IN KIBERA: Slumming it with Privilege

Upon our small film crew’s arrival in Nairobi, Kenya, the local newspapers were full of print on the recent gang violence in the slums of Mathare and elsewhere that killed upwards of forty people and caused thousands to flee (as if being in a slum wasn’t already far enough fled).

It was also mentioned that a year earlier a less than security-diligent BBC crew filming in Korogocho, the third largest slum in Nairobi, were over time and sloppiness pursued and then robbed of much equipment by local gang members.

Nonetheless, in our four days filming first in the slums of Korogocho and then Kibera—thought to be the largest slum not only in Nairobi but all of sub-Saharan Africa (we avoided Mathare, as the violence continued), I rarely felt nervous, and was treated with great kindness, warmth and joy by both children and adults.

Granted, the fact our film crew was guarded by two Kenyan police officers carrying Heckler and Koch G3 assault rifles—and three well-trained security officers who traveled with us throughout Africa—was a big boost.

The irony of this protected “invasion” did not elude me.

A small, privileged mostly white crew with cameras goes into a slum and gets nearly one-to-one protection (from black guards) and an entire population of slum-dwellers, most significantly children, day in day out, get virtually no protection whatsoever.

Dare I mention we flew to Nairobi on a private plane?

The disparity is truly mind-boggling, almost too great, too unchangeable, and possibly even too wrong to comprehend.

Indeed, speaking of local protection in the slums, the police seem to be equally known for their connection to gang members as for their support of the innocent. Kenya in general is legendary for corruption, with even the World Bank—speaking of irony—holding back hundreds of millions of dollars in loans for this reason.

Yet there are many who care deeply, who attempt to bring some parity and daily relief into the slums. It is a monstrous undertaking.

One minute in these slums, side-stepping garbage (which is impossible), thoroughly explains one’s desire to steal. One of the security guards admitted that, had he lived here, he’d be leading the way.

I thought how I’d be right behind him.

In a country where the unemployment rate is over 40% and per capita income is $390—and both stats would be significantly worse in the slums—we were working with a High Definition camera worth tens and lenses worth tens of thousands, a HDV (High Definition Video) camera worth ten grand and a still camera worth over $2500.

I’d already calculated the latter being ten times Mozambique’s yearly per capita income, and nearer to fifteen times Malawi’s.

According to CSG Kibera, a community based group trying to make a difference:

Kibera is roughly 2[.5] Kilometers squared with an estimated population of [600,000 to over] 1 million people. There are no residential buildings over a single storey. The average home size in Kibera is 3 meters by 3 meters, with an average of five persons per dwelling. Urban services such as water or sanitation are minimal. There is an average of one pit latrine for every 50 to 500 people.

Drinking water is pumped through plastic pipes along side sewage trenches. These trenches carry refuse and human waste to the river at the base of the valley. The river then runs into Nairobi Dam. Both the river and the dam are used for recreation (e.g. swimming) and resource (e.g. bathing; clothes washing). The plastic pipes are brittle and exposed, often breaking, to be repaired without care for sanitation. That is, these pipes are jammed or taped back together often without being cleaned, creating suitable habitat for water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

Further, I don’t know on what grounds, but it has been estimated 20% of the 2.2 million HIV positive Kenyans live in Kibera.

And all this aside, I can’t logically explain the stunning and infectious joy and warmth of so many people there, especially children, that so betrays the infrastructural and disease-riddled catastrophe that is all-pervasive. It is a testimony to the human spirit.

I don’t believe I am exaggerating to say that there is no spot without littered garbage, no inhale without stench (in widely varying degrees), and no place free of hand to mouth survival.

Our documentary crew spent time filming there on two different days—and other slum areas, including Korogocho—and witnessed the vibrant force of people living in what they called home. There is constant movement, trading, scavenging and interest, and very little obvious aggression against us which, again, may have had more to do with armed guards than I know—but I didn’t feel like that was the reason.

For some, my naiveté may be boundless.

Boredom and alcoholism are pervasive, yet clearly not enough to dull the reality of everyday life, nor a degree of social injustice that is criminal because it is repairable.

From an article in the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation, from November 10, 2006, a recent UN Human Development Report stated that:

…80 percent of households purchase all or some of their water from private water vendors whose prices average $3.50 (Sh250) per cubic metre but rise to almost double during dry seasons.

“The average price is some seven times higher than that paid by people in high-income settlements served by the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company—and higher than prices in London or New York.”

Extortion within the slums by different gangs is a security problem. Ironically, these gangs grew out of…

…vigilante groups [that] residential areas set up to fill the gap caused by the Government’s failure to provide enough security and the city council’s inability to provide essential services, including garbage collection and security.

With impressive weapons, the gangs have their own systems of “snitches” (informers), including police officers, who warn them of impending action against them. They also have an elaborate “disciplinary” system to deal with wavering or weak members.

But all [the] gangs pale before the two major ones—Taliban and Mungiki [in Mathare]—who have taken over organized crime in the city and are responsible for some of the current chaos.

[D]uring confrontations with or attacks by Mungiki for control of the estate, the Taliban turn on the residents and force them to fight alongside them.

That is what happened during the rent riots that rocked the area in 2003. The Taliban forced some residents of Kisumu Ndogo and Nyayo estates to come out and fight Mugiki gangsters who had been ferried by bus into the area. More than twenty people, most of them non-Taliban, were killed.

The gangs’ tentacles extend beyond manning…routes and extorting money from the crews and owners. They have expanded their “tax” base to include developers putting up residential houses, office blocks or any other building…

For anyone putting up a residential house, the gangs demand and usually get the developer to surrender a room to them for which they collect rent. They are also paid an “access” fee for the delivery of building materials.

It is curious to me how often power—no matter how limited—mobilizes for control as opposed to for community and solidarity. Or worse, as we see here and in so many corporate situations, a good idea is co-opted and expanded to be used in a different way.

Of course the effects of a history of violence, poverty, disease, neglect, insufficient nurture and human nature have their own energy and cannot be ignored. What would actually happen if these gangs were to mobilize, either violently or non-violently, demanding social justice?

Maybe that’s when that other gang would come in, often known to the protester as the National Guard.

There’s always someone bigger, somewhere—then bigger again—using force or the threat of force to protect their interests.

With so many difficulties for children in Kibera, it is ironic that we come to Africa to raise awareness of people living in poverty, with HIV and AIDS, and end up being protected by three soldiers (two security) who had served in Iraq, a war and a foreign policy to which I am fundamentally opposed.

The invasion of Iraq war unfolded from what appeared to me and millions of others to be the flagrant manipulation of truth (no surprise there) as the premise to invade a sovereign country for business and/or geo-political reasons. The result, as is well known, has been steeply increasing despair and death on an already long-suffering civilian population, all the while further destabilizing the region and the world (including the US).

Our three guards were warriors, two from Africa and one was from the US. They had vastly different personalities, and I liked all of them.

A friend of mine once astutely pointed out that most humans who believe in non-violence do so on their own terms. That is to say, they call themselves non-violent, but if their house is broken into or their property, body or family is under threat, the police force is called without hesitation to mete out violence on their behalf.

Irony, irony, all is irony.

Is this not the ancient tension between the have and the have-nots, a problem humans have yet and—through love and compassion—may never bridge? Equality or the “level playing field” may only come in the worst possible way, via nuclear or environmental disaster.

Then again, maybe it can begin to shift that way through love.


A passenger train goes from Nairobi central to the outskirts of the city and beyond, and in between stops in Kibera (as seen in the film the Constant Gardener).

It arrives jammed with workers, resembling something out of the ’30s in the United States or Canada, when migrant workers crossed the country by rail in search of employment.

Across these tracks, maybe thirty yards away, over a cement grey brick wall, but completely in view, is a lush green, well-manicured golf course.

A poster child moment for living on the wrong side of the tracks.

I ask this without any certainty or sentimentality: is there a direct or even indirect relationship between how I live in Vancouver and how people, in all their variation, live in Kibera?

Can there be haves without have nots?

I’m serious. Does one ensure the other?

On the second to last night in Kenya, while filming a time lapse sunset over the slum, I wandered fifty yards or so and like I always do, took up conversation with a few locals. One casually dressed man was out with his just over two-year-old son Samson, holding his hand, strolling as if there was no stench at all around him—when in fact it was all around him—and no garbage beneath his feet.

I realised later they were just going for a walk. Dad gets home from work and the little one is restless.

This is the park in Kibera at twilight.

Dad had lived in Kibera for twenty-five years, and was coincidentally in a community based group working to improve sanitation and other problems with the fellow that was helping us location scout. I didn’t realize until later that our guy—with the same name as me, Pete—had lived in Kibera for thirty years, and had two children.

Another decently dressed man maybe forty-five years old was wandering amidst the crowds, up the muddy road to have a couple of beers. After a short conversation, he asked me to join him. I couldn’t leave the crew (I don’t drink worth a damn anyway, and local brew would probably kill me). I gave him all I had with me: a packet of cinammon-flavoured Dentyne chicklets.

Children are everywhere, sometimes barefoot, in torn and dirty clothes, sometimes in school uniforms; they are nearly always interested in what we’re doing, for a brief moment in a long life (although life expectancy in the slums is not high) we are their Entertainment Tonight.

Being in Kibera, and seeing the present—and knowing the future, at least statistically with HIV, to be virtually unstoppable—was almost too mind-blowing to be heart-breaking. I could process the joy, the commonality between me and another. But to hold the reality of the disparity was simply beyond me.

Answers did not come—neither did depression or anxiety (although I have a little now that I can’t explain).

I’m not sure if this is a strength or a weakness.

All I know is I felt so fortunate to visit the people in Kibera, who carry on with so much dignity against so much adversity and so few options, in my understanding of the word.

I felt shocked and privileged not only for my life, but for life, and to be somehow filming the plight of a people in a devoured shanty town in Africa.

I felt privileged to say hello, to hug and to hang out.

Kibera is a sped up microcosm of what it means to be alive, for we are all unavoidably, simultaneously living and decaying, a process that through joy and violence, love and will, consumption and madness, we desperately try to delay, or at least distract.

This relentless desire to live is evidence of a sort (admittedly shaky) as to the possibility that we are actually eternal. For if dying is natural, then why are we so opposed to it?

Once again, and perhaps ironically, I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong in Kibera—for colour and privilege notwithstanding, these people are my sisters and brothers, living in the human condition under extreme pressure. Helplessness, including my own, is profound.

So is hope.

Yet were I to live here, I would be, for starters, the only white person. I would also certainly be immediately overwhelmed by the water, my system ill-prepared.

Diarrhea, and most likely typhoid, would ensue.

Without my designer drugs: malaria would eventually hit me.

Some two million people die from malaria in Africa every year, not to mention the ongoing repetition of clinical cases (300-500 million cases) that hammer productivity and well-being.

Nearly everything I take for granted—showering, cleanliness, food on demand, clean water, reliable medical treatment, privacy, flush toilets, toilet paper, the option of cleanliness, computers, transport, opportunity, general safety, a decent living wage, protection from crime, protection from weather, books, pens, paper, filming—would be gone, out of reach, literally on the other side of the tracks.

As much as one would like to change things, collectively—and of course things are changing in every second—Kenyan health index statistics have in fact worsened dramatically since 1990.

Kibera, in a way I can’t explain, simply is both vibrant and entrenched beyond my theories, older than my years, deeper than my understanding, more complex than my brain.

Forgive me, for I say this with utter humility, but within a day or so, I became almost used to it (knowing that I would leave, of course).

But to imagine my own nieces or nephews there, day in day out, is virtually impossible. And yet they are there, if sisterhood and brotherhood mean anything. If interdependency means anything. If understanding we are all under the human condition, the human dilemma, means anything.

Explaining, let alone justifying, one’s own privilege is, to say the least, daunting and arrogant.

All I can suggest is that when it comes to privilege, to seek anything less than joy and gratitude in every moment is as important as anything else; to remember the utter mystery and miracle of existence, to never forget those who are less fortunate within this mad dance of matter and life.

To learn to serve more, everyday, those whose lives you can effect: family, friends, expanding outwards beyond our comfort zones to who knows where…

Sages have a saying: Always remember, never forget.

Whatever makes you remember, do that; whatever makes you forget, don’t do that.

Kibera makes you remember. Kibera makes you forget.

Kibera is a part of me I can’t explain.


13 Responses to “IN KIBERA: Slumming it with Privilege”

  1. Erynn says:

    I honestly can’t imagine what that must have been like. The only even vaguely similar experience I’ve had was a visit to Tijuana in 1979, when I was with a few friends and found myself surrounded by tiny women with babies on their backs, hands out, begging for money, and all of them saying, “baby, baby”.

    Being from a hick town in western Massachusetts where most of the people were (and largely still are) on welfare, it was a grinding sort of poverty that I’d never seen in my life. I had no idea what to do — I was only barely 18 at the time. There was no real way I could help them, and I was heading back across the border to San Diego in a matter of hours. I just wanted to cry, because at least when I grew up “poor” there was always something on the table, and even if the electricity went out in the winter, we had a wood stove so we could be warm and cook. My grandfather had a garden where he grew a lot of the food we ate during the summer. He ran a trapline during the winter, and we ended up eating beaver and muskrats and things like that, but it wasn’t a bad way to live.

    The American concept of “poor” is so different than the concept in other countries. I’ve seen photos of the slums of Mexico City, and it looks like people living in trash heaps. It’s so hard to wrap my brain around. How do people treat each other that way?

  2. [...] Whether it is related to global warming or not, I don’t know, but Kenya was just hit by massive floods causing deaths in double-digits and some 60,000 people to flee. Places like the slums of Kibera in Nairobi already seem to be a place people have fled to (albeit over a hundred years), so where the next stop might be boggles the mind, the heart, and the conscience. [...]

  3. [...] This is Tim returning to the billion cultures, flavours, agonies and joys of Africa, and seeing Her again. [...]

  4. Ken Okoth says:

    I am a native of Kibera. At age 19, I had graduated from high school, and won a scholarship to a liberal arts college in upstate New York, north of the Adirondacks. I teach history at a high-cost prep school in an affluent suburb of Washington DC. Next summer, I am taking two colleagues and ten of my students to Kenya for two weeks — the first doing community service in Kibera, and the second on safari adventure. I wonder what they will really feel or think. I know I will definitely ask them to read this posting. Thanks for writing so well.

  5. Dear Ken,

    Thanks for your beautiful comment, kind words, and most of all your story. I would love to know the details, how you did it, what it took, where you got your breaks, and what are the possibilities and odds of others doing it and so on. It seems next to impossible, and yet you prove that it’s not (or at least not quite) impossible.

    Let me know if you’d like to explain it, and I’ll gladly put it up here!

    The memories of Kibera, and the endless, beautiful kids, remain etched in my grateful mind—and the whole extraordinary, confusing, hopeful, disastrous, wondrous world we live in.

    I wish you great love and inspiration with that group next year.

    All good things, blessings and love,


  6. [...] Workers who migrate to urban cities, say in China, are often used for for cheap labour, or end up living in slums, I am reminded not to be fooled by economists using, principally, a coutnry’s GNP to monitor its increase or decrease in quality of life. [...]

  7. Dear Pete

    Beautiful words. I feel like I’ve been there just by reading the details of your experience.

    Even though I have not been to Kibera (yet) we are a non profit (American Friends of Kenya) that helps Kenyans with education and health concerns. For about a year, we have been working with a Community Based Organization, found in Kibera, called Shining Hope for Community (SHOFCO). Its director, a motivated and self driven young man of only 22, Kennedy Odede, has inspired us to help them.

    For more than a year we have been sending Kennedy volunteers, giving him advice for his organization, he has met with some of our partners, and we just started funding a new office for them.
    I tell you this kid is so driven it inspires us every day. He is poor and unemployed and yet he works every day on his ideas and motivations. He always tells us “you have to take single steps to get where you want? and that is exactly what he does. You would not believe how far they have gotten in one year only! They now have a website (, give AIDS counseling to the community, do Soccer and sports tournaments for the youth, do community activities and gatherings, workshops, advocacy, etc… He has inspired his Kibera friends and family not to give up but to join him and work together for a better tomorrow.

    Kennedy recently sent us a proposal for a project idea he has of starting Computer classes, (especially for women since they are so forgotten and neglected in the community), and also sewing classes, which can help them get jobs. In partnership with us (and we are working on partnering them with a University or technology company) they could get certification at the end to be able to get more opportunities when trying to get a job. We are working on getting them donated computers and sewing machines and so far it sounds very possible that this project will take off just as Kennedy proposed.

    Don’t give up on Kibera! We need to help those inside that are motivated to help themselves.
    We will be there Summer 2008.


    Marisa Wiewall

  8. [...] When I was in Africa, the three-man security team hired to protect our film crew in the roughest areas had all been in Iraq, one with the US military, the other two as mercenaries. They were from America, South Africa and Ghana, respectively, their stories were fascinating and startling, and all three were, perhaps ironically, fun and generous. [...]

  9. Brian says:

    “….Nearly everything I take for granted—showering, cleanliness, food on demand, clean water, reliable medical treatment, privacy, flush toilets, toilet paper, the option of cleanliness….”

    This is why I always take what international journalists say with a pinch of salt ;-)
    You went to a SLUM! What else would you expect? Kind of wierd to compare them with plush american suburbs or the slums of Europe and america? Better to compare with their ghettos
    If you are looking for decent and clean environments you may like to try Runda or even Lavington. Both are in Nairobi.

  10. Chima says:

    I have lived in Kenya for nearly four years and have conducted ethnographic studies among sex workers and slum men in Nairobi. I am not Kenyan but I am African. Evident in the writings of western journalists and scholars about issues in Kenya, and in deed Africa is the emphasis on difference. It is generally about how the levels of poverty, crime, indiscipline, insecurity etc in Kenya and other parts of Africa make them suddenly realize how privileged they are and how the things they took for granted are in deed not basic.

    This emphasis on difference is dangerous: it blinds its purveyors to the universal nature of the desire for better life and takes attention away from the need to work towards a better world. Currently, slum tourism is thriving in Kenya, prompted largely by descriptions that invite people to see and visit rather than change morally-disturbing situations, such as slums.

  11. Dear Chima,

    Thanks for what you pointed out. Very important.

    “….it blinds its purveyors to the universal nature of the desire for better life and takes attention away from the need to work towards a better world.”

    I don’t have a TV, but I am reminded of the awful reality TV shows in America, Hoarders and Celebrity Rehab, and so on, that the world can watch—and seeing something so degraded makes them feel their life, relatively degraded, is absolutely fine.

    With slums (which are actually, as you know, complex and on a huge spectrum—not some monolith), the same “comparing” effect may be taking place, but the people in slums are neither mentally ill hoarders or well-known former celebrities with addiction problems—they can be and generally are extremely hard working human beings who are trapped by social injustice, a lack of human rights, the exploitation of resources by outsiders, and corrupt governments, officials and gangs. To look at a slum like we look at a car accident as we drive by, is a sad, sad state of affairs. What a world. May justice, hope and intelligence slowly prevail.


  12. Gladys says:

    While I don’t condone the slums in Kenya and the difficult life there ,I find it incredible that a visitor from the west use their standard and warped statistics to portray Africa from a needy perspective did it ever occur to you that those people did not attack you because you were a visitor and not the three policemen you were with. Where did you get the statistics that 50% of urban dwellers are HIV positive or have AIDs.Am from Kenya and the statistics on the ground are different.Please note that water is sold at 20 shillings for a twenty litre container which is basically less than a dollar so when you say its $3.50,I wonder whom you are trying to impress.Acknowledge the poverty but do respect Kenyans by presenting the truth.

  13. Thanks Gladys for the note and the honest words. Not only did it occur to me that people didn’t attack us because we were visitors, it was exactly what occurred to me: the people there were amazing, as I said, and I was so fortunate to meet the ones that I did.

    What I said was it was ironic that we had protection because of privilege, and so many children there have so little protection. In other words, totally unfair.

    I deleted that first statistic because as I said in the piece, I found it hard to believe, but if you click on the link in the piece (where the letters are gold) it says it at the bottom of that paragraph, from a study from CSG KIbera, a community based group on the ground in Kibera, evidently.

    The 3.50, as you see, is a quote from a study from the UN Human Development Report and I think represents the situation of not the standard price in, say, Nairobi, and in better cared for settlements, but those outside the Nairobi Water and Sewage company.

    Again, both the stats I used are linked (actually, they are in quotes!). My sincere apologies if they are incorrect, but I say where they are from, they are quotes, and I provide a link to the first one.

    Thanks again for the note and for standing up for Kenyans! The people were wonderful there, and I was fortunate to spend time and to speak to so many great people—and I respect very much your frustration with misinformed visitors.

    All the best,


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