Africa’s largest informal settlement is owned not by an enormous enclave of squatters transgressing life’s deprivations and hardships. Kibera is owned by the Kenyan government (a fact disputed), and home to an estimated 300 000 to 1 million people (also disputed, and the exact same estimate often given about Soweto, a range so wide it means we have no idea). The average shack size is 4 x 4 metres, made of mud and sticks, with a corrugated roof. Multiple proxy wars play out in Kibera, which perhaps explains the inexplicable conditions – Luo and Kikuyu, landlord and tenant, employed and jobless, the government and the governed. Power shifts among opposing sides as political and NGO winds change, which explains the morass. There are few utilities, despite political representation and government ownership, and lots of children, fuelling a frenetic sense of urgency.
The land which makes up Kibera was a parting gift to the Nubian people from the Queen for their service to the British colonizers. Over time, the Nubian residents began to rent their plots to the large influx of other peoples into Nairobi. Shack ownership remains a very lucrative business, as it is estimated 60% of Kibera shacks are rented, at shockingly high rates. “Kibera” is Nubian for “forest” or “jungle,” as ironic as the “Waterval” and “Yellowwood Estates” which are destroyed to make way for the golf estates they are named for, because the only forest or jungle left in Kibera is human – of the mind, the political situation, or the effort to access basic services.
However, like movies, books, or some famous people, when you finally meet Kibera, it’s not what you expect at all. There is a momentum, an energy, a vibe even, perhaps perpetuated by the murmuring sounds of thousands of people tucked behind the mud walls which surround you as you walk through the meandering paths. People you pass are head down, walking with intention, minds elsewhere. The quiet gurgling of water, the various smells wafting with you, the sounds of tinkering, planting, sorting and arranging create a sense of movement, of meaning and purpose. Furtive glances inside the homes show fastidious order and control, swept floors and washed walls. A focus and intensity – what we have is ours, what is ours is important. It reminds us of Brazil’s favelas but with suits and briefcases, perhaps because Kibera sits firmly in downtown Nairobi.
On a recent visit to Nairobi, we make arrangements to visit Kibera. Housing and neighbourhood development are what we do – how are homes built or traded? Are they affordable? How does a so-called informal community so undeniably large and hectic function? It is through this effort we meet our host, Erick Simba. As we walk the streets and meet the movers and shakers of this metropolis, hands wave, children run, and greetings are passed – it is clear Simba knows everyone, and everyone knows him. The morning after our visit to Kibera, we meet him for coffee in the bustling lobby of our hotel about 20 minutes from Kibera. Indeed, as we sit, men and women in business attire and big watches lean in to shake hands and laugh with him. As in Kibera, so too in the Intercontinental Hotel, Simba’s greetings are consistent – heartfelt, gracious and full of next steps on projects current and anticipated.
BD: Tell us about yourself.
Simba: I’m 28 years old, with four siblings. We moved to Kibera when I was 6, in the mid-1980s as my rural parents were looking for work. My father was a branch manager for Coca-Cola, but when he was laid off, he, well, you know, he became depressed and drank, and our family became very poor. I got my first pair of shoes when I was 11. I was close to my mom, and good with books, so I started coming up with ideas to support her, to help take care of the family. My mom was active in her church, and through that, I got a scholarship to go to school outside of Kibera.
BD: How did that go? How important was that?
Simba: Kibera is not a place, Kibera is a mindset. If you don’t know how the rest of the world lives, you don’t aspire to it. If you don’t know about a hot shower, how will you miss having a hot shower? Getting out of Kibera, that mindset, was very important. My school had a lot of rich kids, and one of the ways I was able to make money was to get to school at 6 am, and the kids would pay me to finish their homework. So I made money and became a strong student at the same time. After school, I didn’t go play, I went to the mall nearby and collected either leftover food or food I bought with my money for my mom to cook for dinner.
BD: Did this affect your education, this need to make money?
Simba: I was very outgoing. I was a class leader, and became a business entrepreneur. I made money buying school stationery and selling it at school. I sold spices, cooking oil, fish, because the school food was so bad. I wrote poems and love notes for Ks30, including the paper, the envelope and a little bit of cologne! When I was in Form 3, the school found out, and I was almost expelled but I was very good at school and had a lot of support from the other students. That was a wake up call to get serious, so I toned it down.
BD: That seems a shame [we laugh]. How did it go from there?
Simba: The closer graduation came, the more I wanted out of Kibera. I was exposed to friends’ homes, cars, vacations. I wanted that life, I was good or better than they were at school, so why not? One day, I was at a cousin’s wedding – it was a huge affair – but I got called for a job interview so I left. I sat in that office from 3:00 til 8:00 pm, when the director finally noticed me still sitting in the waiting room. He said, “you still here?” We talked and he asked if I had any sales experience [laughs]. Well, I didn’t want to get into any more trouble so I told him how I had volunteered at the church selling hymnals and rosaries (the punishment for getting in trouble). He asked me to come that Monday – I got the job! The guy I was to work with figured out quickly that I had no accounting skills, but he saw me trying, so he became my mentor. Little did I know at the time he was planning to leave, so he was training me as his replacement. He resigned and I had his job for about nine months.
BD: So your entrepreneurial skills came in handy after all.
Simba: My friends all said how lucky I was. I told them no, I did this. Around this time came the elections in 2008. My MP had been robbed of the election, he had a huge following of young people, and very quickly violence erupted in Kibera. My arm was broken by a policeman’s baton while I was protesting the election results. My mentor sent me to his cousin’s house who was a bone doctor. She wanted to see Kibera, so I took her there. She saw the brutality, and within a week, she had organized the Red Cross to bring in food. That food was looted so they needed another strategy. Lots of donations were coming in, so we gathered to discuss what to do. Friends of friends, including the French Ambassador were asking us what they could do. Donations were being looted, and it was not working, so I came up with a food for work program. We would put people to work cleaning up the streets from the destruction in the morning, and feed them in the afternoon. It would foster dignity and social cohesion. We made sure all the tribes were included, and women were included by cooking food, and I was hired as a Program Officer to oversee the work.
BD: That must have been very rewarding to see that turnaround.
Simba: The program ran for almost a year, and was closed after the coalition government was formed, but I saw how things could change with some direction. Young people kept calling me. We created the Kibera Initiative for Community Development and raised money just through friends’ personal donations. In 2010, I enrolled in the University of Nairobi’s Sociology & Social Work program. But there was still something missing.
BD: What was that?
Simba: That mindset. We weren’t changing the mindsets. So we started a program called Christian Best Camps of Kenya to expose kids, to organize mentors focusing on creating wealth and upholding moral standards. It’s a five day camp with five pillars: mentorship, sportsmanship, nutrition, outings, and Bible study. We take the kids to restaurants and offices, we teach them about good nutrition and feed them three meals a day, and introduce them to sports like basketball. The Bible sessions teach morals and accountability, and we talk about social issues.
BD: How’s that going?
Simba: We’ve taken 3000 kids through the program, helping them transition from high school to college. We visit schools to get them scholarships, I share my story, and recruit volunteers from all over the world. Kibera doesn’t suffer from poverty, it suffers from the mindset that since nothing good comes out of Kibera, nothing good can come out of me. You must have the urge to get out of that mindset, that’s what I try to teach these kids. For now, 70% of our kids have moved out of Kibera, and on to other places. I want to spread the model -a camp that focuses on mentorship- to other countries.
BD: That’s a great idea. Are you still living in Kibera?
Simba: [laughs] No. But I can see Kibera from my front porch. I am transitioning now, I’m a husband and a father to a 3 month-old boy. I am asked to do some motivational speaking and connecting with kids to get them out of Kibera. But I am there every day.
BD: So this is why everyone in Kibera knows you?
Simba: Vukani bantu!
How do you find motivation and inspiration, and peace, in the midst of such massive deprivation? You find it within. Kibera must come from Kibera.
Links and more Information
Contact Erick Agoro Simba: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Erick on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CBCKENYA
Camp information: http://www.cbckenya.co.ke/
A History of Kibera http://voiceofkibera.org/reports/view/7
MapKibera: http://mapkibera.org/ Citizen mapping, media and advocacy
Photography by Miemie Spies, http://miemie.co.za/
Follow Miemie on Twitter: @miemiepix
She’s on Instagram: http://instagram.com/p/ycLyWSC_LQ/