“Incredible Shrinking Kibera”–a lesson that should inspire humility in Western capitals

When we see popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that no one in the United States or the West more generally seems to have anticipated we ought naturally to be drawn to some soul searching about how much we really know about societies and countries in Africa–and how what we do know gets filtered and reported back to policy makers and the public at home.

My experience in East Africa and what I have learned since certainly suggested caution and humility to me.  One particular glaring example I can highlight is the fiasco of what I will call “Incredible Shrinking Kibera”.  First let’s start with the setting:  right in the heart of Nairobi, one of the most cosmopolitan African capitals in many respects–a city that is a magnet for Western expats, in particular offices of international organizations and NGOs on a regional or Africa-wide basis, as well as a huge regional diplomatic presence.  Lots of tourists from the UK and the US in particular.  Yet, it has turned out that Western conventional wisdom about Nairobi has included numbers for the population of the Kibera informal settlement (“the largest slum in Africa”) that are vastly beyond those cited in Kenya’s new census.  Either the conventional wisdom about 1 million people, or perhaps many more, living in Kibera was vastly inflated, or the new Kenya census finding only a fraction of that population is completely flawed–or both if the real population is, say, double the census figure and less than half the “conventional wisdom”.   If Kenya can’t get anywhere close in a census, even in Nairobi, then how serious can we really be about drawing new boundaries and electoral districts and free and fair elections with equal voting rights for all citizens next year?  If the census is close, then a lot of us in the West have been shown to be either seriously misinformed about something that shouldn’t be so hard to know, or of “spinning” beyond the bounds of a fair representation of the facts.  I myself have referenced the “conventional wisdom” without the skepticism that I should have had.

I was fortunate to have a friend in Kibera and thus an introduction to one family and community in one neighborhood there, as well as being involved in a pre-election survey of the Langata parliamentary constituency in December 2007 and in observing a bit of the voting in one of the more upscale areas on election day with our international delegates.  I started to scratch the surface.  Personally, my family and I had more connection to Kawangware.  Wherever you live in Nairobi, if you are interested, you can pick a nearby informal settlement and start getting acquainted.

Here is a good blog about Kibera:

“Slum Tourism in Kibera: Education or Exploitation?” Brian Ekdale

4) Don’t assume you understand Kibera after spending a couple of hours there. I’ve been there 10 months and still learn new things every day. Kibera is a very complex place. People like to say 1 million residents, but population figures are contested. Not every organization is doing what they say they are doing. Not everyone is impoverished (I know some who have good jobs but would rather financially support their families and neighbors than move to a wealthy area and leave behind those that helped raise them). Now that you’ve been there, go back and read those articles and watch those videos I mentioned in #2.

5) Don’t think Nairobi is a city of contradictions. Sure, you can get a mocha and french toast at Nairobi Java House, go on a Kibera tour in the late morning, and then grab some upscale Indian food at Yaya Centre for lunch without traveling very far. But understand the Java House/Yaya/Westgate life does not exist in spite of Nairobi’s slum population, they exist because of Nairobi’s slum population. Cheap labor built those massive structures. Cheap labor stocked the shelves. And cheap labor keeps them running. That labor walks home at night to sleep in Kibera, or Korogocho, or Mathare, etc.

Maziwa Fresh by AfriCommons
Maziwa Fresh, a photo by AfriCommons on Flickr.

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