Kenya – A Country of Contrasts – Wealth, Poverty and Slums of Nairobi

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Any visitor to the city of Nairobi will testify to the contrasts to be found within the city. Poverty and wealth are but a few streets apart. Kenya is a city of contrasts, that impressed me. Despite the challenges faced by the poorest inhabitants, the wealth of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit was inspiring.

We arrived at Joma airport late last night. It was dark so my first impressions of Nairobi were that it seemed like any other large city. The first sign that things were different here was the airport style security checks on entering the hotel.

This morning we met the other bloggers and the organisers of the trip then set off to visit the slum of Kibera. There is some confusion as to how many people live there; the reason for this uncertainty quickly became apparent. There are mud huts in a seemingly endless rabbit burrow-like maze. It was a glimpse through the looking glass into a different world. (Edit: One of our group wrote this article for the Guardian, which investigates the numbers game)

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We were being shown around the slum by a group of young adults who run a youth group. The members of the Kibera Lundi Youth organisation were well dressed. They must have worked hard to prepare for our visit considering they live in a place with no regular running water, no bathrooms, no sewage system, often no electricity. Most of them have no jobs, although some are self-employed like so many others in Kibera. The streets are lined with shops and business selling everything from mobile phone top up cards to meat and vegetables. Hairdressers, and dressmakers offer their services. This is a city within the city.

The streets are lined with shops and business selling everything from mobile phone top up cards to meat and vegetables. Hairdressers, and dressmakers offer their services. This is a city within the city.

The youth group run a communal bathing house which was built with the support of the Japanese Embassy. It gives the youth group a source of income with which they enhance the lives of the people who live nearby. 10 Kenyan Shilling for using the bathroom or the toilet (about 8p) doesn’t sound like much, but the average monthly wage is around KES 1400 and many of the slum dwellers don’t even have a job.

The waste from the toilets is collected under the bathing house and converted into gas that is used in neighbouring homesteads.

A computer centre has been installed in the youth centre, which local high schools hire to teach their children.The hall above the bathrooms is hired to fund courses that help people start their own business or further educate themselves. The youth group also goes out into the slum to clean up. They clean around the houses, knowing that by the next day the area will again be covered in rubbish.

It was inspiring to see these young people, who were engaged in trying to better their lives, and the lives of those who lived around them.

We split into groups and went to visit some of the residents of the slum. 23-year-old Alice was our guide. A cheery and friendly young mum of two, she led the way through the streets. The reason for the welly boot recommendation soon became clear. We picked our way through the open sewers, the walls between the houses piled high with torn plastic bags and filth. The inhabitants of the slum were not so squeamish. Most of them were wearing sandals or flip flops.

We passed a child of about 4 years of age. He clutched a well-loved elephant and watched us. Some of the older children were braver and shouted, “Hello”, and the refrain that we were to hear constantly throughout the day, “How are you?

Alice led us to the home of 35-year-old Violet. We entered her home and waited till our eyes adjusted to the dark. The house in which she, her husband and her five children lived was smaller than my children’s bedrooms. An improvised curtain shielded the sleeping area from sight.

Violet’s elder children were at school, only the youngest was home. Quinta was just over a year old, and at first glance a normal lively little boy. Only when we looked closer did we see that his head was odd shaped and swollen. When Violet visited the doctor with him, she was told that he needed an operation. She and her husband are out of work and have no money for the operation.

In a soft lyrical voice, she told us that they moved to Kibera in 2004 in the hope of finding employment, but jobs are scarce in Nairobi. If she could find work as a cleaner, they might be able to afford to send their children to High School, but that seems unlikely to happen.

I asked how they lived with no income, what they did for food.

“We sleep”.

 On our way back to the Youth Centre, we passed a school. The teacher invited us in to have a look around and every single one of the little kids ran over to high five us. “Hello. How are you?”, they chorused.

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The walls were decorated with posters of the alphabet and numbers. Some of them were familiar from my own children’s classrooms, but on closer inspection of the others, we realised that the teachers had painstakingly embroidered the letters onto polyethene sacking.

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After a long day in Kibera, we returned to our hotel to allow the first impressions to sink in. The restaurant where we ate this evening was in a shiny and glossy shopping centre. We ordered meals that cost more than the average monthly wage and wondered at the contrasts of Kenya. It is hard to believe that just a few miles from the hotel where I am writing this blog post, there are thousands of people living in such squalor.

Despite this, I was impressed by the resilience of the slum inhabitants. As we were leaving, we passed streams of people who were walking into the slum, walking home from work. We saw the hundreds of entrepreneurs who were scraping a living in the slum by selling goods and services. We had wandered the slum with the youth workers, as they tried to improve their lives and the lives of others.

It was a thought-provoking first day.

One Comment on “Kenya – A Country of Contrasts – Wealth, Poverty and Slums of Nairobi

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