January 14, 2012 - Nairobi, Kenya

Yesterday I did a tour through Kibera, the second biggest urban slum in Africa (second to Soweto in South Africa).

Kibera is about 2.5 square kilometres in size, and estimates of the population range from about 200,000 to 1 million. People from all of the Kenyan ethnic groups reside in Kibera, and there is a high percentage of Muslim and Christian devotees within the community.

The houses in Kibera are pretty much the same as the mud houses that we build in the village, although they are smaller and more closely packed. Unfortunately, the same number of people, if not more live here, so it's usually anywhere up to 10 people being packed into a house not much bigger than a 2 toilet cubicles. There are no rubbish collection schemes, nor any rubbish bins anywhere, so the ground you walk on is pretty much build up of rubbish and dirt.

When I first walked through the slum, I was thinking that it wasn't much worse than any other part of Kenya, where people live in tiny dwellings and have rubbish everywhere. Then I saw the flowing "creek" consisting entirely of sewage and changed my mind. Apparently, for every 200 people, there is only 1 pit latrine. There is human waste EVERYWHERE. I registered that the smell was actually just human excrement mixed with a touch of decomposing food scraps and rubbish. Two men lugged a barrell up the hill next to me, bits of it's contents spilling over the side. The tour guide asked me, 'do you know what that is? It's shit!'. Gross.

Children pee into the open sewage lines at the side of the road, and play next to/in it as well. The 'creek' flows openly past a number of people's houses. When I made the statement that people must be sick all the time, the tour guide stated that they 'never get sick'. I respectfully disagreed with him.

Those who cannot afford to eat sift through the rotting rubbish for something to nibble on. Many times, I was greeted by people who were spaced out on some drug or another. I remembered that the last time I was here, there were many people in Kibera being warned not to drink Chang'aa - an alcoholic drink made from a number of chemicals and poisons. The drink has been known to cause blindness and heart issues, even death. As I was being greeted by the spaced-out Kibera residents, I stated 'people drink lots of Chang'aa here', to which one man replied 'we don't take chang'aa. We smoke weed!' Gold.

So, although I'm painting a pretty grim picture of Kibera, it wasn't all bad. There are a number of initiatives happening there to improve the lives of people, some of which is having a great effect. I personally visited an orphanage/school which is run by a number of Kenyan volunteers. In a demonstration of how much the human spirit can prosper, these volunteers have taken care of these orphans for the last 6 years, and stated to me that "we will not rest until they have completed University. Then we can relax". The facility is actually really well maintained and looks fantastic. They have plenty of resources, and the walls have all been painted in bright colours. The children get at least 2 meals per day, and look really healthy. I'm thinking of donating some bulk food items such as flour, sugar and oil so that they can continue to feed the children.

Another volunteer organisation that I visited was a kind of community centre. They run all sorts of awareness and education programs on topics including HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, micro-finance and governance. They also have a drama group which contributes to the awareness raising ventures through theatrics. One of their biggest ventures is a training program they run for selected Kibera residents to learn how to use computers and run a cyber cafe. The program is offered for free to participants and is funded through the UN and Google. This is another great initiative which is contributing to improving the lives of others who would otherwise have no prospects.

This sort of thing is what made me fall in love with Kenya in the first place. People can live in utter squalor, they may have nothing at all to feed their families on, or might have to struggle every day - working 12-16 hour shifts relentlessly to pay the bills. Yet still, most people find the time or resources to help other people. Where the government fails them (which happens a lot), people who can step up to fill the gaps in service. These volunteers don't get paid anything, yet still manage to renew their committment to the cause every day. If a person invites you to their home, even if they don't have much, they will offer you what they have, whether you are rich or poor. People still manage to smile, laugh and dance every day that their bodies let them. They are all very social and look out for one another when it is required.

My conclusions on Kibera, from the very little that I saw of it, was that if they had a decent sewage and waste disposal system it would significantly improve the lives of many people relatively quickly. The cost of health services would reduce, and people's general wellbeing would be improved. It would also create many jobs, as the process of improving the environmental quality of the slum would be a huge effort. If only!

So, I'm glad I went to Kibera. It was an informative and revealing trip for me, and has left me feeling that it might be a place that I would like to return and work in one day.

I'll finish off my degree though first (don't worry Mum!)...

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