Tag Archives: Slums

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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Tea and Shisha in the City of the Dead


Amateur Egyptian tour guide and childhood friend extraordinaire Filippo.
He’d been living as an ex-pat in Egypt for about a year.

By the height of afternoon, the overhanging sun is so strong that even the few lonely patches of shade surrounding us seem to scream a certain protective and uninviting macabre dominance as we lazily stroll by, kicking clouds of dust in our wake. The roads are intentionally unpaved with sand and each rusting gate or crumbling stone façade seems to blend into the next as we glide past, trying to pass unnoticed by passersby just as happy to ignore or scowl at us.

Filippo, conscious of the visibly unaccustomed sweat now pouring and pooling down my back into my dark, retrospectively overtight jeans, nudges me out of a daze with his left elbow. I shake my head.  I’d been in a sort of trance since ever since we’d gotten here, trying to gradually regulate the almost unbearable intake of muted death and mingled misery that everyone around me seems to be gleefully ignoring or just painfully accustomed to.

“Time to break?” he asks me, his voice still almost unrecognizable under the thick black beard he’s grown over the past year in an attempt to blend in with the human scenery of Egypt.

Visiting the Cairo Necropolis had been Fil’s idea, not mine. Frankly I’d never heard of the place as it generally took a socially accepted backseat to more tourist friendly scenes like the Pyramids or the Al Qahira Fatimia Mosques. It’s the kind of place that’s meant to be purposely ignored, especially by locals and especially by foreigners. When he proposed it as the perfect place for an afternoon lunch and stroll, it seemed somewhat unnecessarily dark, even for my taste. If zombie movies had taught me anything, it’s that a placed commonly known as “The City of the Dead” was where I would be lunch, rather than eat it.

The Cairo Necropolis is a massive Arabic pseudo-cemetery that lies just under Mokattam Hills in the Southeast corner of the Egyptian capital. Originally meant to be a somber place for Cairenes to bury their deceased relatives, the neighborhood has since become a refuge for the city’s poorest undesirables who’d rather walk proudly with the departed than beg amongst the living.

For the better part of the afternoon we’d crept along rows of Muslim mausoleums and tombs, some marked with cryptic calligraphy and others with nothing but a thin slab of upright sculpted stone to designate them from just another hole in the ground. As we walk, Fil tells me how wealthy Egyptian families will visit their respective family tombs once or twice a year, but otherwise leave the care of their deceased relatives to relative strangers too poor to afford anything but a makeshift grave of their own, nestled amongst the ruins and rusting fences that seem to fill the makeshift city. Residents live relatively rent-free amongst the rubble and decaying remains of a neighborhood frequented by the living but undoubtedly ruled by the dead.

As we pass, children behind us cry out and point fingers; despite the scenery and somber surroundings, we’re the oddity in this sideshow that seems normal to everyone but me. We walk past a crumbling stone wall to uncover three elderly women in black niqabs huddled around a pot where something seems to be cooking. I instinctively pull out my camera but Filippo puts his hand aside and silently tells me that I shouldn’t. We’ve been friends since we were kids so I trust his judgment. The women stare at us for a moment before bowing their heads in unison towards the pot. We might as well just be passing phantoms.

I can’t help but feel completely and utterly out of place, like I have no business being here, mainly because I don’t. I hate cemeteries to begin with, but this is something else, and a wild feeling of overwhelming hopelessness washes over me and I can’t help but feel a little sick. Some estimate the population of the slum at half a million, but no one’s really sure.


Shade in the mosque is sometimes the only heat relief for residents of the Necropolis

We leave the major portion of the City and Fil takes me into a crumbling mosque he says is famous. Inside, about fifty men lay scattered on the red carpet, trying desperately to escape the heat in whatever patches of shade the walls choose to provide at this hour. Neither of us is Muslim, but we sit for a while under a nearby ornamented arch that looks like it could crumble and kill us at any moment.

“Prayer time is soon, we should leave,” Fil whispers. As we exit, a young Egyptian kid approaches us, eager to show off the few words in English he knows. Fil introduces himself and points at me before gargling some words I don’t understand.

“What’s my name in Arabic?” I ask him, half laughing.

“Daud,” he answers, pronouncing it Da-ood and drawing out each sound with his cheeks.

Daud,” I repeat slowly. The kid stares at me and nods with a huge grin. Apparently that’s his name too.

Nearby, we settle at a small brick-laced patio where a few bearded Egyptian men huddle around large hookah pipes. The owner gleefully produces two plastic chairs and a matching table. He serves us black tea and we share a shisha pipe, trying to beat the heat. The concept had shocked me a few days earlier, but in Egypt, when the temperature gets too unbearable, locals turn to hot rather than cold drinks to cool down. Sweating is socially acceptable when everyone is doing it and no one cares to begin with. Nearby, I spy a throng of unattended goats lazily ruffling through a massive pile of garbage. One of them dips its head into the underfilth and emerges with what looks like a large bone between its teeth. Part of me wonders whether it’s human, but deep down, I’m not sure if I really want to know.

As the call to prayer suddenly erupts nearby, the owner kindly asks us to pay our tab so that he may tend to his religious duties. He and all the others leave us alone on the terrace as they file one by one into the mosque we’d just left.

My time in Cairo had seemed like a giant walk from one medieval mosque to another and as the coals burn out on our pipe, Filippo tells me there’s just one more place he wants to see before we head back to his air-conditioned apartment in Zamalek. It’s almost completely silent as we pack up our things and walk towards another set of stone walls and high rise minarets a few sandstone blocks away, just by the Dead City limits. We make sure to take our time to not disrupt prayers but when we arrive, a group of men are sitting on the curved threshold and blocking our passage. Fil engages in what seems to be a verbal altercation with them, but with Egyptians, I can never tell the difference between playful banter and genuinely heated debate. By the end of the conversation Fil is shouting in red-faced rage, throwing his hands in the air as I stand idly by, smiling awkwardly like an idiot.

“They won’t let us in because we’re foreigners,” he finally turns and confesses to me. He yells something over to them in Arabic as I try to quietly get him away before we get into something we can’t get out of. “This is not Islam! This is not the way of peace!” he keeps turning and shouting as we walk away. The men speak hurriedly and laugh at us as we make our way down the massive stone steps. “This is such bullshit,” he whispers under his breath.

This may be the City of the Dead, but even as living men, it’s still somewhere we’re not welcome. This place is reserved for those destined to call it home, in life, death or both . We, on the other hand, are just passing through, and no amount of compassion or interest can change that. We don’t belong here. Not yet anyway.

Crumbling walls and piles of garbage litter the area as far as you can see

Crumbling walls and piles of garbage litter the area as far as you can see

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