Slum Talk: Some Notes on Kibera

Posted on July 4, 2011


Yesterday I spent a little time talking to a driver name Daniel M. Interesting fellow and we sat around chatting for a few hours about his views on Kenya and his job—he got tired of driving for a cab company, so in 2005 he decided to start his own driving service. The car he started with, borrowed, was stolen soon after he began, but he’s worked his way back and has a five-car operation with ten drivers. Industrious fellow, Daniel.

He gave me a few interesting insights: If someone doesn’t haggle with you, you know they’re probably planning to steal something from you, or even to try to take your car. People will steal your mirrors in traffic, then sell them back to you at big markets of stolen goods. But the reduced price they sell at means that, if you mark your mirrors, you can buy better ones from the criminals, decreasing the cost of necessary repairs on your vehicle.

His explanation for crime in the city? It’s clustered around the worst planned areas—it’s rampant in Kibera, the huge slum, mainly because it’s hard for anyone who doesn’t live there to navigate within the streets. But the rich areas don’t even worry about secure fences because they’re far too open—it’s harder to escape the law when one has few places to hide and little familiarity with the environment. It’s a good logic for the clusters of crime in the city and the lack of expansion into certain neighborhoods.

And he told me about his experience as a refugee, having fled his farm when the Kikuyu tribe was attacked in his home region during some civil violence twenty years ago. Now he says his identity is so distinctly immigrant that he can’t go back, but is not certainly a member of “Nairobi” either. Odd then that he’s so suspicious of Somali immigrants (I do want to visit their neighborhood—Little Mogadishu). He sees new mosques going up and fears that these remarkably wealthy refugees will collapse the culture of the city he has come to call home.

Perhaps I can see it … get displaced by ethnic violence and you’re unlikely to be too happy watching serious ethnic shifts and prospective challenges and violence in your new home.

But what I really wanted to write a bit about were the things he and others have told me about Kibera. I’ve heard quite a bit about the slum and it’s started to paint a picture to me, the composite of many sources, as to how life works there. I’m fascinated by the order and society that forms where governments and welfare fail, so of course I’m attracted to the slum and Daniel actually took me around the edges so I could get a first-hand view.

So, I’ll do this in bullet points to avoid my usual infinite writing style. Things I know about the way Kibera works:

–       Massive slum by the rail tracks, seen as fairly dangerous for outsiders, but less so to insiders. I’m told it’s difficult to get in, but once you’re inside the slum and know someone, the policing measures they’ve developed within the slum making it relatively safe. As an outsider without protection, you run the risk of being seen as an invader and they can and will steal from you free of repercussion. But in a system where survival depends upon trust, no one will wrong you if you’re in the protection of someone with good knowledge and good standing.

–       Along those lines, people within the slum have started to develop indigenous credit systems, pooling communal money under the aegis of local leaders to be monitored and shelled out to provide for the community. Security, credit, and I believe I’ve heard some tell of a natively designed slum-run health service as well. Fascinating how people pick up the slack when governments fail.

–       But the government’s not failing totally. All along the edges of Kibera are nice developments. They’re like the Projects in America, but with heat, water, and electricity, they’re still very fine homes for a poverty-level Kenyan. Within the slums themselves there’s much shitting into paper bags and throwing them onto the streets. And the government grants them to slum dwellers to break the slum. But, as was born out by the age and emptiness of the developments, many who take up the government’s offers for the houses abandon them shortly and move back to the slums.

–       Some people think they’re just too lazy to pay taxes and buy their own light bulbs and such. But I suspect that the communal provisions were much more comfortable in Kibera—the sense of closeness and relative safety more. And the ostricization from one’s community when one leaves for the developments could be quite detrimental.

–       The most clever just sublet their houses as long as they can without the government noticing, then use that money to buy amenities that outclass their tin-roof slum homes: big screen TVs and fancy cars and such. Apparently this is chic, to show one’s wealth, but not to spend wealth on utilities or other such things that could improve the slum standard of living outside the basic provisions of security. I don’t fully understand it, but this podcast might have some of the answers:

So that’s what I know right now. I’ll keep investigating and keep on yammering about it. But if anyone reads this and has some thoughts on the operations of life and values in slums/governmentless (okay, traditional governmentless) societies, let me know in the comments!

Posted in: Uncategorized