A stroll through Karanja, a small neighborhood considered to be the swanky section of Kibera, shows not much has changed. The narrow alleyways are bustling with vendors and people going about their business. Motorbike riders wearing heavy jackets with reflective stripes stand shoulder to shoulder with men in hand carts waiting for customers at major intersections. The only reminder that we are living through a pandemic are the ubiquitous masks covering most people’s faces. Not everyone is wearing a mask, despite the mandatory requirement that could land one in jail for up to six months. At several points on our way, prominent billboards that usually advertise beauty products, beer, or instant riches from latest betting odds on soccer games now share space with Komesha Corona (“Eradicate Corona” in Swahili) public service announcements advocating residents to wash their hands, social distance and wear face masks.
David Avido, a 25-year-old fashion designer based in Karanja, is hard at work cutting, sewing, fusing and pressing fabrics to create face masks when we arrive at his house. As soon as the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Kenya, he decided to start making face masks with leftover fabric from his previous designs and distribute them for free. “Most people in Kibera live hand-to-mouth and can’t afford face masks. Many have to choose between buying food or face masks,” Avido tells us. It is a tragic compromise that many have to contend with since the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity in the slums. On April 10, a stampede near the District Commissioner’s office, where food aid was being distributed, left scores of people with serious injuries—an ominous warning of an impending food crisis.
“Things are not the same in other neighborhoods. There are those who can fill their fridges and cupboards with food and quarantine at home. Here in Kibera people don’t even have cupboards,” Avido says. According to a report by Oxfam International, Kenya suffers from extreme income inequality with less than 0.1 percent, roughly 8,300 of approximately 44 million people, owning more wealth than the bottom 99.9 percent.
The pandemic has significantly affected Avido’s work as a fashion designer. Meeting clients and taking measurements has become near impossible. Orders for designer clothing amidst the economic crunch have also dropped. Avido has suspended his usual work to make and distribute face masks. Since March, he has partnered with foundations in Kibera to distribute over 12,000 face masks for free. They stand out not only due to Avido’s striking, colorful African prints, but also because he adds pockets that allow users to replace filters, making the masks more effective and reusable.
For the soft-spoken Avido, the face masks are his way of giving back to the community. “Growing up in Kibera, we were extremely poor and would often go without food. Due to lack of school fees, I dropped out of school and began working at a construction site to support our family,” Avido reveals. He stumbled onto fashion serendipitously and for the past five years has worked tirelessly to build a successful fashion brand, LooklikeAvido, through which he designs and sells his trademark African-themed designer clothes across the world. He has dressed famous local and international celebrities and has been featured in Vogue and Essence magazine and many other popular media outlets.
Avido describes his style as “street” and draws his inspiration from Kibera. “Fashion to me is not just about making clothes. I use it as a platform to express myself and inspire others,” he tells us. Fashion has opened doors for Avido, and he hopes to open more doors for his community Kibera. “People from Kibera work hard. They are talented but lack opportunities. My main goal is to expand my business so I can provide employment opportunities to the people in Kibera,” Avido says with a determined look.
As we leave Avido’s home, which doubles as his workshop, it becomes apparent that his story of rags to modest riches is the exception rather than the norm. Journalist Abby Higgins notes that one can be forgiven for thinking that slums are “places of listless poverty filled with victims of circumstances waiting for outside intervention.” Avido is evidence to the contrary; he’s proof that it’s harder not to notice that Kibera is teeming with thousands of small business ventures, both traditional and unconventional.
Many of those relegated to living in slums are entrepreneurs and innovators, constantly manipulating their surroundings to creatively address the problems they and their communities face while trying to escape the poverty trap. It is not uncommon to find many young entrepreneurs dabbling in several ventures simultaneously—running a video game arcade that doubles as a screening venue for football matches by night while selling boiled sausages called smokies and operating second-handclothes and shoes stalls on the side.
Stories like Avido’s lend themselves to survivorship bias, the logical fallacy that assumes one’s success tells the whole story. Thousands of entrepreneurs in Kibera are fighting a losing battle against an inhospitable and cutthroat business environment bereft of essential infrastructure and lacking access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, security, healthcare or credit needed for businesses to thrive. Unless the legacy of neglect is reversed at a systemic level, only a few will succeed in slipping through the cracks and escaping the poverty trap.
At the end of yet another day, we navigate the labyrinth of narrow, noisy alleyways towards the main road. Droves of people returning from the day’s hustle hastily pass by heading in the opposite direction to get home on the safe side of the curfew. We locate our Uber with barely minutes to spare before the cutoff time for taxis picking up passengers, something the driver reminds us as we get in. He steers the grey Toyota Vitz onto Joseph Kangethe road, passing expensive residential homes lined with lush green bougainvillea hedges and interspersed with concrete walls and wrought-iron gates on both sides.
As we drive away from Kibera, I can’t help but think how Avido, Faith and Aziricome, all second-generation residents of Kibera, have inherited a legacy of neglect. While they strive to overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge and lift themselves out of the poverty trap, the scale of their struggle grows, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and becomes even more daunting. If governmental and “humanitarian” interventions are to do more than barely scratch the surface of systemic neglect in Kibera, they would do well to look to people like Avido, Aziricome and Faith for leadership and guidance.
First published July 28, 2020 by Artseverywhere.ca