Friday, June 10

A week in Kenya: Kibera

Walks the streets of Nairobi around the Hilton or past the City Market and men will come up alongside you and ask if you are interested in a safari to Maasai Mara. These shills for tour operators will stop short of cutting you off, but they will push brochures in front of you and not stop talking. If you make the mistake of stopping to talk to them, they will go on to suggest Lake Nakuru and Tsavo, all in the hopes of attracting you to their offices to make payment on a booking. They never mention the slum tours, but those are options, too. For the right price you can walk through Kibera or Mathare or any of Nairobi’s many other slums with a guide and see where the inhabitants eat and drink, work and play, wash and sleep.

I admit to a longstanding curiosity to see Nairobi’s slums. I want to know how they compare to the rural poverty of Pokot. I want to see how they differ from those in Jakarta built on and around the city landfills. I never would have paid for a tour. Neither would I have gone by myself, but an opportunity presented itself last week when our Tanzanian friend wanted to visit a woman who had helped her once when she was in need. Demetra and I quickly asked to accompany her.

The friend’s name was Mary. She was Maasai. She did not wear a shuka ¬or the elaborately beaded fan necklace. She wore a blue and black dress and had her hair done at a salon. She left her tribal lands and its cow dung cooking fires to gain a college degree. She worked for a while at a pharmacy but wanted her own. She moved to Kibera and opened it. Her husband was Caleb. He had just returned that day from Kisumu where he was visiting family. He sold groceries in Kibera.

Their home was the size of a dorm room. Half of it was occupied by their bed. The other half held a new blue couch, one table with a Chinese TV and DVD player atop it, and a second table with their dishes. The walls and ceiling were pieces of corrugated steel and decorated with a variety of bank calendars. There was a single bare light bulb, but they turned it off early because it only added to the room’s stifling heat. There were maybe four other rooms like this in their row, all sharing walls, so that you could hear the telenovella played in the room next door and the baby crying at the very end of the row. There was no door, only a hanging sheet. Neighborhood children poked their heads in and another friend passed through and joined us for lunch. It was like eating with my German relatives. It was impossible to leave an empty plate without being offered another scoop of rice and beans or a banana.

I do not know for what the people who pay for these urban safaris are looking. It may be some sort of karmic balancing to acknowledge Kenya’s squalor after spending thousands on flights and days spent in luxury watching exotic fauna. It may be a personal reminder that their lives could be that much worse and that their complaints about delayed flights and lines at the DMV are ultimately very shallow. It may just be an opportunity to see something different and to have atypical stories and pictures to share with family and friends back home. It probably is some blend of the three and cagey tour guides no doubt emphasize one aspect or another depending on what their customers expect and want.

I found a vibrant community. It was with some pride that Mary told us Kibera was the second-largest slum in Africa after Soweto in South Africa. She and Caleb liked living there. I do not doubt that Mary and Caleb would prefer to have indoor plumbing and consistent electricity and more than a single room, especially once they have children, but they still chose it over their homelands. The slum offered them opportunities to economically advance their lives. There were restaurants and bars. There were pharmacies and markets. There were clothes and toys. There was a coffin maker. There were schools.

Humanity can adapt to an awful lot. That not every person in prison commits suicide and that communities continue to exist in Pokot is proof enough of that, but the slums are far from the worst there can be. I know there is no privacy and I am sure the crime rate is incredible and that there are other psychic troubles that I have not imagined, but materially, someone camping in a tent is probably more deprived than a slum resident.

I do wish that one day there are no slums because every person and family has the same opportunity for the material things and utilities that we take for granted in the developed world and that they do not have to content themselves with what Mary and Caleb enjoy now, but until that day comes, Kibera will do.

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