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!

Matatu Scams

One of the best ways to get around Nairobi (or Kenya for that matter) is via matatu – 15-passenger vans that run different routes throughout the city. Within Nairobi, rides can be as cheap at 10KSH (~$.13), and they can get into the hundreds of shillings for trips outside the city. Yes, they’re crowded, often noisy, sometimes smelly, and occasionally reckless, but they are also quite the bargain and can be pretty fun to ride, too.

That being said, when you start talking to fellow matatu riders (especially foreigners), you realize there are some standard matatu scams that thieves will try to use to get your valuables. I’m compiling a list of the ones I know of in hopes that I might save some potential victim the frustration of losing a bag, wallet, etc. Comment if you know of any more scams to add.

Police Check Seatbelt Scam
I have had this attempted on my multiple times. You’re riding along and someone behind you taps you on the shoulder and says there’s a police check up ahead and you need to put your seatbelt on. In the commotion, someone will “help” you put your seatbelt on by reaching at your side and pulling something from your bag or pocket. I’ve heard of people losing purses, wallets and even laptops during this scam.

“I Dropped My Change” Scam
I’ve only had this attempted on me once, but I’ve talked to others who’ve been duped by this. Someone behind you will tap your shoulder and tell you they dropped their change and it’s on the floor by you. When you bend over to look, they’ll lean over the seat and grab something from your bag or pocket.

Squeeze Past Me Scam
When you get to your stop, one of the riders between you and the door will just turn to the side and allow you to squeeze by instead of getting out of the matatu completely. Now while many passengers will do this because they’re too lazy to get out of the matatu, some will want you to squeeze by so they can quickly dig into your pockets without you noticing the contact. I’ll admit I had my wallet taken from my side pocket on one of my first matatu rides by the guy sitting next to me whom I had to climb over to get out.
(Melissa suggested I mention many matatu riders will just have you squeeze past rather than get out. That doesn’t mean they’re all going for your valuables. But it’s still a good idea to check your pockets before and after a squeeze.)

Big Envelope/Bag Scam
If you get on a matatu and a few seconds later someone gets on after you, sits next to you, and places a large envelope or bag on his/her lap, then watch out. They’ll spread the envelope/bag over your leg and then use the cover to investigate your bag or pockets.

Pass the Fair Scam
Because the tout can’t reach every passenger to collect their fares, if you’re sitting in the very back or front, you’ll often have to pass your fare to someone else to get to the tout. While this has never happened to me, I met someone who passed a 200KSH bill to the person in front of them, and then watched that rider immediately hop off with her fare.

As I said, I was a victim to the squeeze scam right after I arrived in Kenya in January 2009. But, I ride matatus several times a day, and even though I’ve been on board during several other attempted scams, I haven’t been duped a second time (yet). I think the big difference now is I’m cautious and I’m aware of my surroundings. So if you want to avoid getting scammed, I suggest the following tips:

  1. Pay attention. If someone tries one of these scams, tell them off right away and get out as soon as possible.
  2. Avoid carrying things in open bags and pockets. Zip up your valuables if you can. I regularly wear a jacket with zipper pockets and put my wallet inside.
  3. Try not to look like you’re new to this. All sorts of people ride matatus, but it’s those who look like newbies who are targeted.
  4. If you’re worried about squeezing past others, only ride in matatus when there’s a seat in the front few rows. Over time, you’ll get more comfortable with it and finding sitting in the “way back” isn’t so bad.
  5. (I don’t want to be sexist, but…) Look at the male-female ratio. I’ve never seen or heard of a female scammer, so I always feel a bit safer sitting next to a woman or in a matatu full of women.

And if you do get scammed, report it on Hatari and don’t let it stick with you. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Just learn the signs of the scammers and try to make it your last time scammed.

Slum: The People of Kibera (Book)

I recently finished reading Slum: The People of Kibera, written by Genesis Njeru Ngari and his wife Faith Kisolo Njeru. Genesis and his wife live in Laini Saba village (map) in Kibera, and for this book they interviewed other Kibera residents and recorded their stories in short biographies – 20 in all, most around 5 pages long. The book project was sponsored and edited by Greg Lanier, an American who met Genesis in 2005 while on a short-term mission trip in Kibera. Greg provides an overview of NGO literature and news coverage of Kibera, but the majority of the book is dedicated to telling the personal stories of Kibera residents.
What I appreciate most is the authors’ hesitation to provide a definitive macro view of Kibera – there are others who try to do this, and it is a difficult task indeed. By providing these short biographies, readers can get a sense of what it means to live in Kibera, not in a generalizable way, but in a very individual and personal way. I would just encourage readers to have the same hesitation as the writers. These are 20 stories that span a variety of life experiences, but there are many more out there to tell. From my time in Kibera, I’ve heard many stories of struggle similar to the ones in this book, but I’ve also heard a lot of hopeful stories as well. (I also recognize that because of the groups I’m involved with, my experience is somewhat skewed in the other direction.) Anyway, the point is that these stories can provide a glimpse of what lived experience is like in Kibera in a way that is really missing from academic, NGO, and news coverage of Kibera.

Just to give you a sense of the book, here are a few passages that I found particularly informative and compelling:

One of the interviewees (Mark) expressed the cynicism that a lot of Kibera residents have toward the impact of outside aid:

Mark hears often about money given by donors to support this slum, but he is sure he has never benefited from this. The more the support comes, the more poverty is increasing in the slum. He is thankful for the donors who, from goodwill alone, want to support the slum. But he wants them to now that whatever money they send or give to support the people ends up in only a few people’s pockets. He hopes donors can track down how support is distributed and determine if it actually benefits the people it is designated for. However, he fears that if donors come to Kibera and ask questions, they will find out that not even a single cent of support reaches the people.

Another interviewee talked about how his religious faith interacts with his drug addiction:

“After taking my meal [his drugs], I read a small verse in the Bible, and then I tell God to help me get another puff next time. God is faithful and makes this happen. Then I completely forget my family, and life becomes good for me.”

While most of the stories focus on the struggles of living in Kibera, one young woman still has hope for Kibera:

After all these wounds healed and left behind scars, she still has dreams and hopes for her family and Kenya as a whole. She said, “I would like one day to open my eyes and see Kibera as a paradise, not as a slum anymore, and me living in it.”

In the US, you can buy a copy of the book online for $14. In Kenya, you can get a copy from Genesis directly – that’s how I met Genesis and Faith a few weeks ago. They are both cool people, and with the book proceeds they’ve been able to set up a salon to support themselves, offer free training to local youth, and even sponsor some of the youth in secondary school.

Also keep an eye on the blog, where Genesis provides more info about life in Kibera.

Nairobi Links

It’s my last week in Nairobi, and it’s been a great two months. I really look forward to coming back in December and settling into Nairobi life for 6-7 months while doing my dissertation research. But before I go, I just wanted to send a few digital shout-outs to sites, orgs, and people you should make sure and check out.

  • Mwelu Foundation – A photography and film project with Mathare youth. I’m hoping to spend more time with these guys (and girls) when I return.
  • Nairobi Stories – I met Jeff when visiting Mwelu and was really impressed by his desire to be a journalist. He uses this blog to write stories, post pictures, etc.
  • Togetherness Supreme Blog – All the latest happenings at Hot Sun: visitors, status on the feature film, Togetherness Supreme, etc.
  • Nairobi Now – If you’re spending some time in Nairobi, you’ll love this blog. It posts weekly updates of events, plays, readings, etc. happening in the Nairobi area. When I was bored on a Friday night, this is where I looked first.