Curse of Geography :Kibera (part 1)

“I really think it’s time to go,” our guide says as he nervously glances at his phone that glows half past five. Around us, as if on an unspoken cue, the air of urgency and anxiety thickens, and it strikes us that we have lost track of time and we urgently need to conclude our assignment.

As the dreaded 7pm curfew looms, Faith Atieno and her team of artists from Art360 wind down. From afar, the mural they have been working on since morning looks exquisite in the fading light with glints of eye-catching detail. Although it looks complete, Bernard Mavyuva, an artist involved in the project, tells us that work on the mural is far from over. They still have to include more details that could take another eight hours. But due to the curfew, they have to stop, head back home and live to paint another day.

Dusk approaches and in about an hour and a half the dreaded government curfew will kick in. If we don’t start moving, we will be trapped deep in Kibera and likely become sitting ducks for the notorious police patrols who infiltrate the slum at nightfall to enforce curfew. In tense and unanimous agreement, we quickly start disassembling and packing our camera gear into our backpacks, making sure we have all the memory cards from the day’s footage. “Let’s walk up to the junction and get the Uber from there,” our cinematographer suggests. We say our goodbyes to Faith and her team, bumping elbows rather than shaking hands or sharing hugs, as is the agreed upon new norm amidst the pandemic. We promise to return the next day to witness the unveiling of the completed mural.

Kibera-(Schreibkraft courtesy of wiki commons)

On the following day, our journey to Kibera begins at Nairobi’s central business district. Heading southwest, the city skyline dotted with skyscrapers gives way to well-maintained tarmac roads lined with trees and lush green foliage as the scenery transitions to the upmarket Kilimani residential district and shopping areas. As we drive through Upper Hill, the most visible site of Nairobi’s property boom, and onto Ngong Road, there are hints of the sharp contrast that lies ahead. On one side of Ngong Road is the affluent, previously whites-only, Kilimani Estate, where modern high-rise apartments have elbowed their way next to colonial-era bungalows and gated estates. On the other side of Ngong Road, a warren of tiny shacks huddled together on dirt paths become visible as we enter Kibera—one of the largest and most densely populated slums in the world.

The contrast between the leafy suburbs and the grim adjoining shanty town of Kibera is jarring. The northern border of the slum follows the contours of the fifth hole of Royal Nairobi Golf Club—an exclusive colonel-era golf course built in 1906 for the leisure of officers serving in the King’s African Rifles. While the southern boundary is demarcated by the thin, polluted Nairobi river and the large concrete walls that form a perimeter around an upper middle-class gated neighborhood—a none-too-subtle reminder of the physical segregation between the haves and have-nots. Kibera is known euphemistically as Lower Karen, a sardonic reminder of its diminutive socio-economic stature and proximity to its wealthy suburban neighbor Karen, named after the Danish expatriate and author of Out of Africa Karen Blixen.

Before Kibera became a sprawling slum, it was a forested pastureland used by the Maasai people to graze their cattle. Towards the end of the 19th century, British surveyors arrived at a small watering hole on the high plains above the Rift Valley called Enkare Nairobi (“Cold Water”) by the Maasai, where they set out to establish a railway settlement. They immediately expropriated the land and pushed the Maasai out to make room for white settlers. Using Nairobi as a central depot, the Uganda Railway was completed, linking the interior of Kenya and Uganda to the coastal port of Mombasa. The railroad opened the Great Lakes region to resource exploitation and overseas trade and facilitated the deployment of colonial troops to remote British East Africa military outposts to quell “native” uprisings.

In 1904, just five years after the railway reached Nairobi, British colonial administrators established army barracks and a training ground for regiments of the East African Army about four miles southwest of Nairobi’s central railway station. A large forested area next to the barracks was allocated for the living quarters of 300 retired Nubian (Sudanese) soldiers who had served in the King’s African Rifles. They named the settlement Kibra (now Kibera) after the Nubian term for “jungle,” and lived rent-free as a form of “unofficial pension” for their military service.

King’s African Rifles, Kenya, 1902. (Image from UK National Archives)

Meanwhile, a succession of colonial governors passed legislation aimed at restricting Kenyan natives and immigrants from elsewhere in Africa from settling near the administrative centre of Nairobi. A prime example of colonial redlining was the 1922 Vagrancy Act, which sanctioned the demolition of “unauthorized huts” and led to the arrest and forcible eviction of thousands of “unemployed” Africans from the city.

Systemic racial segregation dates back to Nairobi’s first European settlements—Muthaiga Township was designated solely for Europeans, while neighboring Eastleigh, for example, was predominantly populated by Indian and well-to-do Somalis. In 1925, colonial administrators went so far as to blacklist “vagrants,” “vagabonds,” “barbarians,” “savages” and “Asians” as a pretext to curtailing freedom of movement and restricting non-Europeans from enjoying public spaces. Africans working in low-level positions for the colonial administration could only apply for temporary permits to live in “native reserves” situated peripheries of the city.

By the early 1930s, increasing numbers of “unauthorized” natives from rural areas of Kenya were drawn to the growing metropolis in search of work. Some settled in unoccupied sections of the city, despite the ever-present threat of arrest and eviction hanging over their heads, while others made their way to Kibera with the hope of renting plots of land from aging former Nubian soldiers of the King’s African Rifles, who held the original permits. Undeveloped land was rented on the cheap and new residents gradually constructed a makeshift shanty town out of mud, sticks, scrap metal and iron sheets—anything to fashion roofs over their heads. Nearly one hundred years have passed, yet discarded building materials, soil and branches remain the standard construction materials for the hopeful and desperate who converge in Kibera.

The population of Kibera exploded post-World War II, and the settlement grew increasingly heterogeneous. By 1948, the colonial census revealed more than 3,085 people living in the unauthorized township, of which only 55 percent (1,696) were Nubian. The majority of the new residents were members of the Kikuyu and Meru tribes native to the nearby Mount Kenya region, but many were drawn to Kibera, including smaller numbers of ethnic Luo and Luhya. The population boom quickly strained the available resources of clean water and sanitation, and Kibera began its transformation into a slum. After numerous failed attempts to dismantle the swelling shanty town and relocate the population, “the [colonial] administration adopted a policy of what can only be considered ‘malicious neglect’ in an attempt to force the burgeoning population out by rendering Kibera unlivable.” But the British plan backfired. Their strategy of “malicious neglect” and refusal to provide residents with the most basic service—a permanent water supply—failed to compel inhabitants to leave. In fact, more arrived.

Kenya’s independence in 1963 led to restrictions on freedom of movement being lifted. With the floodgates open, a second wave of rural migrants set their sights on Kibera, choking what little space was at the time still unclaimed. Nearly 60 years later, Kibera remains the chosen destination for many who can’t afford to live in formal settlements due to its proximity to the city center, the industrial sector and affluent neighborhoods, which promise tantalizing employment opportunities. Still, many end up in modern-day servitude.

First published on July 28 2020 by

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