I met Freddy a few months back when I was looking for a Nairobi-based guide to show me around town. We made contact, but it was only later that I finally had time to meet him in person. We make an appointment at the research institute compound where I’m staying, but the security guards won’t let him in. He calls me from the checkpoint where he has parked his dilapidated van. I walk to the gate and I can instantly spot him – a tall, muscular guy in his mid twenties, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. We say our hellos and I jump into his car under a disapproving gaze of the security guards.
Freddy is taking me to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, and possibly the biggest in the world. Freddy was born and raised and has lived all his life in Kibera, where he started a two-person tour company a few years ago, together with his friend and fellow Kibera-dweller Charles. They show tourists around the slum, raising money for local charitable projects.
We leave the car at a petrol station where we are joined by Charles and we start our walk. We enter Kibera through a large open-air market that sells just about anything in the whole world. It had been raining and the path is slippery. Soon we are covered in mud up to our knees.
Freddy and Charles are not particularly chatty, so after a few questions I follow them in silence. I’m well aware that this is not a safe place for a Westerner or for a woman. Freddy and Charles are the guarantors of my safety in what is the most dangerous spot in Nairobi, one of the unsafest cities in the world.
Everybody in the street seems to know my two guides. They stop to chat to friends and introduce me too. I smile shyly and get friendly smiles back. One of Freddy’s friends runs a stall with picturesque sacks of beans, lentils and other pulses and she allows me to shoot a few pictures. Most locals don’t seem very keen on pictures, so I shoot sparingly.
We walk down the main street lined with shops and small businesses: there is a cinema, a butcher’s, a newsagent’s, a beautician, a few restaurants, and countless fruit and veg stalls. I fill my backpack with ripe mangos and avocados that only cost pennies. The only brick building in sight is a massive church towering over the corrugated iron covered shacks.
We stop to buy a few fresh doughnuts from a street vendor who possesses exactly one frying pan on an open fire and a bottle of oil. He forms the dough balls on a makeshift piece of plastic placed directly on the ground. Then we continue, skidding and sliding on the mud, to the top of the hill from which we can see the entire Kibera. Looking down, I see mud huts covered with rusty tin roofs, packed so densely you can hardly see the gutters running between them. A tall bridge is cutting Kibera in half. In one spot, rather oddly, there is a grouping of modern high rise blocks of flats.
No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera. Most sources say a million, which would make it the most dense human settlement on the planet.
The slum formed after the war, with former soldiers and migrant workers from neighbouring countries and from rural areas looking for affordable accommodation. Several governments have tried to demolish Kibera over the years, with repeated failed attempts to rehouse its residents. The high rise blocks are one such attempt. The apartments there have running water, electricity and other mod cons, but the monthly rent turned out to be too much for the residents, who ended up abandoning their new accommodation to return to their shacks.
Kibera is a multiethnic settlement where Muslims and Christians, people from different countries and regions, live side by side, not always peacefully. Lack of basic facilities, overcrowding, drugs, persistent poverty and unemployment fuel conflict.
Most residents of Kibera get by on less than a dollar a day. Around 10% own their shacks, and most rent them for about 7 GBP per month. Most have no electricity or water. Until recently the only water supply to Kibera was sourced illegally from the nearby Nairobi dam. Nowadays there are just two water pipes. Residents pay for water and long queues by the communal water points are a common sight. There is one latrine toilet for thousands of people, which explains why gutters and roadsides in Kibera smell the way they do. The so-called flying toilets are a real Kibera nuisance. People place their excrements in a plastic bag and throw it into the gutter or directly in the street, polluting waterways and spreading disease.
We pass by a few toilet facilities, all of them accessible for a fee and with guarded entry. One is a modern biogas toilet. It costs as much as regular pit latrines, five Kenyan shillings a visit, but it also converts human waste into gas that can be used as fuel.
Kibera has no government-run health services, only private initiatives for the most part operated by foreign NGOs. The majority of kids are schooled in the informal sector, as fees in government establishments are simply too high.
We continue walking. At one point I spot two white women painting flowers on the wall of one of the larger shacks. It turns out to be a cooperative run by HIV positive women. Initially set up to shield its members from poverty and discrimination, it has now expanded its reach to other women in the community. The group runs bead-making workshops and tailoring classes for local girls. I chat with a young American who volunteers there before her final year at university. She claims that a few weeks in Kibera have been the most eye-opening experience of her life.
Our next stop is a bone factory. A group of men are sitting on the ground in a small dusty room, chopping, trimming and drilling in cattle bones. Meat is expensive and no part of the animal ever goes to waste in Kibera. Bones are made into kitchen utensils and jewellery. When we pass by a large rubbish dump I notice people trawling through the pile, looking for items that can be sold or recycled. Nothing is rubbish here, everything is a potential income-generating opportunity.
What fascinates me about Kibera is the sheer number of small businesses of all kinds, and the constant frenzy of activity. The muddy streets are buzzing with life. I can see why Kibera was declared the most entrepreneurial place on earth. All around me people are making, selling and buying stuff. Women are washing dishes and clothes, children are playing, animals are running around in the streets. It is noisy, it is lively, it is a concoction of smells, most of them not unpleasant, like freshly made food.
A rather depressing sight is the notorious Uganda Railway connecting Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, which runs right across Kibera. A few times a day trains tear through the slum with little concern for the people living there. But even there, among the filth directly dumped on the tracks, there is life and there is joy.
A group of boys are running around, chasing a yellow football. They run up to me curiously, shouting out about the recent Chelsea-Arsenal game and wanting to know who I support.
We walk on and finish the tour at Freddy’s house over a drink. Then our ways part, me returning to the expat compound behind barbed wire, and Freddy returning to his hut in Kibera.
I know that many people have ethical objections about ‘slum tourism’ and would rather stay out of such areas. I have my doubts too, but I’m invariably drawn to those vibrant places where life is tough, real, palpable. From Dharavi in Mumbai to Khayelitsha in Cape Town, shantytowns have energy that more affluent places do not. And so many stories.