There are over 2.5 million slum dwellers in all of Nairobi, representing 60% of Nairobi’s population; an estimated 1.5 million of them live in the Kibera slum. Only 10% of the mud, tin, and wood shack homes are privately owned. The remaining 90% of the habitations are owned by the Kenyan government, representing the extensive land right tensions Kenyans have battled for generations. A river of waste runs through the slum, as sanitation and all it’s associated health concerns remain, not government concerns, but personal problems. Despite it’s grave shortfalls and visible tragedies, Kibera is a home. Kenyans, refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda all call Kibera home.
More than just the largest slum in Africa, Kibera is shelter when there is no other shelter to be had. Kibera is opportunity. Kibera is one’s business, church, office, school, hangout, and market. This isn’t just some horrible place where only the truly unfortunate live. This is where people survive.
One such survivor is 12-year-old Alan Wasonga. Walking through the narrow walkways, Alan shows us how people survive in Kibera. On the side of one dirt path, two women have bound timber in thistle rope to make a table to sell their wares – 5 avocados, 3 passion fruits, and a few bags of laundry soap – all they can get since losing so much during the post-election violence of December to April of 2008. One has to wonder, “Where did those avocados even come from?” An inquiry reveals that the women had to buy their fruits and soap from a middleman. Their small profit will go toward payment of their rent – about 12 US dollars a month – and their children’s’ education, food, and clothing.
Interviewing Alan’s mother, Margaret, in a bombed out and burnt down space in the middle of an open market (above), she interrupts her boisterous husband, Rev. John Wasonga, and says, “You know, it is the women who suffer the most.” She pauses and continues, “because who do the children come to when they need food? Clothing? Books for school?” She meanwhile gestures toward her husband seated beside her husband. A study of his own gaze reveals a far more distant, underwhelming man compared to the one of just moment before. As Rev. John hangs his head, Margaret illuminates the story: “He was not even in Kibera on the day of the violence.”
Margaret attends the Free Methodist Church where her husband preaches. On a typical afternoon service, the church is attended by about 20 people. Every service starts with singing and dancing. Chunks of cement are missing from the walls, scars left from violence that ceased only 4 months ago. Those scars, however, cannot be seen on the faces of the dancing children. Clapping, they don’t seem to care if they are carrying a beat, singing the words, or staying in place. They witnessed so much tragedy – police shooting their own kinsmen, friends bound and beaten, mothers raped, children stoned, but at that moment, there is no judgment. If only for a couple hours, God is good and nothing else matters. This spirit of forgiveness is not just at the Free Methodist Church. All of Kibera, the men, women, children, the young and the old – they all bore witness to this and they all live with it. They all survive.
“What is it that will bring peace to Kenya?” I ask Rev. John back at his home, a 12ft x 12ft mud shack housing all 11 members of his family. “Counseling and prayers,” he answers. “That is the only thing.” “Did you take part in the violence,” I ask, at which point Margaret’s empowered yet weary voice breaks through once more. “Of course! We had to protect ourselves. You see, my husband was not at home when the violence began. I had to protect my home, my children, our lives.” Her son, Raleigh Walker, named after his Canadian education sponsor, chimes in with a smile, “I stoned someone coming into our home. In the head.” I look back at Margaret and she lowers her eyes and asks pointedly, “What would you do?”
There’s a reason love hurts. You have to protect it. When one’s life and the lives of their family are in danger, ask yourself “What would you do?” Since the post-election violence the Wasonga’s have found God; five of the siblings have started their own non-denominational youth group, promoting peace in Kibera through the arts; meanwhile, the Western media represents Africans, Kenyans, and the Wasonga’s themselves as “barbaric”, engaging in “just another tribal conflict” (CNN report, Dec 2008). In reality, they have gone above and beyond mere survival. They are promoting a spirit of peace. They are inspiring other to thrive.
What would you do?