Kibera: Visiting Africa’s biggest slum

Something that’s really important to me is to learn about everyday life in the countries I visit. It doesn’t matter whether the country is affluent or impoverished, I want to see behind the tourist veneer and get a glimpse into how people live, the reality of normal life. In the past, this has taken me to supermarkets, residential streets and, in India, a multiplex cinema where I had the samosa special and watched modern Bollywood for an afternoon. But Nairobi was something different.

Not unreasonably, many countries gloss over their poorer areas, would prefer not to show them off to visitors. I visited Namibia some years ago, and we were whisked straight past the townships as though they didn’t exist. Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is a place of contrasts: I stayed in a nice tourist hotel, with air conditioning and a pool, a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of the downtown. But Nairobi is also home to the biggest slum in Africa, Kibera. With some 700,000 inhabitants, Kibera perches on the edge of the city centre, not far from the national park and wildlife sanctuaries that draw tourists from all over the world, yet it is a place of shacks and poverty. I had the opportunity to take a tour, and I took it.

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Kibera. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Schreibkraft)

I wasn’t sure about the ethics of visiting Kibera, and if I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure today. My reasons for going were primarily for my own education: to see what life is really like in a slum, fully understand the conditions people have to live in simply because they were born less fortunate than me. My intention was to raise my own awareness, and help the community in some small way. But the last thing I wanted was to be a voyeur, to parade around town in a tour group flashing my riches and making people feel uncomfortable at best, embarrassed at worst. Fortunately my visit was as low-key as possible; I was in Kenya as a solo traveller and had booked a 2-day private tour (with Dawn in Africa Safaris), and they were able to arrange for me to visit Kibera with a representative of a local charity, and – most importantly to me – on my own. And what an experience it was.

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With David in Kibera

I was met on the outskirts of the slum by David, who runs a community project helping local children express their creativity through a range of means – arts and crafts, modern and traditional dance, videography and many others. What can at first seem superficial is in fact very valuable for these kids; aside from providing them with a safe place that keeps them occupied and out of trouble, it provides mentorship from the adults involved. And the skills they learn lead to employment, primarily in the tourist industry which is a big part of the local economy, as well as the opportunity to get out of Kibera and travel around Kenya – and even overseas – giving performances. David and I sat in his office on the top floor of a ramshackle wooden building as he filled me in, and my eyes were opened wide by his passion and commitment.

Afterwards, David took me on a walk around the eastern part of Kibera. The township is made up of a number of “villages” which blend one into the other, and not all of which are welcoming to strangers. But here in his home district, we were greeted on the street by his friends and family. The streets were narrow in places, wending between the tightly-packed wooden buildings (to the point that I hit my head – hard – on an overhang, which was more than a little embarrassing). The ground beneath our feet was buried under several layers of rubbish. It was exactly how I had pictured an African slum, and difficult to digest. The refuse underfoot, the smell of garbage, and the families living side-by-side amongst all this, purely because they were born here and this was their lot in life.

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Kibera. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Ninaras)

But the people were incredible. David introduced me to everyone he knew along the way – all of them friendly, welcoming, ready to shake my hand. His family members would appear from nowhere – a teenage niece who met up with him to collect some money, brothers and sisters who would appear for a quick hello. We visited a local bone carver, who took the bones of cows from the slaughterhouse and cut and polished them into jewellery to sell to tourists. He showed me the process, in a rickety workshop thick with bone dust. In his little sales room I selected a few pieces to take home with me, knowing that the important thing was to buy something, regardless of whether I liked it. But the little bracelets and necklaces made great souvenirs, as well. One of the salesmen surprised me when he asked where I was from and I told him Stoke-on-Trent. “Ah, Stoke City!” he said, referring to our local premiership football team. Nowhere on my travels has anyone known where Stoke-on-Trent is, and yet here in the slums of Nairobi I found someone who knew of the city and had watched its team on television. He was a Manchester United fan, but you can’t have everything.

We visited a community centre who have set up a project to generate electricity using refuse from the local public toilets. In-home plumbing is very rare in Kibera, so these community toilets are common, and the method of generating electricity from this inexhaustible source was ingenious. We also went to Kibera Town Centre, a building with offices, public showers and a small coffee shop where local people could buy their espressos and lattes and have some dignity, knowing that they were having the same experiences as their richer cousins in the city centre. In a side room was a bank of computers; these are free to use, and enable Kibera’s residents to have email and Facebook accounts, and all the other things needed in the modern world to communicate and look for employment. It was a fabulous place.

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Kibera. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Ninaras)

Everywhere I visited, I was handing out donations. It felt awkward and patronising, but would have felt so much worse if I hadn’t. My general donation was £5-£10 sterling, and to this day I don’t know if that was insultingly extravagant or insultingly little. All I could do was follow my own instincts and hope for the best.

I also had the opportunity on our tour to visit David’s adoptive family. His own parents died young, and he was raised by a local couple who still live in the community with their children and grandchildren. And so I was privileged to go behind the street façade into their home, through a courtyard into a back building where the four grandsons were doing their homework on the floor, next to their bunkbeds and with an old tv playing on one wall. We made awkward conversation; David insisted on taking photos. I think I was interrupting them, to be honest, but they were so generous to allow me to come into their home, and the children were full of smiles. After a chat with the adults in the courtyard, we were on our way again, with me once again dishing out money like some dishevelled fairy godmother. It didn’t get any easier.

Other than the photos in the home, and a few on the outskirts of the slum itself, I didn’t take any pictures while I was in Kibera. In fact, other than some money and my phone, I didn’t take much with me at all. Taking photos in the streets would have been hugely inappropriate, but David very kindly took some for me after my visit and emailed them to me. Having said that, I don’t need photographs to remember the images of the slum, the streets full of people living their lives in difficult conditions, and the entrepreneurship and determination to better their lot that I experienced everywhere around me. It was embarrassing how driven they were compared to myself and the majority of us back home.

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Kibera. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Flickr: klndonnelly)

After I visited Kibera I was on the lookout for some way in which I could help the community. The projects I came across were all local, and aside from the donations on the day it is difficult to transfer money to them. Then, some time later, I came across Anno’s Africa. A project very similar to the one David runs, Anno’s Africa works with children in Kibera, teaching them performing arts and, especially, ballet. They do a lot of good work in the community and have some prominent backing outside Kenya, particularly in the UK where the charity is registered. I urge you to visit www.annosafrica.org.uk to find out more.


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20 Comments

  1. It’s so nice that you go beyond the touristy facade to explore the normal life of places you visit. What is nicer is that you want to help and give back to the community.

  2. What an amazing journey. Thank you so much for sharing. I think it is so great that you did this and wrote about it to help raise awareness. But I also love how you were sensitive to feelings of those in the township and didn’t want to make your visit a big deal. So hard when we just want to do good and educate ourselves and others. Such an important piece.

    1. Yes, I did find the balance really hard to manage. It’s one of the reasons it was important to me not to just come home and do nothing more – it needed to be more than just tourism. Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. Thank you for expressing so well your feelings of awkwardness regarding “poverty tourism.” I, too, have struggled with how to behave appropriately, how to help, how to give money, when to take photographs. The whole experience is so fraught with opportunity to make a wrong step that I tend to avoid it in general. We’re going to South Africa in October and I am not going to take any tours of the townships. It just feels wrong.

    1. Thanks Patti – and I can totally understand that too. Like I say, I’m not sure which is the right decision. Pretending the townships don’t exist doesn’t help either (although it sounds like you won’t be doing that!), but there are plenty of other ways – charities, buying locally-made souvenirs etc – that you can make a difference. Have an amazing time in South Africa!

  4. What an incredible experience. I’ve visited similarly poor areas in Cambodia and it always strikes me how happy these people are with so little. And how regardless of way of life, it’s always so effortless to share a smile and laugh with someone 🙂 So amazing of you to explore off the beaten path!

    1. Thanks Christina! Yes, it’s amazing how the people with the least seem to be the most friendly and happy to share. I’m sure it’s not an easy life in the slightest, but it’s incredibly humbling!

  5. Fascinating post, and really great that you were able to connect with a resident to show you around instead of doing it with a package tour. I remember when I was in Namibia, talking with some folks who were from a large township outside Windhoek — it was so interesting to hear how the townships actually had a thriving middle class amidst what, to outsiders, looked pretty bleak. I’d love to learn more about it but it’s hard to know how to engage responsibly.

  6. What a truly eye-opening experience. I visited back in 1999 and brought back a flood of memories. It’s so important to see how other people live. We can’t all meander through life in a little self-cobtianed bubble.

  7. If you ever pass through Mumbai in India you will see some of the largest slums in the world. The slums almost coexist with the more affluent parts of town so they are quite hard to miss. I haven’t been there in a while but I’ve heard that the government is trying to reduce them.

    1. I’ll be in Mumbai next April and we’ll be visiting Dharavi – I’ve also been through the airport and the slums come right up to the perimeter fence. It will be interesting to compare the two…

  8. At the last National Census Kibera’s population was put at 250,000 even if under counted 700,000 is an exaggeration perpetuated by NGO’s working in the slum in order to keep their funding channels open. Keep your governments (Western) vigilant on cutting down corruption and exploitation in Africa and other developing countries and pressing on good governance and developing countries can uplift their people in a shorter amount of time than it took first world nations to develop

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