Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kibera, Episode One

Today was our first walk into the Kibera slum, an area about 2 miles long by a half mile wide, containing perhaps up to a million souls. The surrounding area seems to be full of large, gated, walled off, razor wired, heavily guarded, often beautifully landscaped homes, offices and businesses. The contrast is surreal. The government does not recognize this slum, the largest of several in Nairobi and reportedly the second largest in Africa, after Soweto. This means there are no utilities or government services, e.g., no water pipes, no electricity or gas, no garbage collection, no police services, no public schools, no public health care, no paved roads, no building or other codes, no courts, no transportation services, no postal service, no sewage system, no nothing. Past a certain point there are no vehicles. After leaving the van we walked perhaps 20 minutes through the slum to get to Shining Hope's clinic, where we work. Three young men cheerfully carried our supply suitcases, each packed with about 50 pounds worth of material.

There are children everywhere, often very small, always very cute, usually anxious to make contact with you. I saw only one child playing with a toy, a colorful plastic truck.

As a former utility company employee, I was struck by the jerry rigged and dangerous nature of the electric lines. A property owner on the grid will run illegal service lines to perhaps 10 houses in the slum. Since there is no metering, the property owner charges a fixed fee for each line, converting his own energy account into a profit center. If the slum dweller does not pay the bill to the property owner, the line is simply removed, no muss, no fuss. Since it is all illegal and without benefit of codes, the lines are often dangerous. Women at the clinic told us of an incident the night before when a child was electrocuted at a neighbor's house. Two years before another sibling of the same family was electrocuted at the same location. The mother of five now has only three children. The first time it was felt to be an accident and nothing was done about it. Last night several young men who serve as an unofficial security force "arrested" the man and took him to a police station. According to the women, if the police showed any interest in pursuing the matter, which was unlikely, the man would be able to pay them off. He might be induced to pay the child's family something, but that would be about it. There is no way to require him even to correct the dangerous condition at his house.

There is entrepreneurship all around. Especially on the walk out in the afternoon, there was tiny stall after tiny stand of things for sale - small fish overlapping in neat rows on a table, a bowl of bright red tomatoes, eggs, tired greens, crispy fried samosas, flip flops, used clothing, cheap kitchen ware, little piles of black charcoal for cooking (there are no trees remaining in this area, so wood is brought in from far off), shops offering cell phone service or MP3 downloading. People here show amazing initiative and ingenuity in figuring out ways to make a life for themselves out of very little.

People dress amazingly well considering how difficult it must be to keep clean without water service. Women tend to wear longish skirts and men wear shirts or tee shirts with slacks. Jeans must be considered a bit of a luxury because I didn't see a lot of them. Many women wear traditional looking colorful print outfits, some quite striking in bold prints. I saw very little of what you might call rags. Unlike in India, you do not see gold jewelry, or much of any jewelry really.

Every few yards there will be rhythmic music spilling into the street. At one point I saw a toddler waddling along to the beat, quite competently too.

I can't recall seeing anyone smoke. Nor did I see any cigarette butts in the road, although you see lots of other things.

The main thing you see on the road is little plastic bags. I'm told these are the remains of the infamous flying toilets. Fortunately it has not rained lately, so the roads are relatively dry, although there are occasional canals you have to step over. We were strongly advised to wear closed shoes; I wore my hiking boots, which was a little over kill. There are skinny, mangy looking dogs sleeping along the road; they are the same color as the road so you have to be careful not to trip over them. The main road is perhaps the width of two sidewalks, narrower in the afternoon when retail dominates, but the side roads are really alleys barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. People in Kibera do not seem to have addresses. It's a matter of knowing how many twists and turns to take down how many alleys.

So much for this evening. More next time about the clinic. Deborah

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