Revolution #122, March 9, 2008

From A World to Win News Service

A Walk Through Kibera, a Year Before It Exploded

February 18, 2008. A World to Win News Service.  Kibera is one of the biggest slums around Nairobi. A local Kibera resident and political activist who was born there gave us an eye-opening tour in February 2007, after the World Social Forum in Nairobi. Kibera stretches some seven kilometers long and houses over a million people, though residents say the government constantly repeats that 500,000 live there in order to minimize the incredible density and intolerable conditions.

At first glance, you could hardly understand why the residents don’t rise up every day, the place is so congested, filthy and lacking in basic sanitation and hygiene. Our friend said it had been a miracle there hadn’t been major outbreaks of cholera. The government was building a few unaffordable cement block two-story apartment buildings up on the hill, in a buffer zone between the slum and the rich suburb (still inhabited by many white settlers) on the other side. Kibera residents pay rent to local slumlords, many of whom were of Nubian origin from the Sudan, brought to Kenya to fight against the Mau Maus. They have to get permission to alter even a wall of corrugated iron or packed mud. Six to eight families live in the structures, often with only one or two rooms for six to ten people. While collective taxis called matatus run routes in every direction, many workers save money and take a shortcut from Kibera by walking on the railroad track to the industrial zone in the south of Nairobi every day.

Small tin boxlike Christian churches dot the slums. Our guide said a new church opened up nearly every week, once a self-appointed preacher figures out he could collect from a congregation. Most seemed to be variants of Pentecostals, dividing and spreading rapidly in that part of the continent. A few more established Catholic churches also existed and ran primary schools. He said the church officials and staff actually lived in the slum too. The local mosque, also a box-like structure, was apparently well financed by the Asian community living in the middle and upper middle class areas north of Nairobi. I asked if they plough money into the slum generally, and was told no. He thought the high profile of the various churches might have something to do with how anger and revolt were controlled and suppressed.

Commercial activity ranged from shoes on a bedspread to undersupplied shelves in small wooden shops, to hair salons, and tiny restaurants, some indoors, some outdoors. Rents doubled or tripled if your home shack was anywhere close to these commercial roads. It seemed most residents had access to electricity, some paying and charging others for “deviations” while others engaged in more “free trade” siphoning. Underfoot were several million plastic carrying bags mixed with the hard mud and rocks that people had to scramble over to climb up to the inner row houses. A “river” used to run through the place. Now it is filled with waste and garbage. It made you furious at the authorities to watch children playing or even trying to wash or drink. Several water taps provide regular Nairobi water, which even many local people throughout the Nairobi area boil before drinking.

A few persistent rows of maize stalks are grown around the edges and the very rare trees are mostly banana trees.

We stumbled on what looked like a vacant lot, very out of place in a dense slum where every centimeter is employed to some end, and people there told the story of a struggle over evicting a family who couldn’t pay their rent. This ended in the local residents burning it down—if the evictees couldn’t live there, then no one would—and turning it into a small dirt “playing field” which is protected as such from any “developers” who would remove this symbol of their struggle. Our guide assured us that despite the appearance of tolerance and calm, a powder keg lay beneath the surface. The problem for Kenya’s rulers is that, although Kibera is the largest slum, over two million of Nairobi’s urban residents are living in 10 very similar slums scattered around the city’s outskirts.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations

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