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Friday, 20 September, 2002, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Life after dark in Nairobi's slum
The twice daily train service
One third of Nairobi's population lives in Kibera slum

It is 1645 on a Friday evening, and any second now, the train we are on is going to lurch out of Nairobi station, pass under Uhuru Highway, slip through the cutting next to the golf course, and struggle up the hill towards the biggest, poorest slum in Africa.

A place called Kibera.

"I usually walk in to work in the mornings," says Julius, an assistant at a wholesale shop in the city centre, sporting a red cap.

He works from nine to five, six days a week, and takes home just under $75 a month to his wife and two daughters.

"It takes me two hours, but it's downhill, and I save ten shillings on the fare" - that is about 15 cents.

Julius smiles politely, but he's in a bad mood. The government has just raised the price of a loaf of bread by four precious shillings.

Suddenly, the light changes and we both look out of the window as the train emerges from a dark cutting.

We're in the slum.

Forgotten city

"Home" says Julius without looking at me.

Kibera, Nairobi's slum suburb with rubbish piling high
There are no services in Kibera

The smells leaps into the carriage: Wood fires, fried fish, excrement, rubbish - the rich stench of 800,000 people living in a ditch.

Which is, basically, what the Kibera slum is.

You will not find it on your tourist map - or any other map.

It is a squatters camp - an illegal, forgotten city - and at least one third of Nairobi lives here.

The train stops again.

Ahmed wakes up. He, Julius and two schoolboys all say goodbye and head for the door.

I stay on. I've arranged to meet someone at the next stop.

From the train track at the top edge of the slum, thousands of corrugated roofs look like the dull brown scales of a giant snake.

Kibera, the ever sprawling slum now housing half of Nairobi's population
Kibera: 800,000 people living in a ditch
I climb down onto a muddy slope, and start to follow the crowds, hopping over the puddles - the ground is littered with thousands upon thousands of tattered plastic bags.

"I thought we might start with a beer," says John Kanyua.

He is a tall, confident 25-year-old in a tracksuit and almost impossibly clean sneakers.

He has lived here all his life, and has agreed to show me round.

We set off into the darkening maze.

Rap music thumps out from a row of wooden shacks: two barbers shops, a carpenter, and a dark room with a television flickering inside and a sign saying hotel on the door.

We duck under a clothes line and down a steep alley - barely three foot across - with a stinking ditch running through the middle.


Five minutes later, we are sitting in a tiny, mud-walled bar.

It is empty.

"Corner of the month," John explains.

"That's the third Friday - when no-one has any money left. Next weekend, after payday, things go crazy here. Everyone gets drunk - the muggers have a field day."

Behind the bar, a fading official portrait of President Daniel arap Moi stares down at us.

This place is like an island - it is not really part of Kenya at all.

President Moi, an old school politician
Moi's government has done little for Kibera

The state does nothing here: It provides no water, no schools, no sanitation, no roads, no hospitals.

The security comes from vigilante groups - who, for a price, will track down thieves and debtors.

Usually, the Nairobi police are to scared to come here. But if they do, they are just looking for bribes.

And as for the sanitation... John smiles.

"You remember all those plastic bags you were talking about. Well they're called flying toilets.

"At night, when it's too dangerous to leave your home, some people do their business in bags, and fling them out the door..."


Two beers later, we walk out into complete darkness. Sunsets are early and quick on the equator - like a garage door slamming shut.

"Do you want to meet a drug dealer?" John asks.

Why not?

So we squelch and duck and feel our way along the alleys. Or rather I do.

Tom Moya is busy rolling joints when we arrive - lining them up on a wooden box into piles of ten.

He lives in tiny smoke-filled room, lined with cardboard.

Tom does not sell hard drugs. Just marijuana - or bhang, as it's called here.

Two boys come in and sit down next to me on a filthy old sofa. Then three more crowd in.

They are all twelve or thirteen years old. A joint works it's way slowly round the room.


The slum is getting quieter now - the music has stopped. The lights of Nairobi glitter in the distance.

Changaa drinker
Changaa can be lethal
The soft light from a paraffin lamp catches John's teeth as he grins and says: "Now - how about some homebrew..."

And so our slum pub crawl moves on to another dark wooden hut.

Inside, Evelyn, Tonica and Orasa giggle and start clearing the tiny room.

Changaa is a spirit, usually distilled from maize or sorghum.

The good stuff is not unlike vodka. The bad stuff can be topped up with methanol.

Last year more than 100 people died in Nairobi from one particularly lethal brew.

I let John go first. He swigs it back from what looks like a shampoo bottle.

"Good stuff," he says, through clenched teeth - and passes it to me.

And he's right. Sort of. It's like dirty brandy.

Like most people in Kibera, the sisters came from the countryside, not far from Lake Victoria, hoping to find jobs.

Brewing changaa is illegal in Kenya. So the police come to collect a bribe once in a while.

"They pester us," says Evelyn.

"Sometimes they stay for an hour or two..." I had already guessed the sisters were prostitutes.

Two dogs follow us, as we walk back up the hill towards the railway line.

The clouds have cleared, and the sky is cold and full of stars.

"Good - No rain tonight no burglars in the slum," says John. "It's the noise," he explains.

"The sound of rain on all those tin roofs. You can shout all you like, but no-one will hear you."

Kenyans choose a new president

Key stories

Inauguration day

Moi steps down




See also:

09 Aug 02 | Africa
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