Economic Ingenuity among Nairobi’s Poor

A recent story in the The Standard details the various ways Nairobi’s low-income earners maximize their earning potential and spending power. The article, “How Thriving ‘Reject Economy’ is Allowing the Poor to Live High Life of the Rich,” by Dominic Omondi looks beyond the “Dollar a Day” trope to reveal the economic ingenuity of Nairobi’s underclass. A few of the examples:

  • Getting discounted prices for cracked eggs, bruised vegetables, misshapen bread, and defective clothing
  • Finding deals from street vendors and informal markets
  • Recovering and washing discarded, but still trendy, hair weaves
  • Selling old newspapers by the page to butchers and shopkeepers
  • Buying scrap electronics for pennies, fixing them, and selling them for a sizable profit

During my fieldwork, I became fascinated by the economics of Kibera. Inside Kibera, there are lots of people struggling to afford food and rent, but there are also plenty of working televisions, stylish dressers, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Last summer, I learned about the cracked egg discount when helping a friend sell eggs at the market. It’s not surprising that this same logic holds true for a number of different products and services in the informal economy. You just have to know how to navigate the system.

Needless to say, I was captivated by the stories Omondi recounts in this article.

But here’s the problem.

While I saw this as a story about economic ingenuity, Omondi frames it as a morality tale about the frivolity and irrationality of the poor. For instance, he opens the article by introducing a man whose “love for all things luxurious” and his “life of extravagance” belies his “tiny, mud-walled shack in the squalid Korogocho slum.”

Later, Omondi interviews a University of Nairobi economist and a Moi University sociologist who both cast these efforts by the poor as foolish attempts to live symbolically above their means.

Dr XN Iraki, an Economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says: “People in slums and poor people in general aspire to be better than they are economically. In reality, that would take a long time, maybe even a generation.”

As such, Dr Iraki adds, the poor go through shortcuts by using symbolism like clothing labels or other visible signs of affluence.

“This provides a great market for fakes, making the business very profitable.”

Moses Mutua, a Sociology lecturer at Moi University, adds that this situation is further fuelled by what he terms “comparative need” — wanting to have a TV set in your house because your neighbour or someone you know has one.

“They [the poor] also want to show that they are in a class of their own. They suffer false consciousness; they are low-income earners, but would not want to show their predicament to their neighbours, children or extended family.”

The implication is clear: the poor should act poor.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the influence of social comparison. At the same time, why should we interpret someone making stew with chicken scraps or fixing a broken TV as false consciousness? Why not see this as an example of resourcefulness?

If the characters in this story have discovered ways to maximize their spending power, why view their consumption desires as any less valid than anyone else’s?

While I appreciate Omondi’s final point that the best way to improve living standards is to increase jobs and wages, he takes an unfortunate detour to get there. The takeaway from this story should be that Nairobi’s underclass has developed tactics (in the de Certaeu sense) to navigate an economic system that is structured around their marginalization.

This is worthy of our admiration, not our contempt.

New Article: Participatory Culture in Kenya


Melissa Tully and I have a new article out in Critical Studies in Media Communication about the one and only Makmende. If you’re not familiar with Makmende, you should watch this video immediately.

Melissa and I were both in Kenya doing research on other topics when Makmende became the hot topic online and in public. The video and the resulting meme caught our attention. If Kenyan bloggers and international news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and CNN were discussing Makmende as Kenya’s first internet sensation, we wanted to know why this video, why now, and what does this all say about contemporary Kenya?

Our article, “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s Collective Reimagining as a Meme of Aspiration” argues that Kenyans used the Makmende meme to have a conversation about their dreams for the nation, something we label “playful nationalism.”  A few other scholars (such as Ethan Zuckerman and Henry Jenkins) have discussed Makmende within the context of the global flow of culture products. We wanted to situate Makmende within the Kenyan context. Here’s the abstract:

In 2010, Kenya’s first internet meme arrived in the form of a vigilante named Makmende, the action-hero-inspired protagonist of a music video. Within days of the video’s release, fans started creating Makmende tales, videos, and artwork, and circulating these works online. In this article, we analyze the Makmende phenomenon to understand why this video inspired Kenya’s first internet meme, what the meme says about contemporary Kenya and politics, and how this meme broadens our understanding of global participatory culture. We argue that a group of young, urban Kenyans seized the moment to reappropriate stereotypes of weakness into aspirations of strength as they asserted Kenya into the global conversation online. Through this meme, Makmende became more than a fictional super hero—he became a symbol of Kenya’s present and future. We situate this meme in its cultural and social context to analyze how and why Kenyans used Makmende to represent themselves. The participatory playfulness around Makmende created a meme of aspiration through which a niche of Kenyans collectively reimagined a hypermasculine hero who embodied youth hopes and visions for the country. This article draws from multiple texts about and within the Makmende meme and observational research in Kenya before, during, and after the height of the Makmende craze.

With support from the University of Iowa Libraries Open Access Fund,  this article is licensed through the Creative Commons (CC-BY) for Open Access. You can read the full article online on my page or download it below.

Download “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s Collective Reimagining as a Meme of Aspiration

New Article: Entertainment-Education and Online Cocreation

This is a belated notice, but Melissa Tully and I have a new article published in Television & New Media that looks at the Kenyan television show The Team and its online campaign to engage viewers in a discussion about national unity. Here’s the abstract from “The Team Online: Entertainment-Education, Social Media, and Cocreated Messages“:

This article examines an entertainment-education program, The Team, which began airing in Kenya after the 2007–2008 postelection violence. The show promotes cooperation and national unity among Kenyans through the metaphor of Kenya as a football (soccer) team. The focus of this article is twofold: viewers’ identification with and reaction to certain morally ambiguous characters and audience members’ interaction with the program through the online social networking site Facebook. We argue that the producers’ attempt to create less didactic storylines and more complex characters resulted in unanticipated audience opposition to the death of a character the producers understood to be negative but audience members viewed as sympathetic. Second, the adoption of social media resulted in less controlled discussions in which Facebook users occasionally questioned, challenged, and sought to reshape the producers’ goals and strategies.

The article is currently available online and will appear in print in 2014.

A History of Kibera

Before I first visited Kibera in 2008, I started tracking down books, newspaper articles, and journal articles to learn more about Kibera’s history. During this search, I found a couple of real gems. For instance, Timothy Parson’s article “Kibra is Our Blood” offers an excellent account of Kibera’s history from its founding until Kenyan independence in 1963, focusing particularly on the fascinating relationship between British military authorities and Kibera’s first Nubian settlers.

But I also found that most accounts of Kibera’s past are quite brief. Plus, there is little out there that discusses Kibera’s tremendous growth from independence until the present. So in the past 2+ years, I’ve continued to track down material to help me acquire a more substantive understanding of Kibera’s history.

The 13-page document at the end of this post is the result of those efforts. While this historical account is a part of my yet-to-be-finished dissertation, I wanted to post it here first for a couple of reasons.

One, for those who are interested in learning more about Kibera, I hope this history serves as a primer for this fascinating and complex community. Please check out some of sources on the references page, too. Don’t just trust what I have written here.

Two, I’m interested in what others have to say about my account of Kibera’s past and present. Are there key moments I missed? Are there any parts of this historical account that you think are off track? I’m very interested in getting feedback from others who live in and study Kibera. Histories always reflect certain perspectives, so I want to hear yours.

While I don’t pretend to offer the authoritative account of Kibera’s past, I hope this proves to be useful for those just getting familiar with Kibera. I also hope this starts a conversation about the defining moments of Kibera’s past and our understanding of its present.

Kibera’s History (PDF)


Update (5/6): My smarter half suggested I change the title of this post from “The History of Kibera” to “A History of Kibera.” Her suggestion was spot on. Thanks!

It’s My Turn to Read: Corruption in Kenya

Even though I’ve had Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower sitting on my proverbial shelf for over a year, I hadn’t found the time to pick it up and read it until just recently. It’s the story of John Githongo, an idealistic anti-corruption advocate turned government set-piece turned whistle-blower. After heading up the Kenya branch of Transparency International for a few years, Githongo was appointed anti-corruption czar when Mwai Kibaki won the presidency in 2002. Githongo took the position thinking he could contribute to a new dawn in Kenyan politics led by a party verbally committed to renouncing the crooked policies and practices of Daniel Arap Moi’s 24 years of money laundering and ethnic favoritism. Githongo soon discovered this “change” was more about changing who was favored/corrupt rather than eradicating favoritism/corruption. Githongo was disgusted by this betrayal, so he began documenting abuses and secretly made audio recordings of government ministers candidly talking about their shady deals. Eventually he helped expose a government scam in which over $750 million in government contracts were awarded to “Anglo Leasing” – little more than a mailing address in Liverpool that on paper masqueraded as a supplier for a variety of government services (these contracts were never fulfilled). Wrong’s book follows Githongo’s story while providing much context (some parts feeling a bit too tangential) on Kenya’s political and economic climate. It’s worth reading, although I felt like the book was stalling in its early chapters.

One of Wrong’s underlying themes is that aid organizations and Western donors have been helping to support this kind of corruption by providing stacks and stacks of money to governments without expecting much accountability in return. It’s doubly disappointing that, one, Githongo’s efforts had very little legal impact on those responsible for Anglo Leasing (there’s been little to no follow-though by Kenyan executive or judicial powers) and, two, that the revelation of large-scale and systemic corruption has had very little impact on the foreign aid Kenya receives (governments and aid organizations, having felt the catharsis of giving, fail to track who is benefiting from these “gifts”). It seems more and more people are moving away from the Jeffrey Sachs approach to poverty reduction and toward the “stop screwing our county with aid that hurts local entrepreneurship and encourages bad governance” camp. Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa is the newest addition to my bookshelf. Luckily it’s a short one. It might even be the perfect length for a flight from Nairobi to Chicago.

Another thing…in a sense, Wrong is arguing that corruption is a norm in Kenyan society. Not ‘some Kenyan politicians are corrupt’ or ‘many people have to deal with corruption’ in Kenya. Rather, she’s saying corruption is a regular part of Kenyan life, and those who work to stop corruption are the exception. “The contents of John’s dossier[…]matter far less than the fact that they emerged in the first place to challenge system” (p. 322). While this is a pretty damning argument, I have to say it resonates with some of my personal experiences here. Now, to say corruption is a norm is not to say that people like it. When my taxi driver was pulled over by two police officers on a dark road and forced to pay a 500KSH bribe, he was pissed. He immediately called a friend to complain about what just happened. But not liking something and not expecting something are two different things. Not too long ago, I was caught up with a few others in a situation where some guys took something of ours and were asking for a bribe to get it back. I wanted to be outraged by this, but most people I talked to gave the practical advice of “better to pay now than to wait and see what the price will be tomorrow.” So we paid, and we got it back. Still, what was the most baffling to me was the other most common response Kenyans gave to this story: “this is Kenya” (or it’s variant “TIA: this is Africa”). This is the same phrase a friend calmly stated after telling me that the money a sponsor sent for his school fees was embezzled. I was pissed at the injustice. How could anyone steal money from a young man trying to go to school? Why wasn’t this thief in jail? My friend was also upset. But he wasn’t so caught up in the injustice of the situation as he was disappointed that his time had come to be victim. I’m not saying that Kenyans are complacent. In fact, I think most are tired of the corruption and tired of being victims . But changing a norm is much harder than exposing one crime or prosecuting one criminal. It’s a cultural shift.

I think it will happen. But it will take time.

Looking for a Research Assistant in Kibera?

“Maybe, you can promote me?”

You’ll hear these words a lot if you spend any time in Kenya. Taxi drivers, hawkers, safari guides, etc. For the most part they just want your business at that moment, not necessarily for you to “promote” them to the world. But now I want to do a real promotion for anyone out there who is looking for a research assistant for doing work in Kibera.

As you may know, I’ve been in Kenya doing research in Kibera and Mathare on individuals and groups that are producing media in Nairobi’s slums. I planned to do some interviews with Kibera residents following the screenings of Togetherness Supreme, but I wanted to hire a research assistant for two reasons: first, my Swahili is poor and my Sheng is even worse and second, in my experience, some people will tell me what they think I want to hear rather than what they really want to say. I thought by having a fellow Kibera resident conduct the interviews, respondents would be more likely to speak freely.

Genesis Njeru Ngari has experience doing interviews from working on his book project, he can speak fluently in English, Swahili, and Sheng (and he’s been adding some German to the mix), and likes to meet new people. So I thought he’d be good at the job, but I was still really impressed at his skill and professionalism. I drafted up a questionnaire, and then the two of us met so Genesis could make suggestions and help me with the question phrasing. Then during two movie screenings, Genesis went around and recruited participants, making sure to get a good mix of men/women, old/young, etc. For the first 5 interviews, the two of us worked together, doing the interviews in tandem. Once Genesis got the swing of things, I let him take over. He did the rest of the interviews (34 in all) in 4 days, calling each respondent and setting up times and locations to meet. During the interviews, he switched back and forth between Swahili, Sheng, and English depending on the interviewee’s language of choice, but he always made sure to immediately translate any non-English responses for my benefit. He also made good clean audio recordings from my digital recorder, so transcription has been easy (well, as easy as transcribing ever is).

So if you’re looking for someone to help you with your research, I could not recommend Genesis more. You can contact him through his website, or you can comment here and I’ll put you in touch with him.