The theory sounded good
One shouldn’t ever think about trying to describe the reality of another person unless one has experienced that reality for oneself.
That was the simply reasoning I followed the day I decided to take a one night vacation in the least desirable accommodation that the world has to offer. I was visiting Kenya and my now-adult sponsored child. She had committed to telling me her life story – warts and all – from her earliest memories of life in the Kibera Slum in the centre of Nairobi. I was the first person she had ever confided in totally about her experiences as a slum child. What a privilege!
Despite health issues that could potentially make me very vulnerable to catching whatever there is to catch in the slum, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and my faith in the only place it was of any use and go ahead with the plan.
And this way my plan: my friends Margaret and Robin Aim, missionaries for many years in Nairobi, were to find a suitable host for my overnight stay. Someone who spoke good English. It was as simple as that.
Margaret came up with the perfect couple, the parents of one of their social workers, who had lived in the slums for 20 years and brought their children up there. They surely would know everything there was to know about survival in that hellish environment.
I was advised that it was unsafe for me, a white, to go into the slums while it was still light (I had visions of scenes from Lot’s experience with his angelic visitors in Sodom) so I would go in under the cover of darkness. I readily agreed to this plan. Just to be ultra-safe, my now adult sponsored child, Zainabu, her husband Richard and their baby (named after me), would accompany me.
Off on a matatu
We took the matatu (taxi bus crammed with people and very cheap) to the slum. Actually we took several matatus – Zainabu knew all there was to know about matatu transport in Nairobi. I was in good hands. Of course, for those who have never travelled by matatu, I need to explain that these taxi-buses are not like our buses. There are about 12 seats in them but they take as many people as can possibly squeeze in. Sometimes the seats are not really connected to the floor, so one risks being thrown around, still attached to the seat, as the matatu hits a few bumps. There is no such thing as personal space – you find yourself sharing your one seat with a fat Kenyan lady and a scrawny Kenyan youth, who have no compunction about nudging right up to your most personal parts… forget modesty. To pay, one needs cash and hopefully the matatu boy, who dangles out of the bus looking for more custom as it bobbles along the road, or intermittently plonks himself down on the knee of the poor person sitting beside the side door, will have found change before you arrive at your destination. They seemed honest enough.
Negotiating Kibera roads/pathways
We got there shortly after dusk and started the journey on foot to the house of our hosts. The journey in was an adventure in itself. While the main road was reasonably negotiable, it was a different story when we moved off that onto small paths between rows of mud huts. There were huge potholes filled with water – it had just rained – and one was never sure whether a water hole was the street sewer or just a rain hole. One must realise that street lighting is not something one finds in the slums. It is terribly, terribly dark in the slums at night.
We eventually made it to a set of rickety stairs, which looked as though they would collapse at any minute. These led down a steep bank to a lower level where the mud hut of Colletta and Patrick Masanyi was situated. I was very thankful indeed for the little torch my travel agent had given me before leaving New Zealand – without it I might well have dived on my nose into the darkness below.
Five Star Kibera Accommodation
Now my hosts’ hut was five star accommodation for the slums. Made of boards and corrugated iron with a tin roof with lots of holes in it, a thin pole frame and a hardened clay floor, which was not at all even, it had two rooms. Yes – two rooms! One room was the main living area, furnished with an old couch, and arm chair and a TV screen stuck up in one corner. In the centre of the room was a wooden coffee table. One had to manoeuvre carefully to move around the room. Curtained off was a second area which housed the bench (equals kitchen) and bunk beds for Colletta and her husband and the one remaining son, still living with them. On the bench was a paraffin lamp, the only means of lighting, other than the TV screen, which of course was the cheaper option. The Masanyis used paraffin lighting instead of the usual charcoal, for both heat and light, because it was much cheaper. (Some people in the slums mix charcoal with dirt to make it ‘go’ further.) The only problem with the paraffin is that it produces a nasty black soot which gets up your nose and into every part of your respiratory system. Slum dwellers find their nose mucus is black if they use paraffin. Having learnt this, I tried to breathe as little as possible!
The other room was, funnily enough, not really used. It was very leaky of course and now seemed to be mainly a storage space, although there wasn’t anything much to store there… It did contain a single saggy wire wove bed, which was to be the bed for Zainabu, her baby, and me for the night. Richard was going to sleep in the one armchair.The bed had a saggy mattress which they told me probably had bed bugs – but these only troubled some people. Because I was a very ‘green’ slum dweller, they sprayed the mattress with insect repellent, just in case. The door was fastened by a very old, rusty bolt – no door latch or handle. And, as with the other room, no windows, so it was pitch dark. During heavy rains, water flooded in under one side of the house, but the rains we had just experienced were light, thankfully.
Now please understand this was five star accommodation, the very best on offer – it was actually a detached house, with no shared wall with the neighbours, who were nevertheless very close. For Zainabu, who had spent most of her years in the slums sleeping on the clay floor with only her clothes spread under her as a mattress, it was clearly luxury. The fact that neither of us could turn over without falling off the bed and that I had visions of squashing baby (who as 11 months old but the size of a 6 month old) if I rolled over in my sleep, meant little. This was a luxury dwelling. Of course baby had luxuriously spread herself out between us in the bed. She slept very soundly.
One very special feature was a tap in the couple’s tiny yard with running water – top line accommodation! Others had to buy water (expensively) from greedy and unscrupulous property owners.
Host(ess) with the Most(est)
We were welcomed with open arms by our delightful hosts. Their social worker son Matthew came with us to introduce us and then left us to it. We sat in the lounge and talked. Richard and Matthew encouraged me to ask any questions I might have about living in the slums. I had many. I just couldn’t envisage 20 years living in these conditions (now upgraded apparently) and bringing up a family there. I assumed there were mitigating factors, like close community relationships, such as one would expect to exist in African villages.
Like every good social event, food was a pre-requisite. I had thought out my safety plan, which was No eating, No drinking, and as I learnt about the paraffin, No breathing!! All that went west under the pressure of social correctness. The Masanyis had gone to great lengths to be ready to entertain. It was the first time they had EVER had guests to stay in their home and certainly the first time EVER a white person had wanted to stay.
Colletta (far right in pic above) just kept looking at me, beaming from ear to ear and clucking: “I don’t understand, I just don’t understand – you have come to stay with us!” It was hard to respond to that – I certainly didn’t want her to feel she was part of a social experiment on my part, so I simply said: “We may be sharing a house in heaven when we both get there, so why not start now?” She smiled at that thought, but continued to cluck: “I don’t understand!”
Food appeared and I gulped at the thought of all the bugs I might have to munch my way through. Ugali, a sort of porridge, and kale, a green vegetable with onions, tomato and and spices, were served up on plates. I sampled little bits of each, which were quite edible. I had lived in China for 2.5 years and had been ‘broken in’ to the idea of eating a crazy assortment of creepy crawlies and unidentifiable plant life. So I ate as sparingly as I could and prayed for a cast iron stomach. I heard a scurrying noise in one corner of the room and saw the nice fat tail of a big rat disappear into the darkness. Oh well, at least I wasn’t served up rat, something that definitely could happen in China.
Reality of Slum Life
Now it was time for some serious discussion. Patrick was ready to answer any questions I had. He was a man of obviously great faith and gentle spirit. He told me how the Masanyis came to be living in the slum – always one of the first questions on my mind as surely no-one would come to such a place unless they had fallen on very hard times.
It transpired that the couple had come down to Nairobi from the countryside, where they had land (as many slum dwellers have) but no jobs. They had no money to build on the land, so it was virtually useless to them. They came to the Kibera Slum, not realising how bad it was. They did manage to buy some land in the slum from the Government – that is most unusual, as most people rent from landlords who may, or may not live in the slum also. They built the house themselves, twenty years before our visit.
Patrick said the neigbours were very jealous that the Masanyis owned their land and house, which didn’t make for friendly relationships. I asked how it was for them living all these years in Kibera – was there a sense of community as there would be in an African village?
Patrick answered simply that it was nothing like that. Slum dwellers came from many different tribes who had nothing in common with each other. They were ‘forced together’ by circumstance and tried to be as insular as possible to forge a little bit of ‘personal space’ in their overcrowded living conditions. It was necessary for survival.
Knowing the Africans are a very social people I asked Patrick: “So is it very lonely for you, living here?” He bowed his head and said: “Yes very lonely.” I really couldn’t imagine feeling that way for 20 years. So I asked him why he didn’t try to move out of the slums. There had been times when he had had work outside the slums, although now, in his 50s, he did not find it so easy to find work. But it seemed that both he and Colletta had grown to accept the slum as their lot in life. “We are used to it now,” they said. “We don’t want to move anymore.”
The slum had become their way of life and they could no longer imagine another life. I felt very sad about that, but realised that I was feeling ‘Western thoughts’. For the Masanyis, the slum was HOME!
I wondered why their mud house had such a difficult entrance down the rickety stairs. I hadn’t seen any others quite as difficult as that. Patrick explained that a neighbour had placed a gate on the pathway leading to the land he had built his house on. One night the neighbour locked the gate and would not allow Matthew and his brothers access to their home. He was angry because they were returning at 8pm, which he deemed too late. Possibly they were a little noisy?? The gate remained locked after that, so the Masanyis built the rickety stairway down the vertical bank at the side of their house as a new accessway. I asked Patrick how he and Colletta thought they would negotiate the stairs when they got older, but was answered only by a shrug. Such forward thinking was not a thing done in the slums.
It seems that there was no communication, or at least no communication of a positive kind between neighbours in Kibera. Patrick said that it was not an option to ask any neighbours for help in times of emergency. He could lie there with a broken leg and no-one would come to his aid. I was very saddened by that. The slum people, it seemed, had been so hardened by life that they no longer had the resources to care for each other.
Oh No! No Flushing Loo!
There was one other issue that troubled me considerably and that was the issue of ablutions and wash rooms! The Masanyis, and I found all Africans I met, washed their hands very carefully before eating, as a lot of eating is done with the fingers. But what about visits to the toilet? I hung on as long as I could and then Zainabu disappeared outside for a few minutes before bed time. She came back in and discreetly suggested I go outside too, which I did. The ‘toilet’ was wherever you wanted it to be, squat down and do what you need to – on the track in front of the mud huts. No bushes to hide behind, no grassy spots to use as a toilet area, no room except the path in front of the huts. Hope for more rain to wash the path before you walk on it again, and so life goes on……. Life is simple!
Actually the Masanyis did have a tiny bit of yard, with some sugar cane growing in it and two very vicious dogs tied at one end just by the rickety stairs. I’m so glad I couldn’t see them in the dark or I probably would have fallen head first down the stairs. Also in a cage were two roosters and one mangy hen. One of the roosters had a night long conversation with another equally voluble rooster several mud huts away, probably chatting about the continuous music coming from a radio station in the next door neighbour’s hut, which also continued all night long. No noise control here! No possibility of gently remonstrating with said neighbour either – just a hopeless acceptance of fate and a resolve to survive despite all.
Morning came and I wasn’t too tired or to cramped from the tiny shared bed. Breakfast was some lovely pastries Matthew had bought from a local bakery and brought for us to share.
A tribute to the slum dwellers
I thanked the Masanyis from the bottom of my heart. They had truly shared all they had with me. The only pressing issue now was finding a toilet place as it was now broad daylight! Finally Matthew took us to see his house on the edge of the slum and low and behold, a flushing loo – well at least it was meant to be but a bucket of water down the toilet did the trick. Relief! And my very Western modesty had not been too disturbed! I had survived a night in the slums and learnt a huge amount about those so resilient slum dwellers. I’m told they are hardly ever sick, they have built up physical resistance.
But I could see more than that. They have built up an incredible emotional resilience that I could only gasp at. I still don’t understand how they can survive, and smilingly face each new day.
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