Kibera: Africa’s largest slum

July 7, 2005 | Economics, Kibera, Nairobi, Slums, UN Habitat, Urbanism

Kibera is on no map, its 550,000+ people — one out of every five Nairobians — cartographically invisible.  One of the many roads in (all unpaved, most only a few walkers’ wide) rises at a twenty degree angle in yellow dirt.  Every day thousands of Kiberans walk several miles to and from their work, formal or informal as it may be. 


One side of Kibera parallels the railroad tracks, the other is bordered by stores in corrugated metal, barrels pounded flat.

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Kibera undulates across a long narrow valley near Nairobi Dam.


From a distance, the rows of corrugated metal roofs — the internal structural order of extreme density — are deceptively regular, yet as one moves into the neighborhood itself, the structure reveals itself in an overcrowded, over-stressed environment. 

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Typical side street in Kibera


No one knows for sure how many people live in Kibera; population density is estimated at 3,000 people per hectare — 750,000 people in one square mile — or no more than 37 square feet per person.  It is one of the most crowded places on earth.

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I just spent six days in Nairobi, as a guest of UN Habitat and the Kenyan Ministry of Lands and Housing, working with Habitat’s Slum Upgrading Facility (SUF) on the problem of Kibera, Mavoko (another such community twenty kilometers south of Nairobi), and places like them throughout Kenya.


“What is the definition of a slum?” asked one of my hosts, and I answered as in the box.  “That’s a financier’s definition,” he said, and gave his.  Both are good ones.


Slum: two definitions


·         Financial definition.  A place with no investment that keeps costs so low that the poorest of the poor can afford them.

·         Urbanist definition.  A neighborhood with minimal or no basic services such as sanitation.


The urbanist defines the condition, the financier defines the cause.


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There are no paved streets in Kibera, and the ground underfoot is often wet.


Physically, the urbanist is right: as you walk through Kibera (map in .pdf), you are assaulted by human proximity and its byproducts: open dumps, open sewage, self-built mud-walled wattle-and-daub-housing, homes roofed with corrugated metal, cloth doors, and flats — occupied typically by three people — that are barely larger than ten-by-ten feet.


Three people in a 10×10 room.  The size of the rug under your dining room table. 

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House (in Mavoko, 20 km south of Nairobi) made principally of barrels hammered flat


But the financier is right too: slums are economically rational, and from its inception, Kibera has had crippled economics:

In the 1920s the British colonial government here decided let a group of Nubian soldiers settle on a wooded hillside outside Nairobi. The Nubians – an ethnic group from neighbouring Sudan – had been fighting on the side of the allies in World War One, as part of the King’s African Rifles.


They had done a good job, and the British were toying with the idea of keeping them on after the war. But then the colonial authorities had second thoughts, and told the Nubians they could put down their guns, and live on their hillside.


For some reason, though, the British never gave the Nubians the title deeds to their new land. The soldiers built homes, and set up businesses. But they were squatters – with no legal rights. They called the place Kibra, meaning jungle.


Over the years, other tribes moved into the area. Some managed to carve out their own plots of land. But most became tenants – renting their huts off the Nubian landlords.


Despite the self-reinforcing squalor of the homes, Kibera is also a hive of small business activity of every kind imaginable:

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5 0251 Ke Kibera Soweto East chemist 050625


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Cell phone rentals

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Sewing in open air


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Open air shoe store (50 shillings is about $0.70)

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Baked in Kibera


Some of these businesses produce goods of surprising quality:

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Furniture manufactured in Kibera


People make lives here:

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The homes, when you step inside, are furnished with as much care as abject poverty can sustain:


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Now look again with a financier’s eyes, where each person is merely a shade through those translucent form glows the pale green form of his or her wallet.  Every evening money walks into Kibera, half a million wallets’ worth, each tiny in itself.  Some of that money circulates within Kibera (small local business) but once a month a vast river of it siphons out of Kibera — rent payments to ‘structure owners,’ the accepted euphemism for slumlords.  Since they do not own the land, they have no incentive to invest, so they simply extract


Who are these slumlords?  The answer will infuriate you:


A University of Nairobi study found that of 120 landlords interviewed, 57 percent were either government officers or politicians, according to United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).


Given that the settlements are illegal, landlords are not obliged to provide any services – no latrines or water, no electricity, no rubbish collection, no infrastructure, totally inadequate housing, no repairs or maintenance and open sewers filled with stinking, raw sewage.


That survey comes from 2002, and there’s little evidence things are much different today.  Indeed, throughout Kibera one must be aware of the impact of ‘flying toilets‘:


‘Flying toilets”, are human feces wrapped in plastic. Flying toilets are a common hazard in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum with an estimated population of 500,000 to 750,000.


Kibera is crowded partly because, under the 24-year government of the unlamented Daniel arap Moi, vast tracts of land were deeded over to his friends and cronies.  We can hope the new democratic government will find ways to get it back, because the people of Kibera have very tangible dreams:

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“Our Dream House,” drawn by a self-taught Kibera resident, in the Soweto East co-op


… and they are organizing and learning to save:

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Kleptocracy impoverishes, and is therefore unsustainable long-term.  But the human cost along the way is intolerable.


Meanwhile, as long as there are bright-eyed children,

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there’s a reason to work really hard to figure out how to make the economics work to change the world:



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