"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 Art 360 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.
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 shantytown 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 an “unofficial pension” for their military service.
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 shantytown 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.
“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 $ 3USD) 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.”
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 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.”
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 Land gradually 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’.”
Nestled between Kibera Town Center and Kamukunji grounds, a dusty field known for its chequered history of political rallies, is a makeshift art gallery constructed of corrugated iron sheets painted blue and marigold. The gallery stands out from a distance. Its presence is audacious and somewhat of an oddity in a place where art is a luxury—a form of self-indulgence that only few can afford. To step inside is to be enveloped by a colorful collection of paintings on canvas, cardboards, baskets, bottles and pots lining every wall and shelf. Although spartan and unostentatious, Art360 gallery acts as an oasis for young artists in Kibera looking to grow their skills and make a living through their art.
On arrival, we find Faith, the founder of the Art360 gallery, and four other artists in an animated brainstorm over a sketch for a mural. Any attempt to keep a six feet distance is immediately thwarted, due to the minuscule size of the gallery.
We first heard about Art360 Kibera in mid-March shortly after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya. Faith tells us, at that time, coronavirus was still a distant phenomenon that would seldom feature in the lexicon of the residents in Kibera. But now there is a lot of talk and misinformation about the virus. “We decided to create murals in highly frequented streets in Kibera so as to reinforce the message that Covid 19 is here and people need to take necessary precautions to keep the virus from spreading,” she says.
The thirty-one-year-old has lived in Kibera almost all her life. From an early age, she had an eye for the arts, especially abstract painting as it allows her to express herself more fully. But pursuing a career as a visual artist seemed out of reach. She had never met or heard of any female painters from Kibera until a fortuitous encounter with a group of young and talented local painters inspired her to create a space where artists could develop their skills and earn a living. “Starting an art gallery in Kibera with little resources is a bold move,” Faith admits. Their environment is their canvas. “We make art with anything we come across or find interesting. We don’t have to paint on canvas,” she says, gesturing toward a shelf with paintings on cardboards, flowerpots, used bottles, shoes and paper bags.
Before the pandemic, people from other neighborhoods would navigate the winding, congested paths that lead away from the matatu (public transport minibuses) termini and find their way through the shantytown to the tucked-away gallery to buy artwork. But with Kibera now classified as a Covid 19 hotspot and the government taskforce issuing pedantic warnings about the devastation a full-blown outbreak would portend, people from outside Kibera hardly visit the gallery. The pandemic has hit the meager fortunes of the artists at Art360 hard and wrought unimaginable economic uncertainties. “Most people are worried about where their next meal will come from. Getting a cute painting is the last thing on their minds,” says Francis Omondi, one of the artists at Art360.
Despite calls to self-quarantine, the artists at Art360 have chosen to keep the doors to the gallery open. “We cannot sustain ourselves if we decide to quarantine. It’s not easy surviving on paint and brush, but we still have to paint,” Faith tells us. Since the pandemic, the artists at Art360 have shifted their focus from making art pieces for profit to painting murals. Several local non-profit organizations have commissioned them to create murals around Kibera to sensitize the community on the best practices of preventing the spread of Covid-19.
Self-quarantine or working from home is a luxury that few residents in Kibera can afford. The Kenya Bureau of Statistics estimates that 83.6 percent of Kenyans work in the informal sector where a majority earn a daily wage contingent upon their physical availability at work. The government opted not to enforce a total lockdown as it would have adversely affected people’s ability to survive and, instead, a dusk to dawn curfew was put in place. Since then, the police have heightened surveillance measures in Kibera and actively used intimidation and brute force against residents found outside at night. During the first week of the curfew, social media platforms were awash with videos of police violently assaulting and harassing residents in Kibera. While police brutality is a constant feature of public life, especially in slums such as Kibera, the undue powers bestowed on the police under the guise of enforcing the curfew has exacerbated the arbitrary use of excessive force with devastating results. A report by the Kenyan Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) indicates that police have killed at least 15 people and seriously injured scores of others while enforcing the curfew.
After several hours of brainstorming and sketching, Faith and her team pick up brushes, paint cans and sketches and head out to their worksite, an iron sheet structure directly opposite the gallery, visible to the numerous pedestrians who pass by everyday. We watch from a distance as they wipe off dust and prime the grubby iron sheet wall. Each artist takes turns sketching and painting as music blasts from a portable radio. As the mural comes to life, the quotidian bustle of Kibera is in full swing—throngs of people walking in different directions, vendors manning open-air stalls, women selling food and secondhand clothes by the roadside.
At around 4PM, the mural is finally complete. Faith and her team begin to gather their brushes and paint cans while one artist stubbornly lingers for a bit to add a small detail to the mural. A small crowd of curious onlookers gather around the artist on the side of the road, eyes agape at the vivid and colorful mural that depicts a female health worker tagging a frightening red creature with chains to prevent it from attacking the world; the caption at the top reads Corona is Real. “With this mural, we want to give coronavirus a personality because a lot of people in Kibera seem oblivious to the gravity of the virus as they deal with more pressing issues,” Faith says as she gazes at the mural.
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-hand clothes 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.