Africa’s largest informal settlement is owned not by an enormous enclave of squatters transgressing life’s deprivations and hardships. Kibera is owned by the Kenyan government (a fact disputed), and home to an estimated 300 000 to 1 million people (also disputed, and the exact same estimate often given about Soweto, a range so wide it means we have no idea). The average shack size is 4 x 4 metres, made of mud and sticks, with a corrugated roof. Multiple proxy wars play out in Kibera, which perhaps explains the inexplicable conditions – Luo and Kikuyu, landlord and tenant, employed and jobless, the government and the governed. Power shifts among opposing sides as political and NGO winds change, which explains the morass. There are few utilities, despite political representation and government ownership, and lots of children, fuelling a frenetic sense of urgency.
The land which makes up Kibera was a parting gift to the Nubian people from the Queen for their service to the British colonizers. Over time, the Nubian residents began to rent their plots to the large influx of other peoples into Nairobi. Shack ownership remains a very lucrative business, as it is estimated 60% of Kibera shacks are rented, at shockingly high rates. “Kibera” is Nubian for “forest” or “jungle,” as ironic as the “Waterval” and “Yellowwood Estates” which are destroyed to make way for the golf estates they are named for, because the only forest or jungle left in Kibera is human – of the mind, the political situation, or the effort to access basic services.
However, like movies, books, or some famous people, when you finally meet Kibera, it’s not what you expect at all. There is a momentum, an energy, a vibe even, perhaps perpetuated by the murmuring sounds of thousands of people tucked behind the mud walls which surround you as you walk through the meandering paths. People you pass are head down, walking with intention, minds elsewhere. The quiet gurgling of water, the various smells wafting with you, the sounds of tinkering, planting, sorting and arranging create a sense of movement, of meaning and purpose. Furtive glances inside the homes show fastidious order and control, swept floors and washed walls. A focus and intensity – what we have is ours, what is ours is important. It reminds us of Brazil’s favelas but with suits and briefcases, perhaps because Kibera sits firmly in downtown Nairobi.