifestyle has allowed me to be very unfit. I felt embarrassed by my sweating and panting as I tried to keep up with Patrick.

What may look like chaos, to pampered eyes like ours at least, is, in fact, ordered like any town or city. Our path up the hill crossed terrace after terrace of dwelling units in a residential area. Each unit is made of mud and sheets of corrugated iron, about 5 or 6 feet across, some doors open, through which mainly women and children eyed us curiously, sometimes giggling when they saw us, other doors were padlocked while the owners were out at work. Some dwellings were decorated with flowering plants hanging in homemade plant pots and, wherever we looked, lines of washing criss-crossed between the dwellings. As we climbed further up the hill, the paths began to widen and we came across communal units such as a public toilet, a nursery school and a few shops. Soon, our path joined what Patrick told us was the main road. Like any high street, it had all the same services; fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers, fish stalls, mobile phone top up services, even a small cinema showing a Bollywood film.

Everywhere, people were going about their daily business, doing the shopping, coming home from school, coming home from work. The adults didn’t seem too bothered by our presence, save a few surprised laughs, and the children just wanted to say hello, chanting “How are you! How are you! I’m fine! I’m fine” as we passed by. In fact, I felt more comfortable here with my camera than I had done in Victoria Park a few months ago. As we carried on walking, the spread of roofs kept on coming. It’s funny that, no matter how far away from home you are, that’s what you can be reminded of. It made me think of trying to find my tent in the camping sites at Glastonbury and the opening credits of Coronation Street.

The squalor, the sewage, the hordes of people (about one million, according to the internet) and, in some areas, the smell; none of these things were a surprise. It’s obvious to anyone and everyone that no one would choose to live like this. But if Dad hadn’t already taken me to slums as a kid, it may have been a surprise that there’s no tangible sense of despair. Apparently, people are too busy. It takes skill, effort and determination to live in a slum. The entrepreneurial spirit that is so admired back home is a necessity in a slum. Without it, you might not eat. I’ve since read Jan’s comment on the photos and he has summed it up for me: it’s both humbling and uplifting.

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