Nairobi astounds—a place of nonstop incongruities, countless contrasts. Deep squalor is adjacent to great opulence. Crude implements work alongside new technologies. Islands of cool and luxe offer havens from dust and swelter. Donkey-drawn carts run with Mercedes sedans. The stark juxtapositions are everywhere, and everywhere people are moving.
Unmistakably, this is Africa, and Nairobi is the capital of Kenya, an “emerging country” on a huge and sometimes turbulent continent. Nairobi is also global urbanization manifest. When Habitat I launched in 1976, 8,900 miles away in Vancouver, a little more than a third of the planet’s population was in cities. Twenty years later that figure reached 45 percent. Today, in the waning glow of Habitat III last year in Quito, Ecuador, that number is above 54 percent and rising rapidly. In absolute terms, the number of urbanites is staggering.
In Nairobi, 60 percent of residents in a city of more than 4 million live in shantytowns— some 2.5 million people in all scattered across more than 200 separate sites. Some observers prefer the term “informal settlements,” but Nairobi residents just call them “slums,” as reflected by the names these places carry: Deep Sea Slum, Kiambui Slum, Suswa Slum, Huruma Slum.
Kibera, Nubian for “forest” or “jungle,” was so named by its first settlers, Nubian soldiers who had served in the King’s African Rifles and received plots but no land titles. It is now home to at least a quarter million people—with plausible estimates putting the actual population at two to three times that, but nobody really knows. Reliably, it is called Africa’s largest slum. Quite possibly, it is the largest one in the world.
“Here we are,” the driver said, smiling as we pulled alongside one of its rough and dirty edges, down steep hills adjacent to a sleek, almost new freeway. “Famous!”
And it is well-known: Kibera was the setting for the dramatic rendering of an exploited Africa in the film adaptation of John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. It is often used as a poster image for desolate shantytown poverty. It is famous simply because it is so vast and sprawling; its dwellings are indistinguishable from those found just about any place on the planet where poor people have to fend for themselves.
Kibera has thousands upon thousands of small shacks and shanties, most built from stick-and-mud walls, roofed with corrugated metal sheets. Cardboard is the common flooring. “Windows” are made of stretched plastic. Much of everything is scavenged. Dirt paths, usually wet and muddy, twist and turn among warrens of rough scabby enclosures.
Like most urban slums, Kibera is a densely packed, single-story development. Informal settlements cover just 6 percent of Nairobi’s total land area, yet they account for as much as half of the city’s population.
Nairobi’s slums occupy lands that belong to the Kenyan state, but the shacks themselves are “owned” by people who rent them out. By some estimates, 90 percent of all Kibera residents are “tenants.” A typical dwelling is a 12-foot-square rectangle sleeping eight people, often more. Roughly furnished, it commands a monthly rent of about $9, from people who get by on little more than $1 a day.
This city (also home to the U.N.-Habitat headquarters) is probably what many delegates to Habitat III had in mind when they adopted “The New Urban Agenda” last year, embracing these aims:
- Basic services for all, including safe shelter, potable water, sanitation, food, healthcare, education, and access to communications.
- Equality of opportunity, with attention to the needs of women, children, people with disabilities, the elderly, indigenous people, and marginalized groups.
- Cleaner air, by using renewable energy, greener public transport systems, and sustainable practices with natural resources.
- More resilience and less risk of damage from disaster through better planning, stronger infrastructure, and improved response capabilities.
- Safe and accessible green public space, including walkways, cycling lanes, squares, and parks.
All of that, and more, is much needed here. Along with the U.N., various charities, foundations, action groups, volunteers, and community organizations are working with the Kenyan government to electrify parts of Kibera and other Nairobi settlements. All of them lack outdoor lighting. Only a fifth of the city’s shacks have any kind of electrical power.
The government and U.N.-Habitat tried a Kibera “cleansing” scheme to replace and upgrade the shanties, including plans for a series of new high-rises. That did not go very far. Crews encountered great difficulty bringing building supplies onto the site, which has no room for vehicles and is surrounded by relatively steep downward slopes.
Supplies that did make it into the complex quickly disappeared. Kibera is built on refuse; its unstable ground cannot accommodate foundations. Collapses during floods are common, and when shoddy buildings fall they damage good ones. And many residents didn’t want any change at all.
Today potable water does run into Kibera via large main pipes, easing the risk of cholera and typhoid, but latrines are shared; when they’re emptied, the waste often goes right into the Nairobi River. Teenage pregnancy is common, as are alcohol and drug dependency. Health remains a challenge for everyone. Most employment is menial and unskilled. More than half of the slum’s inhabitants have no work at all.
Still, you can book guided tours of Kibera (“Come! Visit Our Slum!”) and many tourists do. Day-trippers say it’s a friendly enough place, and its residents are proud. It is a nearly unavoidable physical presence. Sections of it are within view of Nairobi’s booming commercial center and its office towers.
A local architect friend said of Kibera, “It’s important to meeting basic housing needs.” He called it affordable, improving, and the only way into the city for the many people arriving daily from the countryside to seek opportunity. “It can be just a stop on the way to something better,” he told me. “People actually leave; they actually do move up.”
That was a hopeful thought. It spoke to basic human enterprise, which might actually be the only hope. We know the statistic—more than half of humanity now lives in cities. We know the numbers—there are more than five billion of us today, soon enough seven.
Nairobi is many things all at once—noisy, quiet, large, small, stifling, liberating, rural, urban, global, poor, rich, old, traditional, new, fun, sobering. Mostly, however, it is a place where many thousands of people invent, look for money, wander for work, seek solutions, and try to cope—mainly on their own, every day, all the time, in every way.