Curse of Geography: Kibera (part 2)

“Relax, you have arrived,” a jocular Aziricome Popo shouts at us reassuringly from a distance as we gingerly step to the side to make way for an animated group of young boys dashing towards us in the narrow alleyway outside his house. Despite the several trips we have made to Kibera, we are still on high alert and ill at ease owing to the notoriety of parts of Kibera as hotspots for petty and sometimes violent crime. Our apprehension is a depressingly familiar and stereotypical metaphor of life in Kibera.

Aziricome’s parents were part of the influx of Kenyans who flocked to the sprawling Kibera slum in the early nineties in search of, paradoxically, greener pastures. “We moved from a small farming village in Vihiga, western Kenya to Kibera when I was about five years old. Back then, things were different. For as little as three hundred shillings (approximately $3 USD) you could get a one-room house,” he reminisces.

Aziricome is a self-styled jack of all trades and a master of whatever-entertainment need-you-may-have. He describes himself as a dancer, events MC, comedian, community mobilizer, actor, scriptwriter, filmmaker and a dance choreographer all rolled into one. “I studied mass communication in school for four years but afterwards I could not find a job, so I decided to start performing since it comes most natural to me,” Aziricome says. “I started doing skits and dances in church and not long after, people started hiring me to perform at their events.”

Aziricome directs a scene in a performance shot in Kibera’s back-alleys.

The year 2020 seemed promising for Aziricome. He had a couple of gigs lined up: a wedding to MC, dances to choreograph for schools and a performance to give at a community event. By mid-March, the novel coronavirus reared its ugly head and brought things to a grinding halt. With all events cancelled, schools closed, and public gatherings prohibited, he lost his sources of income. “A lot of artists in Kibera are struggling. They don’t have money for food or rent but they try not to show it or ask for help because they are trying to protect their image,” he tells us.

In April, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued an executive order directing the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage to disburse 100 million Kenyan Shillings (approximately $933,000 USD) to cushion artists during the Covid-19 pandemic. With over 100,000 artists in Kenya lining up to get their share of the cash, Aziricome is skeptical that the money allocated will reach grassroots artists in Kibera like him. “That money will probably land on the hands of other privileged artists, not the artists in Kibera who need it the most,” Aziricome laments.

While life during the pandemic had slowed down, the resourceful Aziricome has found alternative ways of using his many talents to serve his community. With most of his gigs cancelled, he decided to turn to the internet and create satirical educational videos. In his videos, Aziricome infuses humor to address difficult subject matter such as domestic violence and crime. His motivation for wading into such issues stems from what he has witnessed in recent times around his community. “For the past weeks, we have witnessed more cases of people being mugged, violently attacked and killed. Most of these crimes are perpetrated by young teenagers who are supposed to be in school,” Aziricome says. His biggest fear is that many artists in Kibera will cave into the vicissitudes of economic hardship and resort to crime. By creating these videos, he hopes to reach the over 76,000 residents of Kibera that are part of a Facebook group dubbed Kibera ni Kwetu (Kibera is Our Home). All his videos are shot on location in Kibera, with a mobile phone and usually with a lively cast of young enthusiastic volunteers seemingly oblivious to the constricted “sets” of garbage-lined paths and overflowing sewage as they gleefully act out their scenes.

Aziricome recording a short public safety announcement with his kids

Aziricome has also created videos encouraging members of his community to take necessary precautions to avoid the spread of Covid-19. But he feels conflicted about the lack of situational nuance in some of the guidelines recommended by the government and the World Health Organization (WHO). For him, social distancing is an impractical demand in a claustrophobically congested area. “Our houses are very close to each other, our alleyways are very narrow. When you walk around, you easily bump into people,” says Aziricome gesturing towards the all-too obvious scene surrounding us. Kibera is one of the most densely populated places on earth with more than 200,000 people believed to be packed into a 2.5 square kilometer area. The colonial legacy of malicious neglect remains evident in the lack of quality of housing, accessibility to clean water and basic sanitation throughout Kibera.

Inside the one-room house that Aziricome shares with his wife and three children everything is crammed together. The kitchen, living room and bedrooms are partitioned from the same room and separated by long lace curtains. The room doubles as the family’s living quarters and Aziricome’s studio because dedicated space and “free” time to concentrate on his work are luxuries beyond reach. However, he seems oblivious to the cramped and often noisy working conditions. The bathroom and toilet his family shares with twenty-seven other households is 100 meters away. “The average house in Kibera has between seven and nine inhabitants cramped into a 10 x 10 foot space. There is no personal space, so if one person gets Corona, we all get it,” he explains.

Dozens of empty jerry cans are strewn around his house. “There is no water,” he says. “We have to go out there, queue for hours and buy water from vendors. When you’re standing in the queue, you come into contact with many people. You don’t know who has the virus and who doesn’t.”

Aziricome at a community hall next to his house

At the time of this writing, there are 6,366 confirmed cases of Covid 19 in Kenya, including at least 200 cases from Kibera. The Ministry of Health has singled out Kibera as a Covid-19 hotspot and emphasized the need to strictly enforce the dusk to dawn curfew and encourage people to wear masks, social distance and practice regular hand-washing. But these measures, although essential, are virtually impossible to practice when faced with limited access to water, abysmal sanitation conditions, makeshift housing and suffocating human congestion.

Kibera has gained the ignominious reputation as the face of poverty in Kenya. Its confined, squalid conditions have made it a globally recognized case study and byword for urban slums that attracts “poverty tourists” from all around the world, much to the chagrin of its residents. Close to six decades after Kenya gained its independence from the British, the colonial legacy of neglect is still rife in Kibera in large part because residents of Kibera are perceived to be illegal squatters on government-owned land—an issue that has disincentivized authorities from providing basic social services.

Subsequent governments have made half-hearted overtures to attempt to rectify this insidious legacy. One such project was the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP) launched by the Kenyan Ministry of Housing in 2003 with the support of UN-Habitat and several other donor organizations. Dormant for years, the project was thrust to prominence in 2009 in an effort to replace Kibera’s existing shacks with modern high-rise buildings and to give residents a chance to own an apartment in the new development. The flagship of the development was a cluster of concrete buildings called The Promised Land that offered local residents heavily subsidized apartments significantly below market rates, including all the services lacking in the slums—water, sanitation, electricity and security.

But no sooner had the project been launched for the stark reality of what it takes to dismantle nearly a century of institutionalized and calcified neglect to emerge. A reverse exodus took place as residents who had been relocated to The Promised Landgradually moved back to tiny shacks in the slum. Opportunistic investors from Nairobi’s middle class swooped in, finding the promise of affordable housing available through informal systems of bribery too good to resist. They were able to secure the apartments intended for Kibera’s residents because the Kiberans saw a business opportunity. They could rent out their flats at about four or five times the subsidized rate and move back to the slums with money in their pockets. There were also allegations that corrupt officials sabotaged the project and coerced Kiberans to move back by holding back services such as water. Ultimately, the well-intentioned but deficient logic of the multi-billion-shilling project was exposed due to its failure to address the root economic causes that drive people to slums.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have attempted to fill the gaps left by the government over the years, but with little success. Still, Kibera remains an attractive draw for NGOs and every year millions of dollars from donors are invested in a wide range of poverty alleviation initiatives. In 2000, there were over 200 NGOs located in Kibera and the number is believed to have passed well over the 500 mark in the last two decades. Though well-intentioned these humanitarian interventions may be, NGOs have had little substantive impact on the quality of life in Kibera. There is growing skepticism that expat NGO workers become enamored with turning charity work into lifelong careers, which ultimately perpetuates dependency syndrome. A comedy series, “The Samaritans” has taken a swipe at NGOs, cleverly playing on the widely held sentiment that donor funds end up financing administrative costs and paying for consultants, lawyers and experts lined up for “their turn at the trough of ‘sorrow dollars’.”

First published on July 28 2020 by Artseverywhere.ca

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