Sunday, 22 April 2007

Kibera Part III - The Terminator 2 and other stories

In the absense of real jobs, as unemployment rate in Kenya is around 40%, people create their own ways of making money. Some of them fascinating and worth sharing.

As the car was driving us to our next interview, we spotted a piece of carton with "The Terminator 2 - 2 pm" written on it by hand. We looked down and there was this slightly bigger corrigated iron house with big wide open double doors. Inside, a big plasma screen and a flashy new dvd player. Genius!

As we continued, we went to a slightly bigger home. The home of Dora, a single mum of 4. In her home we could see two beds separated by curtains, a dining table with a mobile phone on it, a small kitchen and a TV. She is a lucky person, as she says herself. She has a steady job and the means to support all 4 of her children. No husbands though. On her face, a few scars. Probably a few more in her heart.

Dora is a classic reflection of another interesting cultural nugget of Africa. "The need to shine for others" as she well put it herself. She said there are days that nor herself neither her children eat. That is so she can save money to buy a new mobile phone. A swanky Motorla Razr.

"but why?", I asked. "Because nobody can tell wether you've eaten or not. But everybody can tell the kind of person you are by your mobile phone."

Before leaving her home to escort us out of the Kibera, she paused, washed her hands and face and put Vaseline on. "but why?", I asked. "because my skin need to shine for others to see. If not they will think I'm a bad housewife, a bad mother. "

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Kibera Part II - The car battery millionaire and other stories

Bebe, her husband and their 3 kids live in this 5m x 3m corrigated iron cubicle in the Kibera. In it, 2 small sofas (fit for 3 children to sleep), a table, a dividing curtain, a bed, a TV and a mobile phone. No kitchen. No bathroom. No stove. No fridge.

Yes. They all have TVs. In fact. The richest men in the Kibera is the guy who, in the early 80s, discovered that car batteries could work as power stations for black and white TVs. Busiest and most profitable time of his life in that over populated jungle with no energy supply. He started with 200 car batteries. A 'gift from god' apparently. He ended up with more than 5,000 batteries sold in the first year. 'God' was a very generous with him. Plenty of spare car batteries to give. If only the same principle applied to food in Africa.

Back to Bebe's interview. Although our intention was to interview her, her husband took the lead throughout the whole session... as he well put it: "I am the bread winner so I am the one who talks."Nina, native Research International researcher, told me that sexual and domestic violence is a very serious issue in Kenya. Black male Kenyans tend to behave as dominating alpha males. As a practical consequence, in Kenya for example, black male Africans refuse to use condoms as they perceive them as something to be ashamed of, a public humiliation. Needless to say, HIV is rocketing in Kenya, where nearly half of the population is now infected. Another consequence of all this is in fact quite disturbing. Kenya has a very high incidence of baby rapes, as men infected by the disease, in their ignorance, are made to believe by local priests that a baby is a pure entity that can absorb Aids and cure them. Bligh me... Today, over 100,000 Kenyans die every year from the deadly disease, The World Health Foundation says, with the majority of new infections occurring in young people, especially women aged between 15-24 years.

When asking Bebe's husband about their weekend plans, a simple two-fold answer:church - as it's free and they have no money to afford anything else and funeral - as there's someone dying of Aids in the Kibera community every week. Instead of a mortgage or a savings account, Kenyans contribute every month to the Funeral Fund. Every single family.

Looking around while her husband was doing the talking, I'm coming to realise more and more how tiny their home is, and only 20 minutes have past... imagine living there 24 x 7. That was a crude snapshot of life as it is in the Kibera. Where people have to live everyday cramed together. There's no such thing as privacy. The cultural impact this has on the community and family institution is fascinating. Families in the Kibera are very close, too close. Everyone has dinner together every night (or whenever there's food), shower together and watch TV together. At the Kibera, neighbours are family too. Values like trust, altruism, hope, faith in each other were mentioned by all people we talked to in Kenya. It is part of their cultural essence. Be it family, friend, neighbour or a newcomer in the Kibera.

These embeded values bring another interesting consequence. There's a lot of morality and integrity in this people. With that in mind, some people contribe every month to a community fund scheme called 'Merry-go-round'. In this scheme, friends and family that belong to the Kibera community join in. They contribute every month with a small amount and each month one person receives a big chunk of money - like a pyramid scheme, only with total strangers, no contract.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Kibera Part I - A forgotten place to remember

I am sitting on a leather bench of a silver A200 mercedez, squashed between a local Research International lady called Nina and a client who's already bored of being in that car for nearly two hours in one of the most notorious traffic jam paradises in Africa. Right at the heart of Nairobi in Kenya. It's 9:45 on a Friday morning, and any second now, we will be arriving at the biggest, poorest and most unstable slum in Africa. A place called Kibera.

Our mission is to spend a day with a few women and their families, understanding how is life for families and women living in the Kibera and the importance of Vaseline in the context of their everyday life.

It's damn hot today. At this time of year in Nairobi, a hot sun cuts through the grey clouds with intensity enough to fry a few eggs on top of your head.

From the main road we turned left and parked for a moment in front of the tiny and only entrance of the Kibera. After a few calls, half an hour waiting in a boiling hot Mercedez and a nervous breakdown, the researcher in charge of the visit broke the news: "the security guards are not coming anymore."

Why did we need sec guards, you ask?

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. Exactly. Jungle. No man's land. A place where the police doesn't dare going in - except for collecting bribes - I kid you not.

Well, enough of all the background, back to the front gate of the Kibera.

At that point my heart is of the size of a pea as we were all facing a dilemma: do we go in... as in a 'may-the-force-be-with-us' kind of way or do we go back to our lodge and spend a day drinking Bellinis by the pool?

No brainer, isn't it? We obviously went for it.

We waited for Bebe, our first interviewee, to join us in the car so we could be allowed in the Kibera 'with safety'.

So there the flashy A200 Mercedez went, all the way to the heart of the Kibera, through a narrow road covered with rubbish but no pavement. The driver drove really slowly as there was a lot of rubbish, people cooking, defecating on the streets (even though there are toilets nearby, donated by Unicef).

Also children, lots of them. Jumping, smiling, waving and clinging on the car screaming "how are you? how are you? how are youuu???"

"They look so happy. And have so little." I said. Bebe replied: "They are free. That's why they are happy."

Looking around from her car seat, Bebe said "My home", without looking at me.
The smells leaps into the car. Wood fires, old smelly fried fish, excrement, rubbish - the rich stench of 800,000 people living in a ditch. Which is, basically, what the Kibera slum is. Six hundred acres of mud, filth and thousands of corrigated iron cubicles. You won't find it on your tourist map - or any other map. It's a squatters camp - a forgotten city - and at least one third of Nairobi lives here. Still, I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life at the most miserable and 'forgotten' spot in the world that day. A day, a place to remember for a long long time.