REPOST: This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Ordinary people’s stories can change the world’s views about Africa We cannot see salary data in the faces of others, but most of us have similar mental images that structure how we […]
Before I visited Kibera for the first time in 2009, I tried to read and watch as much as I could to better understand the community. Much of what I consumed was from international news and academic journals, which largely focused on health, crime, and housing issues in Kibera. After spending some time on the ground getting to know residents and seeing how the community worked, I came to realize that, while these issues are real and significant, they are only part of Kibera’s story.
Like people everywhere, Kibera residents live complicated lives filled with joys, sorrow, boredom, and pain. I have a new article in Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies that is my attempt to reconcile these two different perspectives: the complexity of life experienced by residents in Kibera and the oversimplified narrative of despair circulating in the media and the public imagination.
Here is the abstract for “Slum discourse, media representations and maisha mtaani in Kibera, Kenya“:
This article examines the discourse surrounding Kibera, a highly populated low-income community in Nairobi, Kenya. Based on 11 months of fieldwork and interviews with 56 Kibera residents, this article discusses the disconnect between the lives experienced by residents and the hyperbolic and essentialised discourse that depicts Kibera as a community defined by sickness, crime and despair. While residents do not deny many of the hardships that are central to the Kibera discourse, they articulate maisha mtaani [life in the neighbourhood] as complex, diverse and contextual. Sadly, several groups that claim to serve the good of Kibera are partially responsible for perpetuating this harmful discourse. In fact, some NGOs, journalists and residents benefit from reproducing a discourse that actively marginalises Kibera and its people.
I realize that academics often exist in silos (an unfortunate reality that is encouraged by structural factors), but I have two sincere wishes for this article. First, I hope it helps people like me who want to get a better understanding of what life is like in Kibera from the perspectives of those who live there. Second, I hope it contributes to a process of changing how we talk about Kibera and how it is represented in the media.
You can find a copy of the article on my academia.edu account.
I have a new article in Journalism Practice about the difficulties of doing community journalism in places like Kibera. The article is titled “‘I Wish They Knew that We are Doing This for Them’: Participation and resistance in African community journalism” and will appear in an upcoming […]
I apologize for the year-long sabbatical from the blog. I can’t promise to be more regular, but I’ll try.
I’m back in Kenya for 5 weeks this summer, and this time I’ve gotten the chance to spend some time in the Kenya National Archives. There are some great finds in there concerning the history of Kibera and Mathare, as well as some other gems about the growth of media industries in Kenya. Anyway, I thought I’d share this one letter that really struck me today.
Around 1950, the British government was developing plans to move the Sudanese (Nubians) out of Kibera. The plan was to relocate this group to Kibiko, about 15 miles further west of town. I’ll spoil the ending right now and let you know that they weren’t successful. The Sudanese resisted and the plans became financially prohibitive.
As I was reading over the correspondence and documentation about the plans for this resettlement, I found a letter dated 25 September 1950 from a member of the Sudanese Association of East Africa, sent to the District Commissioner of Nairobi. Here it is in full (I’ve tried to match the spelling and grammar to the original):
I most humbly and respectful before emit a word I lay down my particulars as follows:- I born in Nairobi at Kibra, 30 years old, married man, with two children and very intelligent in Nairobi Town, welfare, good health, and running to town daily for work, myself I can’t living outof town Nairobi 18 miles exept if Government forcing, but I do not like.
I approaching these my petition before you for kindly consideration. I have to explain you that through in our difficulty and tired is that: daily early morning and lateness evening we are walking to Nairobi and back, for our duties as you know we are serve our life as employment in town nothing else, we are spending the whole day’s without meal on account of less salaray, also thereis Bus runing but we can’t spend /40 Cts in travelling by Buses we are keeping for household we are very famine in this area.
Col. Lafontain was state that Kibera must be under Municipal or departure, this is quit too difficult to us we can not serve under Municipal at all we are poor we can not living on renting as he said Municipal shall built lodging houses at Kibra for us, this is quite clear Sudanese clan is to be scattered and lost and we are guest in this colonies. We are first looking an enemy in East Africa, as our fathers combine with British and attack African in East Africa and let them down under Government vengeance still going on between African and Sudanese, how we goin to serve our life if Government is going to leave us apon hill at Kibiko 18 miles from Nairobi, how we can reach Nairobi by walking, sir, this is quite through in fact to live under Municipal Control or, departure to Kibiko both we had rather not, we shall lost our clan and be “JANGILI.” We shall be very grateful if you could putithis my petition under reaction as the Land Commissioner Report state: within easy to reach in Nairobi. Therefore, we shall be lead on an easy life. I shall be very grateful to received your further information to assist me on these difficult.
I have the honour to be sir, Your obediently Servant,
Ahamed Mussa Sha-Aban
Unfortunately, this thoughtful and impassioned letter about the effect of the resettlement plan did not elicit an equally thoughtful response. Here it is in full:
I have to refer to a letter dated 25th September 1950 in which you complain that proposals for Kibira will seriously affect your life, and to say that these proposals give effect to this recommendation made by the Kenya Land Commission. I see no grounds for any further complaints in this matter.
I am, Sire, Your obedient servant,
I’ve posted pictures of the two original letters below.
The past few months, I’ve been busy finishing my dissertation and doing little else. Now that my committee is reading the goods and deciding my fate (I defend next week), I wanted to draw attention to an interesting series of posts about Kibera on Forbes.com. […]
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.
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!
As part of my research, Genesis Njeru and I conducted a bunch of interviews with Kibera residents (you can read more about the process here). These interviews covered a lot of different topics, but one of the things we asked early on was how they […]