How do you describe Kibera? (Utaelezaje kuhusu Kibera?)

We’re following Bex Wiles in Kibera. You can read more about her work with Aspire Kibera at the disconcertingly named




– Bex Wiles, Aspire Kibera

I’m standing outside my friend Sabina’s house in Kibera waiting for her to get ready so that we can walk to the post office. It’s 10am and the morning rush hour is coming to an end, but there are still plenty of people milling around. It’s hot, really hot, and I can feel my skin burning from the sun reflecting off tarpaulin. The heat intensifies the smell, which is a mixture of street food, raw meat, animals, sweat and sewage. I step back to allow a spindly man pulling along a cart full of jerry cans to pass me and almost tread on one of the many stray dogs that lope around all day. He doesn’t seem bothered though – he just gives me a listless stare and goes back to sleep. I wonder how he manages to get any rest when the two shops opposite are both playing different reggae tracks at full volume (is it a competition?)


Over the road there are two matatus (14 seater minibuses) impatientlywaiting to get going. One of them is painted green with the words ‘Youget what you give so let’s hustle’ spray-painted on the side. The other one is very convincingly Facebook themed and covered with stickers – one day I should ask a driver where they buy their decorations from (although maybe this one was commissioned by Mark Zuckerberg). The two matatu conducters, wearing their standardised maroon trousers, are shouting ‘haraka haraka haraka’ (hurry, hurry, hurry) at passing pedestrians. The one thing I never understand about Kenya is that no-one ever seems to be in a rush except when boarding or leaving matatus. The average walking pace is maybe half the speed of London pedestrians, but when you’re trying to get on a (rammed full!) matatu, the driver will usually start accelerating when you’ve still got one foot on the ground – so you learn to be pretty nimble pretty quickly.

Sabina doesn’t like walking in the heat, but I’ve managed to persuade her to at least go half way. However, as if she had planned it, as soon as we are about to set off her friend S pulls up in the most pimped out car I’ve ever seen and offers us a lift. The car is a 4 wheel drive, 7 seater but the back two seats have been replaced with a gigantic speaker system. There are a number of ripped reggae and dancehall cds on the dashboard, but at the moment it’s blaring out something by Avicii. S lives in Kibera too, and works as a driver. A car this nice doesn’t really fit with the Western media projection of a slum – this is the Kibera Comic Relief doesn’t want you to see…

Trying to describe Kibera to someone who has never been there is ngumu sana (incredibly difficult). The above attempt (which is just a snapshot of one tiny part of Kibera) doesn’t come close to cutting it.

I would guess that if you asked most people in the UK what the word ‘slum’ makes them think of they would say things like: deprivation, poor sanitation, crime, poverty and humanitarian drives (cue Comic Relief’s emotive Kibera visit in 2011). Many Western media images of a slum subscribe to this agenda – ‘this is what real poverty looks like’ – because it’s this one-dimensional view that makes us dig deep into our pockets. If they can inspire pity, then they might just inspire action.

But pity is an emotion I very very rarely feel during my visits to Kibera. Usually I’m just fascinated by everything going on around me and spend a lot of time in my own head questioning all things ‘development’.

Even so, I don’t want to romanticise Kibera – the problems I mentioned above all exist – acutely. Many of its 300,000 (est.) residents live under the poverty line and there is a huge lack of public service provision (schools, waste disposal, health centres etc).  Violent crime levels are at an all time high and there is a great mistrust of the police amongst Kiberans, because of those that turn a blind eye and are paid off by local criminals.

However, this is an urban jungle (‘kibera’ literally means ‘jungle’), and like any other urban environment people are becoming more connected with each other and internationally. Many residents of Kibera have smartphones (and laugh at my trusty Nokia 3310), there are plenty of makeshift cinemas around and the music played on the streets is the same as I heard in London a few weeks ago. Kibera is like any other urban community – except that it is huge and condensed into 1.5 square miles. Thus, social issues are compounded and lack of resources intensified.

With Sabina – my good friend and the Kenya Director of Aspire Kibera.

I first came to Kibera in 2009 when I was a 20 year old baby International Development University student (you can read my impressions then here). Every time I have been back a lot has changed, but one thing that remains constant is the amount of NGOs working here. Kibera is a hotbed of development, so why then does nothing seem to develop? There is a government sponsored slum upgrading programme, which very few Kiberans want to be a part of (why would you pay double rent when you could just stay where you’ve been living your whole life?), a prominent UN office and endless smaller organisations.

Some people then have asked me in the last year why start yet another NGO – Aspire Kibera? And I have to be honest and say that at times I have had my doubts about it too. But it all comes back to empowering local people. The idea and design of our sanitary project was born in Kibera – the need was identified by local people and they are implementing the programme. Providing sanitary towels and underwear might seem like such a small intervention, but it empowers young women to be able to attend school and frees their families from the financial burden of having to buy them themselves.

The values of Aspire Kibera will always be that it is community-led and community-driven. I don’t know where it will be in a few years time, but we aim to respond to the needs of the community to support and empower young people from the slum areas.

Sabina and I are so grateful for all the support Aspire Kibera has received in the past year and every donation has made a difference. To grow our sanitary project and empower more young women to stay in school what we need is for more people to become regular givers. For every £2 per month we receive we can support one more young woman. If you want to help, send me an email to and I will send you a standing order form (although I only have Internet access every 5 days at the moment so please bear with me if I don’t reply immediately). Or if you’d prefer to give a one-off donation the link is below.

Asante sana.


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