BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Somali Swahili French Great Lakes Hausa Portugeuse

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Africa  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 06:11 GMT 07:11 UK
Nairobi slum life: An evening in Kibera
Danger lurks in Kibera when night falls

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

Sunsets are early and quick on the equator - like a garage door slamming shut.

By 1915, the muddy valley outside Nairobi is already submerged in darkness.

It is a dangerous time. Muggers and pickpockets mingle with the crowds heading home quickly along narrow alleys, jumping nimbly across open sewers, their paths occasionally lit by the lamps and candles of stall owners selling fruit and fried fish.

"Do you want to meet a drug dealer?" asks John - the young football coach who's agreed to guide me round Kibera with his friend Isaac.


We squelch and duck and feel our way along the alleys. Or rather I do. John and Isaac seem to know every ditch and every scrap of jagged metal.

A rat scuffles past my foot. Round one corner, we almost stumble on top of an old man, squatting in the path.

Tom Moya is busy rolling joints when we arrive - lining them up on a wooden box into piles of 10. He lives in tiny smoke-filled room, lined with cardboard.

In the dark corners, half-naked white women smile from the torn pages of magazines. There's a sign on a chest of drawers which reads: "Real women don't hit men."

Tom doesn't sell hard drugs. Just marijuana - or bhang, as it's called here. "I used to collect fares on a Matatu," he says, licking the edge of the cigarette paper. "Now I do this. That's poverty for you."

Matatus are the overcrowded minibuses which tear round Nairobi with a death wish. Most have strange, macho names painted on the sides - Kosovo Conflict is a current favourite. Death Wish and Death Warrant are old classics.

"This job sounds a bit safer," I suggest to Tom. "Yup. But the pay is worse. And the police still hassle you. They come in maybe once a week asking for money - I give them 100 shillings and they go away."

At that moment, two boys come in and sit down next to me on a filthy old sofa. Then three more crowd in. They're all 12 or 13 years old. A joint works its way slowly round the room.


"Relaxation," says Samuel Mwangi, in his best Rasta accent. The others grin - and punch each others' fists in a salute. Samuel is 13.

A high price is extracted by both muggers and the police
He's wearing flip-flops and shorts. "School? Yeah I go to school sometimes," he says. But he's an orphan, and he sleeps at his grandmother's home just along the alley.

Often there isn't enough money to pay the school fees. Or buy dinner. His friends all chime in, looking at me andtrying not to grin: "Yeah we haven't eaten dinner either. Maybe you could buy us something!"

A few minutes later, the tallest boy in the room passes a joint to his neighbour, stands up and declares: "We are His Majesty's Boys."

That, it turns out, is the name of their football team - His Majesty being the Rastafarian icon Haile Selassie.

Then Samuel takes a long puff on the joint and starts lecturing me about dreadlocks. "God gave you hair, and you mustn't shave it."

"But you have," I say, pointing to his closely cropped head.

"Yes," he says, patiently, leaning back on the sofa, "but I'm a cub scout."

John isn't a fan of the Rastafarians. "They're a bad influence," he says, when we're outside again. "They just smoke, and try to look cool. But we're coaching his Majesty's Boys at football - trying to keep them busy, and away from the Rastas."


The slum is getting quieter now - the music has stopped. The lights of Nairobi glitter in the distance. The soft light from a paraffin lamp catches John's teeth as he grins and says: "Now, how about some home brew..."

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. Evelyn makes room for us, by leaning over and picking up two small children who are sleeping on the floor. They both wake up and stare quietly at me, then crawl into a corner.

Chang'aa 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.

The sisters have lived here for seven years now. Like most people in Kibera, they came from the countryside, not far from Lake Victoria, hoping to find jobs. Evelyn sits on the bed, watching us quietly. One of the children - three-year-old Marcus - is hers. But there's no father about. Orasa takes 50 shillings from me for the drink, and goes outside to buy some milk for the kids.

Brewing chang'aa 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'd already guessed that the sisters were prostitutes. All three of them, working together in the one room - the sleeping children pushed out of sight into the corner. The youngest sister, Tonica, doesn't look more than 14 herself.

John tells me later that she's the big attraction. "Men are attracted by her youth," he says. They spend an evening with the sisters, drink chang'aa, have sex, then fall asleep. The women steal a little extra money from their pockets."


Two dogs follow us, as we walk back up the hill towards the railway line. We turn a corner, and a drunk man lurches into us. He's got a bandage wrapped round one hand, and a rotten avocado in the other.

I can sense John and Isaac tense up, then relax as the man stumbles past.

"That fellow is the most dangerous man in Kibera," Isaac says. "Even when he's drunk. I've seen him take on four people. He's crazy."

In the dark, we can see small groups moving along a path, maybe 20 yards away. "Muggers," John whispers. "It's nearly 11 - this is when they go off to the estates, looking for people coming out of bars."

Just then, four men turn and head towards us. "Don't worry, I recognise these guys," John says, stepping forward to punch fists, Rasta-style. We all follow suit.

The men move off, laughing, walking along the railway track.

We stand for a while, looking back down the hill towards Nairobi. The clouds have cleared, and the sky is cold and full of stars. "Good," says Isaac. "No rain tonight, so no burglars in the slum."

"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."

Click here to read Andrew Harding's first piece

Kenyans choose a new president

Key stories

Inauguration day

Moi steps down




See also:

07 Dec 01 | Africa
Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |