Nairobi remains as vibrant, active, and electric as she’s always been, a bustling hub of activities under the equatorial sun. It’s heartening to note the progress that has been made here in terms of infrastructure and architecture as I stated yesterday. Similarly, it’s rather disquieting to note the exacerbation of several fundamental factors that are central to the long term development of Kenya.
My focus in this article is on one of the most controversial housing projects in the history of the African continent, the slum settlement of Kibera, home to over 250’000 people who live in or close to abject poverty. I drove past Kibera yesterday around rush hour, confronted on both sides by the rush of pedestrians on their way home to the slum back from work. The road was teeming with one swank SUV after another, a colourful parade of the toys of the wealthy in the faces of the poorest of the poor. On either side of the car expressions of desperation and suffering were the order of the day, etched irrefutably candidly on the fatigued faces of the masses of oncoming pedestrians as they trekked home to their misery after slaving away for the interests of the rich. One has to be extraordinarily inhuman or blind not to have sensed the tremendously potent undertone of untold suffering in the air, and this was merely on the outskirts of Kibera.
The History of Kibera
Kibera is Africa’s second largest slum settlement after South Africa’s Soweto and was originally created by the colonialist British government as a settlement for Nubian soldiers returning from the first world war. The status of these ex war soldiers as former servants of the British crown coupled with the fact that they laid no claim to “native reserves” by virtue of the fact that they were “detribalized natives” meant that the British government of the time negated to interfere in the development of the settlement. This punctuated the commencement of the sprawl of Kibera, as local tribes migrated to the area to rent affordable housing from the resident Nubian population. Kenya’s attainment of independence in 1963 saw Kibera declared an illegal settlement by the new government. Notwithstanding, migration to the settlement continued relatively unabated such that by 1974 the Nubian population’s status as the dominant ethnic group in Kibera was ousted by the influx of members of the Kikuyu tribe who took over administrative control via political patronage.
The ethnic makeup of the slum has altered over time such that most ethnic groups in Kenya are numerically represented to one extent or another the way things stand at present, though the Luo and Luya tribes constitute the dominant population. The implications of this dominion in the context of the fact that the prime minister of Kenya, (Raila Odinga) is himself both a Luo and a member of parliament for the area that Kibera is situated in have had worrying undertones for ethnic conflict in the nation inasmuch by providing him with access to a sizeable demonstration force from within the Kibera community. The aforesaid force has been used frequently as a tool to upset harmony in the nation via violent expressions of the political agendas of the prime minister. It has to be said that the political agendas of the president (Mwai Kibaki) have also been represented in similar fashion albeit from within support groups within other slum areas such as Kibera’s neighbouring slum quarter, Mathare Valley where the dominant population is of the Kikuyu tribe, just like the president himself. In both cases, the political and ideological conflicts of both leaders have been wrongfullly translated into a conflict based on ethnic grounds, as controversial and as ironic as such a misconception may be, reflecting a tragic, prevalent cancer that has hacked away at Africa’s spinal chord for centuries.
The Dynamics of Kibera
Kibera lies approximately 5 km’s from Nairobi’s city centre in the southwest of the city. The southern fringe of the settlement borders the Nairobi Dam, and the Nairobi river. The affordable housing prices in the slum area attract Kenya’s poor from far and wide many of whom migrate from rural areas plagued by chronic underdevelopment and lack of opportunities. Tragically however, the hell they leave is not replaced by the heaven they seek in any way. Living conditions in Kibera are some of the harshest in the world, characterised by a lack of sewage systems, the use of flying toilets (paper bags containing fecal material that are deposited or hurled onto rooftops, garbage heaps or simply as far away from ones home as possible) poor access to safe driking water and abject impoverishment. Crime typically thrives under such fertile conditions. Kibera is rife with incidents of both violent and petty crime, exacerbated by the lack of any form of police presence in the area implying that law and order, like any other government-provided services are completely and totally non existent and based on power inequalities that exploit the powerless and furnish the powerful.
The definition of anarchy could not possibly be epitomised in a more quintessential capacity than by the tragedy of Kibera, a tragedy that has not been tackled in any tangible manner by any government or ruling power in the history of Kenya. Ironically however, many of Kibera’s residents constitute the working class majority that slaves away selflessly for the interests of the upper echelons of Kenyan society, to whom their political rights and liberties are trusted needless to say to to imminent avail and with no sustainable effect. The dire plight of Africa’s second largest slum area has been wrongfully and sadistically exploited by Kenya’s politicians who have used its problems as a fertile breeding ground for their ideological ethos , exploiting ethnic differences to champion their political statuses and dividing an entire city and nation in the process. And hence, as another day comes to pass, Kibera’s problems get a little bit more grave, a little more pronounced and far more tragic. Invariably, Kibera’s tragedy is not its own alone, but that of an entire nation and indeed of an entire continent. The repression of the lowest of the low in the social system for the benefit of upper society who continue to wallow away in their materialistic grandiloquence is no stranger to Africa. The question is when will it ever end ? Will it ever end ?