Tag Archives: nairobi. fire

Tragedy in Kenya

Joseph Mwangi, 34, sits in a state of shock after discovering the charred remains of two of his children at the scene of a fuel explosion in Nairobi on Monday. Image: Ben Curtis / AP

Today, a gasoline explosion killed more than 100 people in a slum in Nairobi.  The ones who did not burn to death were left badly injured .  Here is a description of the scene from Jeffrey Gettleman:

The whole slum seemed to spring into action, with men, women and children grabbing buckets, oil tins, battered yellow jerry cans — anything to carry the spilled fuel. Even minibuses raced in from miles away, looking for free gas, a small godsend in a place where most people are jobless and live in rusty metal shacks that rent for $25 a month.

But then the wind shifted, witnesses on Monday said, and embers from the garbage fires that routinely burn by the river wafted toward the gushing pipeline. There was no time to escape. The fuel exploded, sending a giant fireball shooting up over the slum, engulfing scores of people and scattering bodies that were left in various poses of anguish, burned to the bone.

I don’t know much about Sinai slum, other than that the company I work for operates a school serving the community.  It is similar to the 65 other slums in Nairobi, which house more than 50% of the city’s population, yet occupy only 5% of the land.  You can imagine the circumstances that lead to a tragedy like this.

My friends and family emailed to check in and see if I was affected, but the reality is the slums are another world from the other parts of Nairobi.  Yesterday, I was thinking about writing a post on the cognitive dissonance that stems from seeing the Kenya I see, and the fact that the country is considered the 16th most failed state in the world.  But I suppose this is it.  The growing middle class and cosmopolitan young people that make Nairobi a culturally diverse and sophisticated African city stand in stark contrast to the kind of poverty that drives people to the site of a gasoline spill, risking their lives to earn a few extra bucks.  Gettleman again:

Residents of the Sinai slum, where the fire broke out, said that fuel spills happened all the time.

“I can remember four times,” said Zackiyo Mwangi, a vendor of pirated CDs. “People started saying this morning, ‘There’s a spill, in the usual place, let’s get over there.’ ”

“Yeah, I know,” Mr. Mwangi added, “it’s dangerous, but that’s how life is here.”

“This just shows you how these people will do anything to generate a coin,” said Johnson Muthama, a member of Parliament. “Just look at them.” He gestured toward a crowd of thousands of onlookers, mostly young men in grubby clothes, staring gape-mouthed at all the bodies on the ground. “They are ready to risk their lives for anything.”

It is a tragedy.  100 people, including children, were killed.  They shouldn’t have been anywhere near a broken gas line.  Until the conditions change for Nairobi slum dwellers, the desperation that created this situation will remain.  And that desperation will drive people to do it again.  That is the real tragedy.

A woman is comforted after she saw the body of her child at the scene of a gasoline explosion in a slum area of Nairobi. (Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images / September 12, 2011)

Also, I need to comment on the photo at the top of this post.  Few photos have affected me in the way this one has.  For the last two days, I’ve come back and stared at this photo, which captures so vividly the numbness and despair when someone loses a child.  This man, Joseph Mwangi, lost two of his children to the inferno.  What is amazing about this photo, to me, is that it captures a moment in time that speaks to the despair felt by everyone in the community.  This is the moment of realization after the initial confusion – somewhere on the spectrum of denial, anger, and acceptance.   I can only imagine the grief he is feeling right now.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.  After a period of mourning, everyone needs to take a long, hard look at the institutions responsible for creating this tragedy and demand a change.  I’m afraid the fire in Sinai Lunga Lunga won’t be enough.