Welcome to Kibera!
This densely populated region is famously known as the largest urban slum in Africa, although this claim is not easy to verify. Still, there’s a lot more to this community than you might imagine…
- The number of people living in Kibera is unknown and quoted as anywhere between 170,000 and 1.2 million.
- Kibera is a 2.5 square kilometre region that lies 7km from central Nairobi and is closely bounded by more affluent areas.
- Kibera is a British creation dating back to 1899. It was designated as an unauthorised settlement following Kenya’s independence in 1963. The consequence is that the Kenyan government have no obligation to provide basic services and infrastructure, and the residents have no rights over their property.
- The government is in the process of ‘slum upgrading’, although the development is a long way behind schedule and fraught with difficulties.
- The people of Kibera are some of the most creative, enterprising, and passionate people you could ever hope to meet.
- Average life expectancy is 30 years of age, skewed by high infant mortality rates with 19% of children dying before their 5th birthday.
- Clean water is often difficult to access and can become contaminated with sewage.
- HIV infection rates are extremely high and are a large contributory factor in the number of orphans living in Kibera.
- Only around 40% of Kibera’s children attend school on any given day.
- The unemployment rate is 50%
- Electricity is scarce and often illegally tapped from power lines.
- Drop toilets and open sewers are the norm with many using plastic bags when it is unsafe to use public facilities after dark.
- The average home measures just 12 foot by 12 foot and can accommodate more than 8 people.
- Kibera is a thriving community filled with people who want nothing more than to be respected and to improve their quality of life through access to opportunities for progress, education, and employment.
How many people?
The number of people living in Kibera is unknown.
Figures quoted include:
1.2 million – quoted by the International Medical Corps in 20063
Over 1 million – quoted in Karl Grobl’s 2010 photoessay15
500,000 – estimated by the Kenya Water for Health Organisation1
235,000-275,000 – estimated by the Map Kibera Project2
170,070 – the official figure from the 2009 Kenya Census4
So why the HUGE differences?
- Kibera is a fluid society. Inflow and outflow of residents is constant and significant.
- There is huge variation in the definitions of Kibera’s boundaries used for the estimates.
- Politics and other underlying bias appear whenever statistics are compiled.
- The official numbers are unlikely to include the vast numbers of unregistered citizens.
The Geography of Kibera
Where it is: approximately 7km south-west of Nairobi City Centre, in the peri-urban zone.1
How big it is: 256 hectares (2.5 square kilometres)2 although there is an element of fluidity at the borders.
What surrounds the slum: To the south lies the Nairobi River, Dam, and the Southern Nairobi Highway/Bypass. To the west is Ngong Forest and a campus of the University of Nairobi. To the north-east you will find the Royal Nairobi Golf Club (the rich get very close to the poor here).
How it is organised: the Kibera slum area is made up of ‘villages’. The most widely accepted definition of Kibera’s boundaries includes 12 villages:
*Gatwekera *Soweto *Makina *Kisumu Ndogo *Kicchinjio *Laini Saba *Silanga *Lindi *Kianda *Mashimoni *Raila *Kambi Muru
Kibera is a British creation. Its origins lie in Colonial times, when Nairobi was founded to house British Colonial offices and the headquarters of the new Uganda Railway line in 1899.
Nairobi was intended only for Europeans, with non-Europeans required by law to live in ‘native reserves’ on the outskirts of the city. Kibera appeared as the settlement allocated to the Nubian soldiers serving the military interests of the British Colonial army. Kibera translates as forest in the Nubian language and references its original state as a forest settlement (the trees have long since disappeared).5
Following Kenya’s successful transition to independence in 1963, the government designated Kibera as an unauthorised settlement. This gave the tenants no rights to their homes or land and absolved the government of any responsibility to provide basic infrastructure.
Kibera became a place for those who could not afford legal housing. Many came from the rural villages, dreaming of making it big in the city. As such, Kibera is full of ambitious and entrepreneurial people as well as a much greater mix of origins than anywhere else in Kenya.6
The Future of Kibera
On September 16th 2009, the Kenyan government began the process of ‘clearing the slum’. The intention was to rehouse Kibera’s residents in newly built apartment blocks, within 2-5 years.7
In reality, the project has barely begun. In fact, at the current rate of progress, it will not be complete until the year 3130.
The project is fraught with difficulties, from legal objections that need to be processed through the courts, to logistical problems and the considerations of Kibera’s residents. For example:
- Constructing adequate foundations on land that consists mainly of refuse and rubbish is a huge challenge.
- Access to the land is awkward with no vehicular access in most places, and the steep sloping terrain causes logistical challenges.
- The deposit on one of the new 2-bedroom homes is around 100,000 shillings.8 Rent then continues at around 6000 shillings a month. For a Kiberan earning 200 shillings a day, the challenge is obvious.
- Kiberans are regularly resorting to sub-letting the new apartments to middle-class tenants, and moving back into the slum. This is ‘against the rules’ but is certainly a widespread problem.9
So, the future of Kibera remains uncertain.
The community of Kibera
When you speak with most Kiberans, you discover that they really love their home. It may seem strange that many people don’t want to leave the slum, but they will explain that the sense of community here is second to none. Everyone knows everyone, and families help other families in need. What people want is simply the opportunity to work, to have enough to eat, and the chance to improve the standard of living within Kibera.
The people of Kibera have hopes and fears and dreams just like anyone else in any location around the world. There are actors, artists, dancers, craftsmen, and thousands of other talented and passionate residents. Kibera is a real community with some of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Surely they deserve the same dignity and opportunity as those of us lucky enough to be born outside the slum. Yet most of these people will never leave Kibera and will continue to face, head-on, the challenges that life in this community provides.
Life and Death
The average life expectancy in Kibera is just 30 years of age. However, this does not mean there are no elderly people living here. Sadly, the statistics are skewed by high infant and youth mortality.
There are many diseases endemic within Kibera. Many of them are killers and others permanently disabling. Infectious diseases spread easily when people are living in such close proximity to one another. Open sewers and lack of easy access to hand washing facilities exacerbate the problem. If those aren’t challenges enough, factor in the difficulties encountered when trying to access appropriate healthcare.
Common diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, ringworm, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, meningitis, measles, intestinal worms, and HIV/AIDS.13 14 15
19% of those born in Kibera will not live to see their 5th birthday, with 40% of these tragic deaths due to diarrheal diseases.13
With clean water expensive and difficult to access, illegal tapping of water pipes is not uncommon. Whilst this gives people access to water, these tapping points are typically poorly constructed and allow sewage to seep into the pipes. Obviously, this then also contaminates the water available at the official distribution locations.13
As desperate young women can be found trading their bodies for the price of a meal (about 20p – less than the price of a condom16), HIV infection rates are high. An AMREF clinic found that 50% of those being treated for TB were also HIV+. And a Medecins sans Frontieres clinic claims that many refuse to take antiretroviral medication because they know they will be unable to access/afford it consistently, or afford the quality nutrition needed to accompany it.14
Malaria is a big problem in Kibera and particularly deadly to the very young, pregnant women, and the elderly. With poor drainage of waste water plus open sewers, there are plenty of pools where mosquitoes thrive and lay their eggs. Those who survive a severe case of malaria often find themselves disabled, particularly with learning impairments and brain damage.15 Many travel clinics will say there is no need for malaria prophylaxis for visitors to Nairobi due to the relatively high altitude. Kibera is very definitely an exception to this ‘rule’.
Whilst education is likely the #1 way to improve a child’s prospects, it’s certainly not easy to access.
It’s difficult to find any official figures, but estimates predict that only around 40% of children in Kibera will be attending school on any given day.
There are many barriers to accessing education:
* Cost – schools usually require basic fees plus a uniform, books, stationary, food contribution, exam fees, soap, toilet paper… With an average employed parent with 4 children having an income of around 3000-4000 shillings per month, paying school fees totalling 7700 shillings per month (average primary class 5 costs) is obviously not possible.11
* Female illiteracy in particular remains high due to ingrained gender inequality. Where there is not enough money to educate every child, a family will often prioritise the male children and encourage the girls into early marriage or employment.12
* The need to earn money – older children find themselves pushed out of education in order to contribute to the family income.
* Menstruation – girls often miss school due to lacking the appropriate provisions to manage their monthly menstruation.
50% of Kibera’s eligible workforce is unemployed.10
Many of those with formal employment work in the city, mainly performing unskilled manual tasks. The average wage for these workers is just 1 USD per day. 12
Other Kiberans use their fantastic entrepreneurial instincts to set up their own businesses within the slum. These ventures range from small shops (dukani), where you can buy a packet of biscuits or a scratchcard for your mobile phone, to hair salons, music stores, repair shops, eateries, and ‘pharmacies’. Others, like the young men pictured, wash the cars of the middle-classes on the outskirts of Kibera.
Many women can be seen each day sitting on the ground selling food items. Some spend the entire day cooking chapati, which sell for 5 shillings each (around 4p/5 cents). Others sell smoked and salted fish – earning an average of 10 USD per month. 12
For the majority of Kiberans, employment is informal, irregular, and extremely low paid. This creates a population living hand-to-mouth and vulnerable to any unexpected difficulties such as ill health, bad weather, and food price increases.
Homes and Buildings
The average home in Kibera measures just 12ft x 12ft. The walls are built of mud supported by rough wooden poles, often no more than sticks. The floor will usually be dirt, although some residents are able to add a layer of concrete. The building will be roofed with corrugated iron sheets.10 These quickly rust and turn brown, giving Kibera its nickname of Chocolate City.
In one of these small homes, you regularly find 8 or more people living, cooking, and sleeping.
The average rent for one of these structures is 1,150 shillings/month (about £9)2 and has no water supply or electricity.
The population density (bearing in mind the difficulties measuring the population) is easily 80 times greater than in the City of London.
Of course, in addition to homes, there are many other similarly constructed ‘buildings’. Almost everything can be found in Kibera, from shops, hair salons and shoe cleaning enterprises, to schools, clinics, repair shops, and banking points. There are also a huge number of churches, mosques, and other places of worship.
Despite the limitations of their home, the people of Kibera continue to create a diverse and comprehensive range of community services.
Water: Whilst some residents still rely on ‘unoffical’ water supplies, with the constant risk of typhoid and cholera, there are now two pipelines into Kibera. Water can be purchased at points around the slum for around 3 shillings/20 litres.10 The price can soar when water is scarce eg. when the rains are late.
Electricity: Only around 20% of Kibera has an electricity supply. Much of the power is illegally tapped from the city grid and can be both unreliable and dangerous.6
Roads: Vehicular access to Kibera is extremely limited. Where roads exist, they are narrow, rocky, and turn to deep mud in the rains. The National Youth Service have begun improvements including adding stone surfaces to some of the ‘major’ roads.11
Sanitation: Overflowing drop toilets and open sewers paint a bleak picture. The public toilets charge for use and are unsafe after dark. Many residents use ‘flying toilets’ – defecating into a plastic bag and throwing it into the street.6
There are some superb pieces of journalism available online for those who want to know more about life in Kibera. Many have tried their hand at describing the lives of those living in the slum.
Two excellent examples are:
- Andrew Harding’s 4-part series ‘Nairobi Slum Life’ written for BBC News
- A photoessay about an amazing project ‘Kenya’s Slum Ballet School’ published by The Guardian
And one other piece, published by Channel 4 – ‘On tour with the slum tourists in Kenya’, which provides an excellent reminder that Kibera is a home, not a tourist attraction.
If you would like to see some great photographs of life in Kibera, here is a selection of the best Instagram accounts we’ve found:
1. Kenya Water for Health Organisation. (2014). Description of the Project Location. Available: https://kwaho.org/loc-d-kibera.html. Last accessed 16th March 2017.
2. Map Kibera Project. Maps and Statistics. Available: https://mapkiberaproject.yolasite.com/maps-and-statistics.php. Last accessed 16th March 2017.
3. International Medical Corps. (2006). A Trip Through Kenya’s Kibera Slum. Available: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=1561. Last accessed 17th March 2017.
4. Daily Nation. (2010). Myth shattered: Kibera numbers fail to add up. Available: https://www.nation.co.ke/News/Kibera%20numbers%20fail%20to%20add%20up/-/1056/1003404/-/13ga38xz/-/index.html. Last accessed 17th March 2017.
5. Furedi, F (1973). The African Crowd in Nairobi: Population Movements and Elite Politics. 275-290.
6. The Economist. (2012). Boomtown Slum. Available: https://www.economist.com/news/christmas/21568592-day-economic-life-africas-biggest-shanty-town-boomtown-slum. Last accessed 20th March 2017.
7. BBC News. (2009). Kenya begins huge slum clearance. Available: https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8258417.stm. Last accessed 20th March 2017.
8. Standard Media. (2016). Slum upgrading: Kibera residents to get new homes at last. Available: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/2000196642/slum-upgrading-kibera-residents-to-get-new-homes-at-last. Last accessed 20th March 2017.
9. Augustine Oduor. (2011). Kibera residents rent out houses, move to slum. Available: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/2000034968/kibera-residents-rent-out-houses-move-to-slum. Last accessed 20th March 2017.
10. Kibera.org.uk. (Undated). Kibera Facts and Information. Available: https://www.kibera.org.uk/facts-info/. Last accessed 20th March 2017.
11. UWEZA Aid Foundation. (Undated). Estimated Costs of Education in Kibera. Available: https://www.uwezakenya.org/our-work/sponsorship/estimated-costs-of-education-in-kibera/. Last accessed 21st March 2017.
12. Cunico, A. (2011). Dispatch from Kibera, East Africa’s Largest Slum. Available: https://www.ips.org/blog/mdg3/2011/08/dispatch-from-kibera-east-africas-largest-slum/. Last accessed 21st March 2017.
13. Power of Hope Kibera. (Undated). About Kibera. Available: https://pohk.org/about/kibera/. Last accessed 30th March 2017.
14. IRIN. (2006). Treating more than just HIV/AIDS in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Available: https://www.irinnews.org/feature/2006/03/17/treating-more-just-hivaids-nairobis-kibera-slum. Last accessed 30th March 2017.
15. Grobl, K.. (2010). Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Available: https://karlgrobl.com/blog/2010/07/nairobi-kenya-kibera-slum/. Last accessed 30th March 2017.
16. Jumia Supermarket Kenya. (2017). Condom Prices. Available: https://www.jumia.co.ke/durex/. Last accessed 30th March 2017.