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Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Nairobi slum life: Escaping Kibera
Businesses do thrive in Kibera despite the filth

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

Elizabeth Wambui has been plotting her escape for years. She is 22 years old and is beautiful. Her long hair is meticulously straightened.

She's standing inside her mother's shop in the middle of the Kibera slum. The small courtyard outside has been swept clean. An old portrait of President Moi hangs above a fridge full of coke and sprite bottles.

I want to become an IT specialist. I'll earn good money and move the whole family out of Kibera

Elizabeth has just come back from her lessons at Nairobi University. She's studying commerce. "I have to be home well before seven," she says. "It's very dangerous here after dark."

A couple of the girls in her class know she lives in the slum. "But I try to keep it a secret," she says.

"The teachers talk about Kibera like its some sort of filthy jungle. Like no one intelligent could possibly live here. They're snobs. Sure, it's dirty. But we can still afford the basics."


Elizabeth is a member of the Kikuyu tribe - the largest and richest tribe in Kenya. Her parents built their brick house in the slum years ago.

Over the years, they've built other wooden shacks nearby to rent out. They've also got the shop - and a water pipeline - half a mile of tubing which they've connected up to the city mains. The tap in the courtyard is a lucrative business.

Elizabeth's mother, a large woman called Teresia, shuffles in slowly on her flip-flops, wiping her hands. She's been manning the tap all morning. Three shillings to fill a jerry can - maybe a hundred customers a day.

"I'm not telling you how much we earn," she says. "But business is ok. I moved here from the countryside in 1987 to be with my husband. He was born here."

Like her daughter, Teresia is immaculately dressed. Her cream shirt is like a gesture of defiance. A two-fingered salute to the mud and squalor surrounding their little courtyard.

"This place is not so bad most of the time," she says. "But the clashes were terrible. We thought we'd all be burned alive."


On 4 December 2001 - the slum suddenly turned into a battlefield: a blur of machetes, gunfire, burning huts and fleeing crowds. By the time the fighting stopped, a week later, at least 15 people were dead.

Water pipe in Kibera
It costs three shillings to fill a jerry can
The roots of Kibera's violence go way back. In fact, if you're looking for someone to blame - you could try the British.

In the 1920s the British colonial government here decided let a group of Nubian soldiers settle on a wooded hillside outside Nairobi. The Nubians - an ethnic group from neighbouring Sudan - had been fighting on the side of the allies in World War One, as part of the King's African Rifles.

They had done a good job, and the British were toying with the idea of keeping them on after the war. But then the colonial authorities had second thoughts, and told the Nubians they could put down their guns, and live on their hillside.

For some reason, though, the British never gave the Nubians the title deeds to their new land. The soldiers built homes, and set up businesses. But they were squatters - with no legal rights. They called the place - Kibra, meaning jungle.

Over the years, other tribes moved into the area. Some managed to carve out their own plots of land. But most became tenants - renting their huts off the Nubian landlords.


Fast forward to the present day and the population has exploded - from a few thousand to almost a million. The country has been independent for almost 40 years.

But the Kenyan Government has done precisely nothing for Kibera. No title deeds, no sewage pipes, no roads... no services of any kind. And of course, they have the perfect excuse - after all, the slum is still illegal.

From time to time, politicians do come to Kibera - but for their own purposes. Usually to whip up support from their own tribe, by lashing out at the Nubians.

Which is exactly what happened last December. President Moi, who lives - some of the time - in a mansion overlooking Kibera, blithely announced that the rents there were too expensive. A local MP from the Luo tribe parroted the same line - and within a few days - the Luos and the Nubians were killing each other.

Elizabeth and her family survived, unscathed behind their courtyard gates. But the violence left her more determined than ever to find a way out of the slum.

"I'm the oldest child," she says. "My parents have sacrificed a great deal to put me through college. I want to become an IT specialist. I'll earn good money and move the whole family out of Kibera."

Unfortunately Kenya's economy has been going through it's worst recession since independence. "The job market is bad right now, " Elizabeth concedes. "But maybe in five years' time..."

She sits down on a chair and switches on a small television. "I like the soaps... Days of Our Lives, the Bold and the Beautiful."

The family got electricity installed in the house quite recently. The bill comes to a PO Box in town. "Imagine a postman coming to Kibera," Elizabeth laughs.

"There are no streets here. No house numbers. They would never find us."

Outside, a thin electrical cable snakes over the courtyard wall, and across a corrugated field of brown tin roofs.

Click here to read Andrew Harding's first three pieces.

Kenyans choose a new president

Key stories

Inauguration day

Moi steps down




See also:

07 Dec 01 | Africa
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