Voices from Kenya's slums
Slums are on the rise around the world. Estimates suggest that by 2050 sixty-six per cent of the world's population will live in cities—and a large proportion will live in slums. Today, in Nairobi, slums occupy two per cent of the city's land but are home to half its population.
Diverse individual voices are hidden within the statistics. Seeking to put a human face to the numbers, SDI collected stories from people living and working in informal settlements around the world, published in 2011 as Voices from the Slums. Below are a few of these stories, from two informal settlements in Nairobi.
Photo/text copyright: Leopold Nicolai Podlashuc and SDI
My name is Teresa Nairo. I am originally from a place called Kajiado in Masai-land. I’m not sure how old I am, because as a Masai we don’t count years, but I think that I am a hundred at least!
I still remember the tribal wars that used to take place. I remember us Masai’s fighting the Kamba people very well. Because the Kamba would steal our cattle, we would attack them! I never felt frightened. Because we were so many people, and we had many fighters. We felt strong and victorious! When we won, we beat them thoroughly. And when we took our cattle back, we made sure we took extra ones for compensation! Haha!
I came to Nairobi in 1954. I came originally with my husband, but he went back to Masai-land and died. After his death, the community, especially his family, deprived me of everything. They rejected my child. They even took away my land. I then had to come back to Nairobi to survive. I sold veggies to live, tomatoes, cabbage, and other greens. I still do this. I have never been back to Masai-land. Most sad for me is that my child died. He died by drowning in water. There was so much rain, it was floods. He was crossing a river when he was swept away. He was 18 years old. He was a good boy. I miss him too much. (Sighs deeply).
Since in Nairobi, I always lived in a shanty. I had a bigger one but it was broken, and now I live in a very tiny shack, made of leaking iron sheets. It is not safe and I have no security of tenure. It is a squatter shack. As a house, it is not fit for human habitation. I belong to Muungano (Kenyan Homeless Peoples Federation). I find it very useful. They help me when I have no money. They give me food to eat when I have nothing.
I was happy once. I was happy with my husband, before he died. Since then I can only say that I am happy with my own efforts: I have lived so long. I hope to rest peacefully somewhere.
Salaam Alliekum! I am Ali Mugmbi Ng’ang’a. I am 83 years old. I was born in Nairobi. I am married to one wife. She is Kikuyu. We have seven children—three girls and four boys. I worked for the Nairobi City Council as a security officer. I am retired and my children now support me. Trying to survive after retiring was a hassle! Suddenly I had no income. I had to live in temporary houses. I have got a house now, the Federation helped me get it.
My name is Anne Wanjin Merage. I am 24, married with no kids yet. I am a saver and live in house number 049 in the upgraded houses.
I was born in Nyeri, brought up and educated in a village called Ichamara. I came to Nairobi in 1997 to look for a job. I found a job at quarry that bore no stones! After the frustrations of hard work and sweat with no stones and sleeping hungry I left that job to stay at home. We lived in the worst shack in the world. It rained so much that long after the rain had stopped our house still dripped water. Neighbours asked us why the rain’s never stopped in our house. We slept under umbrellas and put basins on the bed to collect water from the roof. At the morning we woke up and sat on the table with our legs up because of the floods. Due to the rains and earth floor, crops began to grow inside. A male pawpaw tree grew in the house but it never bore fruit. We chopped it down. We tried to grow maize but it did not grow. It was too wet.
Life in our shack was always a disaster. One day as we cooked our uncovered dinner of githeri outside, a flying toilet came and entered our food. The polythene bag burst open inside the cooking pot! We slept hungry that night.
I met my husband here in Nairobi four years ago and had a colourful wedding in 2007. We married for love and trust. We had to, you see I lived in a shack, and he lived a well-off life in nearby formal estate called John Home. Ha ha!
I am 27 years old. I was born in Siaya District. I came to Nairobi ten years ago. I am married and have one child. I have a beautiful wife. She comes from the same district. We married there and came to Nairobi to find a job. I was a class prefect at school, I was a good student, and yet today I live in the slums. We live in Kibera in a shack made of sheet iron. There is no security of tenure.
I do laundry and ironing. My business is called “Ithiopians Laundry and Ironing”. It is hard work getting clothes clean from the dirt of the slums. My secret is hard rubbing with bar soap, Jama soap.
I am a Rastafarian. As a Rasta, I have my faith and it gives me contentment. I eat no meat, I am a vegetarian, I eat only greens.
The saddest thing in my life was when I lost my older brother, and then losing my younger brother too. I am the middle one and the only one breathing today. They died from sickness. Its too sad.
I don’t belong to Muungano, I have no need for them at this stage.
I was born in 1960 at Kijabe, in Limuru. That’s my traditional home. After my husband passed away in a road accident in 1992, I came to Nairobi. I came with my family of four sons. We found a place to rent at Kambi Moto village. After two years of starting a new home and life in Kambi Moto slum, a fire consumed the village. We stayed out in the cold for three days under polythene bags. We got food and clothing donations from well-wishers. My children kept telling me that if their father was alive, they would live better. I fell sick from the stress and depression of the life I had introduced my beloved children to.
I joined Muungano though the Kambi Moto savings scheme. I am in the loaning team in my savings scheme, but I am not yet a house beneficiary because I struggle to save.
I get my income from washing peoples clothes in formal residential areas. My relatives have taken my kids in order to support their education. I have never thought of remarrying. The house I am living in rains a lot. I have to collect water with basins. My children get very sick from being rained on as they sleep. I have a good landlord who is patient enough to wait until I can pay the whole rent. We fear for the day another fire breaks out because here in the slum we live very vulnerably. People use fire in dangerous ways.
A woman never stops struggling for her kids.
Hello, I am Benson. We know each other well. You came
to my house in 2004, remember? I am 30 years old. I was born in Korogocho, Nairobi, and am still in Korogocho! My traditional home is in Siaya, Nyanga province. I am married to one wife and have three children, but one of them died – a son after a short illness. My two daughters are alive. (Sighs) Yes, I lost my son and my father. That was sad.
I have a strange story for you: in my home area, that is, in Korogocho, one of my friends had a chicken in his stomach. It is said he was bewitched. Eventually he died.
I joined the Muungano in 2002. I work as a collector and enumerator in the SDI network. In fact I am on the cover of one of the SDI books! The Federation has enabled me to socialise with people from different worlds, and allowed me to travel a lot. In future I hope to invest the money that I have saved. Currently I am in business, dealing with everything!
I am 70 years old. I have had only one husband and he is dead. He died ten years ago. He was ninety. I was born in Linuru Upands District. We were farmers. We farmed maize, beans, cattle and goats. We did this to eat, not to make money. I left there thirty or forty years ago when I got married. It was a late marriage. But better late than never! I have five children, all men and about fifteen grandchildren — because my sons are men I’m not sure exactly!
I met my husband during the war. He was not working, he was with Mau Mau. We talked. My marriage was a planned wedding. A traditional ceremony was done. My husband came to my fathers place. Other men were called. And I was taken away from there. Before my father’s eyes! Then there was a huge feast! Big eating and drinking followed. After that we came to Nairobi. At first we lived in Mathare slum, in a shanty. Then about thirty-five years ago, we moved to Kambi Moto. We worked as farm-labourers for farmers in the area. Today I am too old to work and my grandchildren support me.
I was a founder member of Muungano. I told all my friends about it. I am very glad I joined. Now I have a house for myself. I live alone, but my grandchildren visit often. It is nice when they do, I am happy then!
I come from a place called Arusha in Tanzania. I am 35, married with three children. One boy and two girls. I came to Nairobi in 1999 in the struggle to make ends meet. I left Tanzania to make a life and I thought Kenya would be better. It is so.
I live in the Kibera slums, in Gatweke Area. We don’t own a house, we rent a shanty, but we are still squatters. They can evict us any moment. We have a pit latrine, and we suffer a lot with it because it is always full. We struggle with our dung! Sometimes we have to resort to the flying toilet. You know, when you do your dung in a plastic packet and throw it over the roofs! Ha ha!
I sell used clothes. The Muungano helps me when I am struggling with a loan. They have not segregated against me because I am from another country. They have taken me as I am. And they have even made me a “Collector”!
I love it when people make stories and laugh! Because I cannot laugh alone.
I was born in 1958 in Nyanga province. I am married with twelve kids (seven daughters and five men). We all live together in Kibera. In 1978 we came to Nairobi. In 1981 my husband lost his job and we moved to Kibera. Kenya’s job market is insecure and we have to struggle together, so I started a business. In 1983 I came to Toi Market. I sell second-hand clothes. Sometimes I have to leave very early and go to the market, but where I live the security is not good, especially for women. An unpleasant thing happened once when we went as a group to Githunguri to buy greens to sell. I was pregnant. We went to eat lunch at a café. Suddenly administration policemen came and threw tear-gas and started shouting at us. A rubber bullet hit my back, I fell down and my eyes were painful from the tear gas. I started running to look for water to relieve my eyes. Fortunately we managed to get home. We were lucky to survive and meet again at the market.
We started Muungano in August 1996 in response to constant police harassment and extortion by the Chief at the time. We were about twenty-nine Federation members in Toi. Four of us were women. We demonstrated at the launch of a church to which the president had come. We demanded the president give us back the market; he responded by saying that a market be built—a market of 192 stalls that we later discovered were not for us! So we filed a case in court and started our campaigns and solidarity links with other interest groups. Muungano has enlightened me on how to unite with people for a common objective, and on my rights. Owing to ignorance, woman are very vulnerable in society. Muungano has mobilized women to come together and discuss issues that previously no-one talked about. Through daily savings I have managed to save and access credit for expanding my business. I have educated all my children. It has developed my confidence to lead people and to be with people. I belong to the advocacy team. My husband has always supported me and never discouraged me.
The main problems in our slums are congested houses and congested toilets. It’s a health hazard. When someone gets sick, we all get sick. Due to my big family I rent three structures. I have always wanted my kids to live in a better environment. We share one toilet between my family and a whole lot of neighbours. I fear for the security of my girls.
My age 26 years. I was born in Nairobi and have always lived in Kambi Moto to date. My parents moved here from Miranga in search of employment. I have no permanent job.
I joined the Muungano in 2003 and have done some work collecting money. The Muungano has helped me get a house and know about other slums.
Life in slums is hard. A few years ago my house burned down and I lost everything, including all of my belongings. My happiness is that I live now in a permanent stone house. I got it for the first time nine months ago.
I am still single but I hope that I will one day meet a beautiful girl from the ghetto.
I am 55 years old. I was born in Muranga in1952. I am the fifth-born in a family of eleven. I was married but my husband died from high blood pressure in 1998. I have four kids, two boys and two girls. I came to Nairobi in 1969 in search for employment. I lived in Mathare and got an employment with the City Council as a cleaner. I have lived in Kambi Moto since 1972.
My sister was shot outside her house while fetching water. A police officer was running after a thief when he accidentally shot her. She is still struggling to get compensation from the government.
When my sister’s son got a B+ in the Kenyan School Leavers Examination, I was so happy that I jumped and danced until my clothes almost fell off!
I dream to own a piece of land to cultivate.
I am now single and never want to be married again.
I was born in Kusii Nyamira District in 1964. I am 43 years old and married to two wives. I have three children. I am the first born of seven children. We are five brothers and two sisters. I have lived for 23 years in Kibera. Currently I live in the Makina area of Kibera.
I came to Nairobi in 1984 and worked as a casual labourer in the industrial area. In 1988 I got a job with Nicholus Kiwi Kenya. I was fired after one year. In 1990 I started work as a machine operator for Afrolite. Unfortunately, in 1993 I had an accident: I caught my right hand in a machine. As I could no longer do my work, I had to resign. I then joined my first wife in her business in Toi Market. We sold groceries. vI then formed a market committee, which dealt with the market development. We tried to negotiate with the Area Chief to put in a road, but he denied us this, saying the land was not ours. In 1996 we were evicted from the Toi Market and had to operate from a neighbouring hawkers market. This place was too small to accommodate all the Toi Market traders. We sued the Area Chief and the court ruled in our favour. It was during the court hearing that we formed Muungano. I was the treasurer from 1996 to 1999, the secretary from 1999 to 2000 and the interim chairman during 2000 to 2002. In 2002 I was elected as the market chairman and in 2004 as a member of the Muungano Board. Over the years of fighting for the rights of the poor I have been in conflict with the law three times. I have won all three cases.
On another occasion I was arrested and accused of robbery with violence! My brother was arrested too. Later we were found innocent and released. The charges were dropped.
I have two happy moments in my life. The first was in 1997, when I boarded a plane to South Africa to fight for the rights of the poor. And the second was in 2000, when my first wife gave birth after ten years of marriage.
The Federation has helped me by being able to mingle with prominent people. It has given me good leadership skills. It has brought meaningful development through micro-finances and other poor led initiatives. It has helped me to support my family and I have helped them acquire land.
I am 44. I live in Kibimi Ngogo village in Kibera settlement. I am married without children. I am originally from Kibii. There were seven in our family. I was the first born. I am educated to the fourth form. I came to Nairobi in 1988.
I did a secretarial and reception course. I got a job as a switchboard operator at a private company. I did this for two years. The pay was not good enough to sustain my health. You see as a telephone operator you need to keep going for ear treatment. I then went to work for other companies. But finally I chose to go into business. I began by selling second hand clothes. This was far more lucrative than being employed! And it had to be, as I am paying college fees for my siblings, my two brothers and twin sisters. I also support my cousin who is sick and undergoing operations for tumours.
In 1996, Toi Market was demolished by the Chief’s security men. I lost all my stock, worth KS 40 000. I have never recovered to that level of business. But I have not given up. I am now a greengrocer. I sell green vegetables. When there is a shortage of vegetables I leave as early as 3 am to go to Gikomba or Marikiti Market to buy my stock. On average I have to do this three days a week. But it is very dangerous. One day at 3 am I left my house to go to the market. On the way I found some young men struggling with a man. When they saw me they ran into hiding. I approached the victim, he was dead. I panicked and continued walking towards the bus stop. When I turned, I saw the young men chasing after me. So I ran. Fortunately five metres away, a woman opened her door to go out. I ran into her house and she shut the door. That’s why I don’t go to the market daily. Sometimes I send someone on my behalf, but of course they make profit out of me, so I lose.
The Federation has helped me with my business. I come from a poor family, but since I came to Nairobi both my life and my family’s life has improved. I am in the audit team of my savings scheme. The daily savings enable me to access credit for expanding my business. I have also gained the confidence to talk to people and have developed leadership skills. I long to see a day when I have enough capital. I am happy not to borrow from neighbours and friends who harassed me to repay. The saving scheme has improved my dignity.
I am 22. I am single and not double! I was born here Huruma at a village called Ghetto. I went to school and dropped out at Standard 7. My parents couldn’t afford to continue my studies. You see I had accumulated a lot of arrears at school, and hence I was chased away. After being chased away from school I started hanging around with the “boys” in the neighbourhood. I got influenced into gangster company through my interaction with this quorum.
One day, at about 9pm I was walking home with my friends. We threw our possessions in the bush faster then cops could notice. They searched us and let us go. Another day, I was caught in a shootout. A bullet hit my leg. My friends helped me get treatment from a private specialist.
Many experiences have I had and closely tasted death. All these have made me realize that death is not mine. Life is. So I joined the Federation, and earned my living at the construction sites. I could afford to pay my college fees in instalments. I have changed due to Muungano’s influence. Now I work at the car wash at the village. I have joined the Youth Federation. The Muungano makes me feel as if I am in a family. It developed my ambition and made me realize that in order to live I have to work harder and harder. The Muungano’s resource centre has enabled me to sharpen my computer skills. I assist the Federation to key in data and information.
I want to live in a way that changes the morals of the generations that come after me. I would hate my kids to be like me. I would want them to read my life not live my life.
I am 76 years old. I was born in Ukambuni. I am a Kamba. We used to be farmers. As a child I worked, cultivating crops and herding cattle. I got married. But we separated. So I had to come to Nairobi to make my living. That was forty years ago. I found my home in a shanty in Kambi Moto. And I found my “job”, brewing the traditional beer we call “Busaa”. Its made from millet. We mix the millet with yeast and sugar, and keep it for a few days to make alcohol. I used to sell this beer. We sold it outside and people came together to drink. There was lots of singing and dancing. Musicians would come and play music, everyone had fun. Men, women, young people, old people, girls, boys, it was very social. It was in the slum, but it was fun. Never fighting! Only fun.
I joined the Muungano in 2001. I still live in a shanty but I hope to get a permanent home one day, through the Muungano.
My age is 30. I am married with one son of one and half years of age. I came to Kambi Moto in 1996, from Kiambu, Central Province to look for employment. I joined the Federation in 2000. I met my wife in Kambi Moto in 2005. We live in house number 42 in one of the upgraded houses and we both savers.
In 2005, while I was living in a shack, a fire consumed the village and all my property lay there in ashes. My girlfriend left me when she saw the ash. That is when I met my current wife who had experienced the same kind of challenges. We are happily married in a beautiful house and we look forward to living as three. If we get another child it will be blessing.
I was born in Machakos in a place called Chepaluki Sub- Location. It was December 1958. I am of the Kamba tribe. In 1973 I left school and came to Nairobi. You see I was trained as a tailor and I got employment here in Nairobi with my cousin. We lived in a brick house that we rented. In 1978 I got married and returned to the rural area with my husband. I have 5 children and 4 grandchildren. My husband is still alive, but he had an accident in 1992. He was walking along the road and a car hit him. He suffered injuries to the head and neck. He is brain damaged. It is very hard with him like this. He is changed. He is not the same as before. He gets very angry, especially at noise. He is too injured to work. Because of this we came back to Nairobi so that I could work. I got a job as a house-maid, working for an Indian from 1994 to 2000. Then the Indian left the country. Now I survive by selling here at Toi Market. I have my own small food kiosk, where I sell hot tea, githeri, and mandazi.
As I said, I come from the Kamba tribe, and our favourite food is githeri. It’s a mix of maize and beans. What happens is that I first clean the maize-flour and beans from stones. When they are clean, I soak them for some time. Then I put them together on the fire and boil them until cooked. If I am lucky, I add salt and fry it. When it is fried, it is uplifted in life! But not always can I afford cooking oil.
I joined the Muungano and I was able to grow my business through Muungano loans. I have been able to construct my life. I have direction to my life now. Right now I live in Kibera, Area 42 in a shanty. But I hope that the land we acquired through Muungano will be secured and that we will be able to build there, so that one day I will have a place to belong to.
I am 18 years old. I am the second-born in a family of six children. I was born in Nairobi but my traditional home is in Kakumega, Western Province. I came to Huruma in 1993. I went to school to Form Four and I play football for Huruma Cranes. I joined Muungano in 2002, after a fire outbreak that almost burned down the house. Lucky enough only one person was hurt. Although the Muungano has not helped me yet, I hope I will be assisted one day.
The best thing in my life was that my team got to the finals! Ok we lost, but still, it was good! I dream that one day I will play professional soccer and if I am lucky enough, join Liverpool!
I am 51 years old. I am married with four children and
a grandchild. I was born in the Meru Traditional Area.
My parents were farmers. When I was at school I helped them cultivate coffee, as well as grow and harvest food for ourselves. In 1975 I left there and came to Nairobi to look for employment. In March 1976 I got a job in a hotel kitchen. My home was a shanty in the Kambi Moto Area. Then I was fired from work and so I had to hassle a lot to survive with my kids. It was difficult to live so I started selling vegetables to support the family. Now I am just struggling through life. I can’t remember the first time I met my husband, but I must have, because I married for love! We are still in love. I only beat him once a year for discipline!
We call it the Annual Thrashing! Hahaha!
I come from Nyanga Province in the Siaya District. I was born in 1946. I have a wife and four children. Sadly my son passed away from being murdered. Criminals robbed him and then killed him. Just over there. As a child I was a herdboy for my father’s cattle, goats and sheep. Obviously I used to enjoy this. It was a nice life. I remember a time when hyenas attacked my goats. The hyenas killed three goats. So we fought, the hyenas and me. I fought them by myself. Myself against four. I won the game! I against four and I beat them all! I had a club, a luth. I hit them very hard, very, very hard! And they ran away!
In 1969 I came to Nairobi. My father was a driver for UTC. We lived in a stone house from the company and I went to school. I remember when I was a teenager that we loved to dance at night. We would specially attend funerals so that we could dance! We were fond of being seen and even if it was a funeral, we took over. It happened one day that we went to a place far away. Now this place we went to, I didn’t know anyone. And I didn’t know that the person that had died would become my father-in-law! Later in life, I met his daughter, and we married! I am very in love with her still. The spirit of my father-in-law obviously enjoyed my dancing! For he blessed me!
I live today in Kibera, in a stone house that I rent. But it is not a secure situation. They can evict me if they like. The Muungano helps me a lot. I look forward to a permanent shelter, a permanent home for my children.
I am 30. I am not married. I am looking for a nice white man! Ha ha! Just joking. I am engaged and I love him too much! His name is Joseph. I have two children, two boys. (Each from different fathers. Who don’t pay maintenance!).
I was born in the rural area called Kiambo. I am a Kikuyu. My parents were farmers. We grew coffee, maize and bananas. When at school I used to help them cultivating food and coffee. I did all the hard-work jobs! It was very tiresome, but I enjoyed it.
I came to Nairobi ten years back, looking for a job. I didn’t find one so I lived by looking after my sister’s children. We lived in a shanty in Kambi Moto. Its now demolished. In 2000 there was a big fire in the settlement. Everything was burnt. It was a tragedy. No one died, luckily, but it destroyed everything. Homes, possessions, the lot. This depressed me. This fragile living. I was the breadwinner then, as my sister had passed away. I was looking after her kids. We lost all our things. Our shanty home was gone. We had nowhere to go and nothing to eat and nothing to wear. We lost everything. We were just left with each other.
Today I live in Kambi Moto Muungano Village. After we were given title to the land, we built the houses ourselves through Muungano. I was the first beneficiary! Now I have a home! I am so happy! There is running water and even a toilet! That day was my happiest moment, when I entered into my very own house! A real house! Now the kids are also secure.
I am 43, I was born in 1963 in Busia Western Province. I am the first born in a family of three boys and a girl. I am married to one wife and have four children, two boys and two girls. I came to Nairobi in 1986, working for an Indian as an engineer until 1990, when I was retrenched. Then I started working for security agencies. In 1993 I came to Toi Market and started a business. I have lived here for 12 years. I am a collector for the Federation and I find the Federation useful because I can get loans to expand my business. I enjoy the challenge of mobilising people that goes with being a collector.
My biggest shock was when I left home and found that life was not what I expected. That I had to struggle to survive. My happiest moment was when I first met my wife at a school athletics meeting!
My dream for the future is to own a car.
I am 33 years old. I was born in Muranga District. I am a Kikuyu. We were farmers, we grew maize, beans, and bananas. I came to Nairobi in 1994 to look for a job. I didn’t find one. To support myself I do washing, laundry. It is hard. I am a single mum with two kids. I never married and neither of my children’s fathers provide support for them. For many years I lived in a shanty in Kambi Moto. Then I joined the Muungano and I now have my own house here. I am very happy in my new home! But it is still a struggle. When I gave birth, I became very ill. I had to leave my home for a year to go to the rural area. Now I am back, but I could not repay the loan for the house.