Upwardly mobile Africa: A day in the economic life of Africa’s biggest shanty-town

Attached is a description of the small enterprise economy of Kibera, a large shanty-town area of Nairobi.

The original essay from the Economist, December 22, 2012 is here:

Upwardly mobile Africa

 

MEN in patched overalls and women in freshly washed blouses walk down a narrow lane just after six in the morning. They are packed in tightly like spectators leaving a sports stadium, but this is their life, their every morning. Backs are straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able limbs. They crush discarded wrappers of quick-fry breakfasts under foot, corn and oil dripping from mouths. Banana skins are ground to dust by thousands of feet.

Everyone is moving in one direction, jostling and shoving, out of a maze of low-strung shacks, past shops selling shoes and phones that have already been open an hour, out into the high-rise centre of Nairobi, where factories and offices pay salaries—everyone, that is, except a limp male figure huddled in a corner strafed by the first delicate rays of the sun. He seems to wait for the crowd to pass or at least thin before he dares to swim upstream. His hair is short and shiny as if sanded down rather than cut; his shirt is in pieces. He tells your correspondent that he has just arrived from the countryside. This is not home, he says. He does not sound convinced it ever will be.

His name is Jonah Kasiri and he is 23 years old. He came to Nairobi on an overnight minibus with his worldly possessions—a battered alarm clock and an additional pair of cotton trousers—packed into a canvas bag that smells of ripe fruit. His village in Kenya’s west, as he describes it, sounds like many: a verdant clump of trees and animals where man eats what he can hunt or gather but has little chance of betterment.

For that one has to come to the city. His cousin went to Nairobi two years ago and returned for a visit last week, wearing two mobile phones in a leather pouch on the belt of a brand new pair of pleated trousers. That made an impression on Mr Kasiri. When his cousin offered to help him follow suit, he jumped at the chance.

The crowd eases and we walk into the maze of shacks. Mr Kasiri says he must relieve himself but cannot afford to. In the city nothing is free. We come to a cement floor divided into seven stalls, each with a hole. “Is it clean?” asks the customer in front of us. The proprietor, Teresia Ngusye, seated on a stool, handing out tissue paper, says she cleans every hour, pointing down the alley to similar looking shacks. “See the competition I have.” She charges us ten shillings (12 cents), which she says will go toward building a second set of toilets. Mr Kasiri nods. Everything in the city is an opportunity. He too might one day like to run such an establishment. In parting, the newly minted city boy hears a warning, “Bowel problems are expensive.”

This is Kibera. Often, and probably rightly, described as Africa’s biggest slum, it is home to perhaps a million people. Nobody knows for sure, since Kibera is left to its own devices. Government is absent: it offers the residents (regarded as squatters) no services, opens no schools, operates no hospitals, paves no roads, connects no power lines and pumps no water into homes.

To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them

And yet Kibera, wedged in between ornate embassies and a well-tended golf course, is an integral part of Nairobi. Its residents live in a dozen villages on a piece of land half a mile wide and two miles long, draped like a bath mat on a tub across a slope falling into a man-made lake. Once the slope was wooded and each village had only a few houses. In the past 30 years they have fused to become one of the world’s most densely populated places, garnering a measure of first-world notoriety. Kibera features in the film “The Constant Gardener”, based on the eponymous John le Carré novel, as well as in a music video by Sarah McLachlan, a Canadian pop singer, representing the epitome of poverty.

Kibera’s origins are Western. A century ago British colonial rulers gave small plots of land on the edge of Nairobi to Nubian soldiers serving in the King’s African Rifles. They built mud huts below the road leading to the farm of Karen Blixen—made famous in the film “Out of Africa”, based on the Danish writer’s life. The land was later nationalised but the Nubians stayed put and rented parts of it to newcomers. Today most homes are made of ragged tin and reused timber. Walking in the warren of narrow lanes that divide them, some only shoulder-wide and all of them devoid of cars, one is reminded of a medieval European city.

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