What’s in a Name (and a Number)?

Friday the Daily Nation published an article titled “Myth shattered: Kibera numbers fail to add up.” Looking at the newly released 2009 Kenya census, Muchiri Karanja writes:

It has been billed as Africa’s biggest slum and even by some accounts, the world’s largest. Some say it is home to two million people, others a million.

But the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census results released this week make everything you have heard about the size of Kibera improbable. Numbers do not lie, and figures from the 2009 census indicate that Kibera barely makes it to Nairobi’s largest slum.

According to the census figures, the eight locations that form Kibera slums combined host a paltry 170,070. These include Lindi, the largest, with 35,158 people; Kianda (29,356); Laini Saba (28,182); Makina (25,242); Gatwikira (24.991); Siranga (17,363); and Kibera (9,786).

Karanja goes on to talk about the “‘the biggest slum in Africa’ lie” and all the landlords, slum tourists, NGOs, and politicians who are benefiting from this lie.

This triggered a lot of buzz in the Twitterverse, with people writing things like, “Now we know Kibera was all a myth. I wonder what else is?” “We need another celebrity slum now,” and “Either the census results are completely BS or the NGOs working there inflatd the figures for their own good.”

But I think there are a couple of things lost here. First, I disagree with Karanja…numbers do lie. Or more rightly, people use numbers to lie all the time. That’s why there are so many different population figures on Kibera. Therefore, as Mikel Maron notes, it may be appropriate to question the census methodology, especially in informal areas. I’ve been trying to track more detailed information about the census, but the best I can find is this powerpoint, which is less than enlightening.

So here are a couple of things worth thinking about when considering the official government census figures about Kibera. 1) Although Kibera as a whole is very stable, a good number of residents are regularly coming and going. Who knows what percentage of Kibera’s population was upcountry or off on a work project when the census was conducted. 2) Many Kibera residents are distrustful of the government, thinking the government will displace them at any moment, like they did during the slum upgrading project and have proposed to do with homes near the railway. Therefore it’s reasonable to suggest that some Kibera residents lied about how many people were living there. 3) There are plenty of people living in Kibera who do not have homes. I wonder how they were accounted for during the census. 4) The government has little incentive to be entirely forthright about the extent of Kibera’s population. Karanja quotes someone who states the government has benefited from the inflated numbers, but I doubt this is the case. History has shown that the government views Kibera as a blight on Kenya’s desired image of an African economic success story.

That being said, I’ve long been skeptical of the one million figure because there seemed to be no methodological justification for this projection. The Map Kibera Project conducted a rather thorough research project in Kianda and projected the population of Kibera as a whole was closer to 250,000. These researchers were very forthright about their methods, but also admitted “the pilot phase had several technical, organizational and administrative challenges.” Kibera’s population is likely much lower than previously thought, but figuring out the population of Kibera is hard.

So let’s suppose they’re right and the population of Kibera is somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000. This is significantly less than the often stated one million and WAY WAY less than the completely unsubstantiated two million claim. But does this mean Kibera is a “myth” or a big “lie”? Yes and no.

A lot of information out there about Kibera is just plain wrong. No toilets? Wrong. No roads? Wrong. No schools? Wrong. Kibera works as a functioning community much more than many of these stories make you believe. So getting this information out there about Kibera, including more accurate population figures, is a good thing. As long as these falsehoods continue to prosper, some will figure out how to benefit personally from the myth, or worse, the myth of Kibera will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

My only caution is that we don’t swing from one end to another. Let’s not go from thinking Kibera stands for enormous, insurmountable suffering to dismissing the troubles of Kibera as “not big enough” for us to take seriously. I doubt many Kibera residents were responsible for creating and perpetuating this myth, yet they will be the ones to suffer most from any backlash.

All of us, myself included, who perpetuated falsehoods or misleading facts/figures that led people to believe Kibera is something that it is not are complicit in creating the myth. But we will not feel any repercussions if there is a backlash.

May we (researchers, NGOs, journalists, etc.) be more careful with our words, understanding that careful and cautious statements are more beneficial than hyperboles that can be easily dismantled.

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UPDATE (9/7): Here’s a good take on the census figures from the Map Kibera blog.

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