Desperation in the Slums of Nairobi

Desperation in the Slums of Nairobi

SLUM LIFE: A girl stood outside a school in the Mukuru kwa Njenga slum in Nairobi, Kenya. An Amnesty International Report says the government has failed to incorporate slums, leaving women vulnerable to sexual and other attacks. (Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

On Thursday, I shadowed a colleague of mine as he conducted a survey of one of the slum communities where we have several schools.  For the last few months, I have been analyzing data about the communities where we build schools and understand where demand is highest.  Having spent months looking at scatter plots, I hoped the trip would provide better context and illuminate some of the nuances hidden within the data.  As it turned out, the trip did more than that – it exposed me to the worst poverty I have ever seen.

I met Dickens, a research associate with the company, near the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  After a quick breakfast, we walked a half hour through markets, past the bus station where a group of al-Shabaab sympathizers recently threw four grenades into a crowd of people, killing four and wounding dozens more.   We picked up a matatu heading to Lunga Lunga, the densely-populated slum in the industrial area near the airport, arriving at around 9 in the morning.  This is the same slum where a leaking gas line exploded, killing 75 people.  Once you step away from the main road and down into the slums, you find yourself in a maze of narrow roads and alleys surrounded on all sides by shacks made of corrugated iron sheets.

The industrial slum – also known as Mukuru Kwa Njenga – is actually one of the better slums in Nairobi, which is not saying much.  It’s proximity to manufacturing facilities – we surveyed a woman whose home literally bordered a 10-meter wall surrounding a factory – means the residents of the slums have better access to casual manual labor and, if they are lucky, salaried employment.  This access to economic opportunities is one of the main reasons people move to this slum in the first place.

Dickens is a field guy.  He began working at the company a few months ago after a stint running a survey team with a public health organization.   He has a deep knowledge of the conditions in both the rural areas and the urban slums.  When our GPS device failed to give us directions to the school, we stopped to ask a group of a boy and two girls in their late teens.  The girls were drunk and standing outside of a church, where they were picking up their ARVs – the anti-retroviral drugs that prevent HIV from turning into full-blown AIDS and reduce the risk of transmission.

At 6.7%, the HIV rate in Kenya is low compared to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.  But transmission rates in the slums are high; an estimated 14% of the residents of Korogocho, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, are HIV-positive.  In this slum, where men are paid more frequently, it may even be higher.  Because of the stigma attached to positive status, people prefer to pick up their ARVs from churches rather than hospitals.  We thanked them for the directions and went to find the school.

These slums were one of the first places where we opened our schools.  We have more than five in an area of only a few square kilometers.  Our school in Lunga Lunga is one of the most successful in our network, and watching the children run around the playground and gave some much-needed tangible meaning to the work I am doing.  After meeting the school manager, Patrick, we walked past the school and over a rickety bridge spanning a trash- and sewage-filled stream toward the community where we would continue our research.

residents in the usual conditions of Nairobi's Mukuru-kwa-Njenga slum. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

While Dickens conducted the survey in Kiswahili, the local language, I jotted down observations and questions in my notebook, not wanting to influence the answers of the respondents.  When a person sees a white person conducting a survey in the slums, they may have an incentive to make their situation seem more desperate in order to secure money.  Whether or not this was the case, I kept my distance during most interviews.

After an interview conducted in a small alleyway, we stepped back into the main road running through the slum –barely wide enough to fit a car – where we saw a young man in his late teens or early twenties being held and pushed by five other men.  Dickens shook his head and speculated that the man had been caught stealing.  “This is not going to end well,” he said.  In the slums, where people are already consumed by stress and on edge from the sheer desperation, mob justice often trumps the formal legal channels.  In the best case scenario, the police would intervene before anything could happen.  More likely, the men took him to the place where he was accused of stealing and beat him mercilessly, possibly to death.  In Kenyan slums, death by beating, stoning, or necklacing for the crime of stealing is not uncommon.  In this case, I don’t know what happened, and I am not sure I want to.

After Dickens finished the surveys, I asked if we could find our school in a part of the slum known as Tassia.  I wanted to see how the school was situated in the community in order to understand how location influences the number of students.  As we walked further down the road, Dickens and I noticed the number of people outside their homes growing smaller until it finally became empty.  When the street opened up into a massive dumpsite filled with burning trash, it became quickly apparent why this part of town was empty.  Dumpsites are notoriously dangerous, as idle youths mill around, drinking chang-a, the local brew, and robbing anyone who happens to venture too close.  Dickens made the decision to go back, and I agreed.  So we turned around and exited the slum along the same road from which we entered.  We caught a matatu back to town and called it a day.

The Dandora waste dumping site is an unrestricted dumping site that contains many hazardous materials. The United Nations did a study of more than 300 schoolchildren near Dandora and found that about 50% of them had respiratory problems. Also, 30% had blood abnormalities that signaled heavy-metal poisoning. (Photo Credit: Brendan Bannon)

The slums of Nairobi are a horrible place to live.  They are cramped, unsanitary, and dangerous.  Girls walking home from school risk being raped along the way, and murders go unnoticed by the media.  Life is as cheap as the rent, which is next to nothing.  I have been to the rural areas of Ghana and the Philippines and seen poverty of a different sort, where people still live hand-to-mouth, but still live a decent, if not difficult, existence.

The urban slums are another kind of poverty altogether.  They are the product of poorly-planned urbanization, corruption, and general indifference on the part of those who could do something about it.  Half of the population of Nairobi – about 2 million people – lives in an area that covers only 5% of the land.  And most people are trapped, forced to grind out a miserable existence or move back to the country, to a different kind of poverty.

I’m glad I went out to the slums, since it gave me perspective, both in my work and my life.  Some people have it bad.  And I am thankful I am not one of them.


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