Tag Archives: poverty

The Other Nairobi

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Nairobi is really two completely different cities. Maybe more.

I can’t remember when it all started to become normal. I look back to when I first arrived and wonder what made me accept it all, like some sort of freakish gospel I couldn’t argue with. Now I’m not even fazed anymore when I think of it. Sometimes when my heart feels cold, I remember those first few weeks when things made sense, when things were, for lack of a better term, black and white.

From our first few days in the country as bright-eyed and bushy tailed interns almost a year ago, we were chauffeured around town in cars and vans, doors tightly locked, touring development projects in slums and rural areas across Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya’s two largest cities. They’d paraded us from compound to courtyard in an effort show us the country’s underbelly, the one that usually got lost between grilled crocodile and the sight of your first zebra.

We’d been given the usual low-down about driving in the slums. Lock you door. Keep your windows rolled up. And most importantly, don’t wear anything valuable.

We got out of the car and I stepped onto a tarmac of unpaved soil and trampled streams of garbage, baking in the stench of cloistered humidity. I had seen nothing but Nairobi’s downtown and ritzy expatriate suburbs until that moment. I thought I must have fallen asleep in the car. This couldn’t be the same city. No, we had gone far beyond, to somewhere else. But the skyline wouldn’t lie to me no matter how I pleaded. Nairobi’s other face was staring back at me, and it wanted change. My pockets were empty.


Kibera is arguably the largest urban slum in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. Anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million residents live here, depending who you ask and for what reason. Informal houses are made of scrap metal, mud and generally whatever people can find. From the centre, it stretches out in every direction almost as far as the eye can see. There are allegedly over 2000 NGOs and community organizations working out of Kibera.

There exists two completely different social spheres in Nairobi, and though I think they’re aware of one another, they never seem to interact outside of a few select service industries. The city’s looming financial district, complete with skyscrapers and everything else you’d expect from an emerging economic hub, sits just a few kilometres from slums where hundreds of thousands live huddled together in homes made of mud, scrap wood and aluminum siding. Residents of extensive, unmappable slum networks like Mathare or Kibera work for the rich as maids, cooks, guards, bus drivers and any other occupation you can think of without having to think of unless you really want to. Ghosts, they pass unnoticed by most, even long after they’re no longer there.

Navigating the slums is an exercise in patience and acceptance, fighting the urge to forgo all sense and reason for forcibly ingrained sycophantic sensibility. You feel sick at times, but manners prevent you from expressing it. You want to turn out your pockets, but you don’t want to be an asshole. You want to say hello, but you also want desperately to be ignored. But you never can, not here.

Westerners are taught to cry and woo over scenes like these, because sadness demonstrates empathy, the ability to interact in broader sense of humanity. As kids, we’re told by our mothers to finish our meals because “there are starving children in Africa,” a sentiment that is never far removed in these circumstances, despite its ridiculous and infinitely condescending nature. Sadness and pity show you’re relating with the locals, and letting the world know you understand your immense privileges and the genetic lottery you’ve won. But if tears could magically pump into the nearby wells or water pumps, the taps would still spray salty and altogether useless bile out into the rivers of waste and feces that flow through these communities, snaking their way between homes and gaggles of playing children.

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Kiambiu, another of Nairobi’s infinite slum networks, houses roughly 50,000 residents. Rivers of garbage and feces flow through the community down into the mighty Nairobi River. The water is so polluted, it cannot be drank, though many residents do so anyway. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

In some places, pity runs the game. There’s a huge industry surrounding social tourism, where people pay good money for guided afternoon tours through slums. Dealers in the trade parade it as a more realistic alternative to going on safari, but I can’t entirely see the difference. Visitors point their lenses at unsuspecting, unwilling animals, drooling and dreaming about what caption they’ll stick under it to garner more buzz from friends back home. It’s Discovery Channel dribble and more like a competition to see who can fit the most flies in a grayscale close-up of a dirty child’s bemused face. Now the world can see just how worldly you are.

The slums are complex communities that exist because there is nowhere else for people to go. Neighbors know each other’s names and look out for one another; mothers let their children play idly in the alleys, comfortable in the knowledge that if they get lost, someone will take them home. People support each other’s businesses and buy local food. Decency is maintained through public shaming, religion and gossip. No one owns their home or the land it sits on and they can be forcibly removed without a moment’s notice. They exist in the spaces between everyday life.

These slums are more than a big amalgamation of informal housing, they represent a massive group of forgotten people whose lives are so often lost to the pages of humanitarian health reports and guilt-inducing NGO public relations material. It’s easy to consciously ignore their humanity and think of them as a single insignificant number in a great statistic aimed at getting donors to shell out pocket lint. If African children could claim royalties on Facebook photos, then we’d be working with a realistic solution to end poverty across the continent.

I had a house woman named Rose who cleaned our apartment, did our laundry and cooked our meals every day. I saw her every morning when I left the complex and every night when I came home. Yet, I knew virtually nothing about Rose save for the fact that she lived in the nearby slum and every day arrived with her hair tied in bright cloth. She’d wave goodbye and leave every night after cooking dinner. I’d been there so long it seemed awkward to try and feign conversation. We were estranged work colleagues. Long after I’d moved out of the apartment, I met her again at a political rally. We hugged and exchanged smiles in broken English. She asked me to take a photo of her and she looked proud to be skipping work to support a politician from her tribe. I snapped the shot and as she disappeared into the crowd, I wondered for the first time I’d ever see Rose again.

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A young man holds a photo of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga. His followers are generally from his Luo tribe, the second largest in Kenya and fierce rivals to the current politically dominant Kikuyu tribe. At a political demonstration known as the Saba-Saba Rally, thousands gathered in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to show their almost religious devotion to the politician and his party. Over 15,000 police and riot squad soldiers were deployed to keep the rally in line, should it break out into a riot. Only a few tear gas canisters were fired, making it a general success.

Nairobi’s two social spheres are so wildly different, it’s hard to fully comprehend how they have coexisted for this long without a total collapse. The rich business elite and political classes feed off the poor in a manner best described by an activist friend of mine named Boniface Mwangi as vultures – countercultural graffiti murals around the city sport the popular motif. The poor in turn are convinced of the inevitability of their status, or, of the far scarier notion that the ruling classes truly have their best interests in mind. People throw their support blindly behind politicians who share their tribal ethnicity, rather than represent their beliefs. They follow their every infallible word and support their decisions blindly; tribalism slowly destroys the fabric of Kenyan society to a such a degree that it has caused mass violence time and time again, most notably the post-election violence of 2007-2008 that left over 1500 dead and thousands more internally displaced. The scars of that time are still visible across the country, and the wounds are still open for all to see. They may never close.

I can see the people mix on the streets but the lines between them could not be more obvious. Sometimes I feel as though a sickness hangs over the city like invisible smog, suffocating those too poor to reach higher ground. They sit asphyxiating in neighborhoods overflowing with poison as the rich, lounging fat in bulging designer suits, cling flutes of cheap champagne in their towers made of glass, watching the wide world wither and die beneath them. “Don’t worry,” they’d assure themselves under the low tones of fixed gas masks, “we can always make more poor.”

Back in that first slum visit almost a year ago, we got back in the car; the driver immediately locked the door behind us as groups of schoolchildren and mothers crowded the vehicle, hands outstretched.

“So how did you like the other Nairobi?” he asked me. I never answered him.

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria IV – Bujumbura Fried Fish and Spider-Man


As soon as we crossed the border, I knew something was different.

Rounded Rwandan hills dissipated behind us in the distance as cute, cozy mountain villages quickly turned into small poverty stricken communities, complete with women clad in dirty fluorescent robes carrying buckets of mangos on their heads and babies strapped to their backs.

For a country that shares the same physical size and relative war-ridden history of its northern neighbor, Burundi lacked strikingly in just about everything when compared to Rwanda.

After a few hours of driving through dirt roads and jungle terrain in the dark, always wondering if the driver had gotten us lost, we finally saw Bujumbura appear in the distance as a disorganized mess of faded lights by a dark lake we knew was there but couldn’t see.

I took an immediate dislike to the Burundian capital.

Burundi remains one of the top five poorest countries on the planet and boasts one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world. Since the civil war that ended in 1993, the country has been host to a long series of political rebellions, coup d’états and in-fighting that has left the country, and its capital, a tattered shell of what it could be. Just walking down the streets of Bujumbura, you can feel a certain weighted helplessness in the air coupled with a clear sense that if things were going on, they were doubtlessly riddled with corruption and a general disregard for the average citizen that could be seen in everything from the crumbling infrastructure to the masses of idle men and squatting mothers inhabiting every street corner, hands outstretched.

It was so humid one day I stopped at a small red shack near the mini-bus terminal to grab a Coke. Since soft drinks in still come in glass bottles, you have to stand around the vendor and immediately hand the empty back so that the salesman can recycle it for a small return; in some instances the bottle itself is worth more than the liquid inside.

As I was awkwardly standing around, keeping one eye on my bag and the other on everyone around me, a child came up to me, dirty and clad in goodwill rags, hand outstretched, mouthing the word “help” over and over again. I shooed him off. I’d the spent the morning prey to Bujumbura’s booming leagues of beggars and I just wanted to have a sip of something cold before heading back to the hotel. But the kid stuck around, and every time I looked down to make sure no one had their fingers in my bag, he was standing there, looking up at me.

A lot of kids in Africa are conditioned to immediately start begging when they see Westerners or anyone who looks any shade of white. You’ll walk down the road past a group of playing children and they immediately surround you with the only English I think they know: “Mistah! Mistah! I’m haaaangry…give me mahney!”

I’d love to be a fly on the wall for some of these schoolyard discussions: “Yah, if you say that to white people they actually just give you money! I don’t even know what it means!” These kids go from happy and frolicking to destitute and miserable for the cameras at the drop of an IPhone.

But there was something different about this kid by the soda shack. There was a kind of desperation in his eyes I still can’t describe. I looked at his protruding belly and noticed for the first time he was wearing an age-weathered Spider-Man T-shirt that was much too small for him. I remembered having the exact same shirt as a kid and for a second I wondered if it could be mine; most of the clothes we donate in Canada eventually find their way to outdoor markets in Africa being sold for pennies. Quebec goodwill organizations donate the majority of their clothes to French-speaking countries in the developing world, just like Burundi.

For a second I met eyes with the kid and imagined our roles reversed; he growing up in a quiet suburb of Montreal and me begging for scraps in Bujumbura, both sporting the same Spider-Man T-shirt. I thought about the great genetic lottery that I had won, and how simply the location of one’s birth can directly dictate the quality of life that surrounds it. What the hell made the two of us any different? When you boil down the bones, we’re all just blood and bags of flesh, walking through the world, trying to make it through another day in the hopes of something better.

I bought the kid a samosa and gave him the rest of my Coke, which he took with a smile and immediately put to his lips with both hands. I left right away and didn’t look back as he approached the counter and leaned in contently with the others.

When did I become so heartless? I guess it comes with the territory to a certain extent. Reporting on human rights is emotionally draining, and as time goes on I find myself becoming older, colder. I spend my days riffling through reports and articles that display the depths of human cruelty and eventually, somewhere along the line, I started to become so numb to it all because it makes the work easier to swallow. Journalism school teaches you to be objective, to take a step back so as to not be influenced by what you’re seeing, to be a nicely dressed fly on the wall with a pen and a camera. You’re told that great journalists earn their stripes through impartial experience, but I’m starting to wonder if this is professional practice or just a coping mechanism developed over the years, passed down from generation to generation of reporters, an old sedative for a new wave of lost souls, quiet witnesses to the cruel world beyond our eyes.

Sometime I get so caught up in the beauty and novelty of Africa that I forget the sad realities of daily life for a lot of people on the ground. I write about development and the proliferation of human rights in such broad strokes that I’m completely blind to the individuals I’m trying to make life better for, or at least telling myself I am. I talk about all of this like a bold concept while I completely disregard the faces behind it all because I was taught to, but more often than not I feel like I’m sinking into a middle ground made of mud and good intentions that only ever reconcile on printed paper.

That night, Aaron and I took a taxi to a place along the lake called Le Cercle Nautique and were puzzled when the driver pulled up to a Korean massage parlor that looked like it definitely gave happy endings. In a heavy Burundian French the driver assured us that if we followed a dimly lit stone alleyway nearby, we’d reach the place we were looking for. I swear it only sounds shady in retrospect.

The road past a white stone wall quietly revealed a series of rickety wooden docks, barely visible amidst a thick bush of palm trees and driftwood. We grabbed beers and sat facing Lake Tanganyika in near silence. We watched as fishermen on a nearby rocky dock sat and laughed amongst each other, occasionally pulling something from the water into a communal wicker basket. Behind them, two hippos were bobbing up and down over the surface, snorting misty air as tourists took out their cameras and tried to capture to action.

We ordered fish and when it arrived, head and scales and all, I realized what the men had been doing on the dock all evening. We started with forks and knives but as it got darker, Aaron and I both resorted to using our hands to pick apart skin and tiny bones we couldn’t see.
As the sun set over the lake, the Congolese mountains in the distance dissolved in a haze of mist and glowing purple darkness that slowly creeped onto the dinner dock, leaving it lit by only the faint glow of cigarettes and cell phones.

Le Cercle Nautique at sunset

Le Cercle Nautique at sunset

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