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.


Faz the Cat said...

keep blogging baby - nice to see you for breakfast. CEL

Elkie said...

I have been to Kibera, years ago as a twelve year old. I rarely felt so out of place, and hated being a tourist so much. The images you take from here don't sit comfortably with those of the massive ice cream swan waiting for you back for afternoon tea at the hotel.
What does it feel like to interview people on Vaseline when you see all this?