On a sunny May morning, I took a casual walk in and around the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Depends on where you look, the Kibera population ranges from 170,000 (Population Census), one million (UN-Habitat), to three million (local guide’s lore). By any number, it is one of the largest slums in the world and is also one of the best studied, since the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) headquarter, is only a few miles away.
Kibera fascinates me greatly, much more than the giraffes and lions down the road in the National Park. It started as a rent-free camp for veteran British Empire soldiers more than 100 years ago, and has since grown drastically without any planning or government oversight. It is divided, unofficially, into a dozen of villages, and each village has its own socio-economical system, including community plazas, schools, water supply, illegal electricity lines, lights, and neighbourhood watch. None of these is supported by the city. As a matter of fact, the local government and city have been persistently trying to relocate the population for years, but to little avail. They have constructed large scale housing projects around the vicinity of the slum, offered very attractive rent to the residence, but so far only a few thousands has moved out.
The reluctance for Kiberians to move out bewilders me. Why would anyone prefer to live in a massive slum rather than in a shiny new apartment? It turns out there are many reasons to do so. First of all, there is habit. Many dwellers have been living in Kibera for generations, they know how to survive on a budget of less than USD $1 a day. Life is not comfortable, but bearable. Outside, they will lose their neighbours, social circle, and they will face an even tougher struggle. In Kibera a loaf of bread costs less than 30 cents, in Nairobi, it’s more than $3. Secondly, to much extend the outside world is an isolated, hostile environment for many Kiberian. In the community they make a living, no matter how rudimental it might be; outside, there is no job opportunities for these under-educated, under-skilled workers. They are sometimes marginalized and discriminated in the city. Thirdly, some welfare artists found good ways to maximize the government housing benefits, by subleasing and taking advantage of the rent difference, all in all more reasons to stay put!
So there it grows, the largest slum in Africa. No politician would ever try to push on the relocation by force, because Kibera is also a treasury of millions of votes easily mobilized. Few Nairobians ventured in, unless they have relatives living inside, and few Kiberians ever go out.
Yet even in the dimmest corners, change is coming in the way. The city has realized most of its previous mistakes and changed the tactics. They now offer free loans for Kibera residents to buy essentials, such as motorcycles, to run their own transportation business, They also employ the women of Kibera to cook and serve lunches for the construction workers who are building the apartments. NGO and grassroots efforts also started to thrive. Map Kibera, an internationally renowned project of mapping and digitize the community, is just one of the examples. Little by little, these tactics are slowing coming along. Kibera, thou I am sure will be ever fascinating, is growing into a brighter future.