Slumming it in Kibera

A year later and I’m back in East Africa. This time I’m working on Water Sanitation and Hygiene research for my University in Kibera Slum, Nairobi.

Children relieving themselves along the banks of an already polluted river.

Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world. It’s estimated that 270,000 people live in a 1.5 square mile area of Nairobi that the government doesn’t even recognize. This lack of acknowledgement isn’t a libertarian’s wet dream, but a nightmare when it comes to refuge collection and access to water. Kibera is literally a shanty town built out of trash. The buildings are constructed out of scraps of tin and mud with pieces of plastic bags poking out. The narrow roads are layers of rubbish pounded down and cut through by sewage run-off. Flies buzz around children with open sores. Mangy dogs weakly bask on a bridge that crosses a river made of trash.

Junior surveying the neighborhood.

NGOs have poured millions of dollars into Kibera for the provision of essential, but absent social services. The logos of the NGOs are prominently displayed on everything from the sides of buildings to the t-shirts of the shanty dwellers. Residents receive all sorts of support from trainings to allotments of free food. However these interventions have yet to lift Kibera out of poverty.  It is hard to say if or when the slum will be self-sustaining, but it doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon.

The view from my balcony.

As one of the countless development workers in Nairobi, I live in the upscale Kilimani district. Our team has decided to reside in this part of town because it is within walking distance of the offices of our partner NGOs. It’s also a relatively safe area in a city dubbed “Nairobbery.” Our apartment came with a balcony overlooking the city, a twenty-four hour guard, and a full time maid.

Catering to local tastes.

I mention these details not because I feel the pangs of privileged guilt, but to highlight the inefficiencies of foreign aid. My plane ticket alone could carry a family of four in Kibera for over two years when you calculate that most residents live off of a dollar a day. I often have trouble justifying my place here. We are outsiders with industrialized world tastes attempting to understand developing worlds needs. Few of us know the language, intricacies of the politics, or cultural nuances that are crucial for even understanding the challenges faced by the people we serve. It’s clear that the development paradigm is flawed and yet for some reason I’m drawn to it.

You see a plastic bag. He sees a balloon.

I’m not here to help people. I think that charity is a loaded term. Honestly, I’m working in Kibera because I enjoy the company of Kenyans. I feel that I can learn a lot from their attitudes towards adversity; something everyone of us has to face in one form or another over our lifetimes. I’m here to criticize what hasn’t worked, but also to explore what has: namely, the informal economies that keep these communities alive. The makeshift technologies developed by local innovators attack problems head-on. Importantly, they are developed within. This sense of community ownership allows them to be more readily duplicated by those with similar needs. I believe that the Jau Kali will ultimately be the salvation of the Third World, not the Gates Foundation.

So where does that leave the development worker? If I want to work in this field I better figure that out. The purpose of these posts over the next few weeks is to come to terms with what development means to me as well as share the videos I make and the stories I come across in the field.

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