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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 09:32 GMT 10:32 UK
Nairobi slum life: Into Kibera
Kibera water queue
Private contractors run water into Kibera - and charge double

The first in a four part series looking at what life is like for Nairobi residents in Africa's largest slum.

I am sitting on a narrow bench, squashed between a postman called Akhmed, who's already snoring, and two schoolboys - Harrison and John - who are busy elbowing each other and pretending to look at a battered old maths book.

It's 4:45 on a Friday evening, and any second now, the train we're 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.

It's pleasantly cool today. Nairobi is more than 1,500 metres above sea level. At this time of year, a hot sun prowls above the thick grey clouds - but rarely breaks through.

The schoolboys look smart in their bright white shirts and grey shorts.

Harrison says his dad works as a messenger at Barclay's Plaza. Not a great job, but enough to pay, most terms, for Harrison's school fees and enough to rent the family a wooden shack in the slum, with a mud floor, and a tin roof - but no loo, or running water.

The train gives a gasping whistle - and moves out of the station. Only to squeal to a halt, a minute later, in what looks like a patch of waste ground.

Another ten people clamber up into our crowded carriage. An earnest young man in a red cap decides there's room on the bench between me and the postman.

For a while, we all sit and stare through the open window due south towards Nairobi's National Park. A small plane - probably full of foreign tourists - comes in to land at Wilson airport.

Behind us, three women are crocheting - standing in tiny circle - their bags piled up on the floor between them.

Ditch life

The man in the cap is called Julius Mzembe. He's an assistant at a wholesale shop in the city centre. He works from nine to five, six days a week, and takes home just under $75 a month to his wife and two daughters.

Railway track in Kibera
As you reach Kibera, the smell greets you
"I usually walk in to work in the mornings," he says. "It takes me two hours, but it's downhill, and I save ten shillings on the fare".

That's about ten pence or 15 US cents. Tomorrow is a working day - Sunday is for church and chores.

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.

"Home," says Julius without looking at me.

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. Six hundred acres of mud and filth, with a brown stream dribbling through the middle.

You won't find it on your tourist map - or any other map. It's a squatters camp - an illegal, forgotten city - and at least one third of Nairobi lives here.

The train stops again. Akhmed wakes up. He, Julius and the schoolboys all say goodbye and head for the door. I stay on. I've arranged to meet someone at the next stop.

By now the light is fading into a hazy, blue glow. 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.

Quiet beer

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.

After payday things go crazy here. Everyone gets drunk - the muggers have a field-day

John Kanyua
"I thought we have a beer," says John Kanyua.

He's a tall, confident 25 year old in a tracksuit and almost impossibly clean sneakers. He's lived here all his life, and has agreed to show me round.

First we have to get through the crowd of laughing children who are grabbing my hands and shouting "Howareyou? Howareyou?!"

"Tssst," says John sternly - trying to clear a path through them, and still keep his sneakers clean.

"We don't get many white faces here - especially not in the evenings. It can get dangerous - please stick close to me."

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 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're sitting in a tiny, mud-walled bar. It's 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."

Kibera rules

Behind the bar, a fading official portrait of President Daniel arap Moi stares down at us. John drinks his beer, and explains the ground rules of Kibera.

This place is like an island - it's not really part of Kenya at all. The state does nothing here. It provides no water, no schools, no sanitation, no roads, no hospitals.

And why should it bother? As I said, this is an illegal squatters camp.

Kibera's water is piped in by private dealers, who lay their own hosepipes in the mud, and charge double what people pay for the same service outside the slum.

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

Usually, the Nairobi police are too scared to come here. But if they do, they're 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."

John's friend, Isaac turns up. They're both footballers, working as coaches for a charity organisation that teaches the game to young kids.

"The hard part is finding a pitch," Isaac complains.

"We've only got one left for the whole slum. Landlords bribe the local chiefs to let them build shacks on them instead."

Kenyans choose a new president

Key stories

Inauguration day

Moi steps down




See also:

07 Dec 01 | Africa
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