Kibera Slums (Nairobi, Kenya)
Going to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time was quite an adventure. I had always wanted to visit West Africa (Ivory Coast, Liberia, etc), however, I had a few friends who wanted to do the whole safari thing and see the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, so I decided to tag along. Well, I ended up planning the entire trip myself, and they went along for the ride, to be more accurate. 😉
Flying into Nairobi from Zurich, where I had been stationed for awhile working was quite a unique experience. I didn’t know what to expect traveling to sub-Saharan Africa, because at the time, it was one of the only parts of the world I had yet to visit. I always try to study at the people on my flights to figure out how the native population will dress, look, and act. One of the first things I noticed on my Swiss Air flight into Nairobi was that there were no Africans on the flight. It was quite sad, as usually no matter what country you are visiting, there will be a few native people on the airplane with you. No so, in this instance. I think that says a lot about the ways that sub-Sarahan Africa is isolated, economically, culturally and racially from the rest of the world, which is very unfortunate, as I was to find such a rich, beautiful culture upon landing.
The Nairobi airport was much more modern than I was expecting, and while not a gleaming mecca to Duty Free zones and business class lounges like say, Bangkok, the airport was very
functional, clean, and well laid out. Customs were very quick, and it was easy to purchase a single entry visa upon arrival for $50 USD. I had anticipated spending $100 USD for a multiple entry visa as my tour itinerary had me re-entering Kenya after being in Tanzania and Zanzibar before leaving for the United Kingdom. However, I was told at customs that if you travel to Tanzania, it’s still considered “part of Kenya” and you don’t need a multiple entry visa. I don’t know if this was because I smiled sweetly at my customs officer or what, but I didn’t have any issues re-entering the country, nor did any of my travel mates, so I believe that they allow travel to Tanzania without needing a multiple entry visa.
However, a note for those planning to visit Kenya and Tanzania: you need a Yellow Fever certificate, both to enter the country and to re-enter your home country. You can get the Yellow Fever Vaccine at the airport, prior to customs, and they give you an option for an extra $20 NOT to get the vaccine and just get a stamped piece of yellow paper saying you have actually gotten it. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of the yellow fever, so I took the actual shot. You can also get certified yellow fever vaccinations at travel health agencies and doctor’s offices across the USA and the world. Some countries, like India, periodically run out of the vaccine, so it’s best to do this months in advance. Plus, your immunity doesn’t build up
immediately after getting the shot, and since it’s a live vaccine, you can get some flu like symptoms from the shot, so it’s better to do this at home and be prepared vs. being sick in Kenya.
After grabbing my bags, which arrived promptly, and meeting my driver at the airport, I was shuttled to the Sarova Stanley hotel in downtown Nairobi. I was really amazed at how safe the place seemed to be, given all of the dire travel warnings one gets prior to any sub-Saharan African travel. I arrived in the evening, so my first view of the city was at sunset, and it was gorgeous! The setting sun lit up the very 80s style buildings in the downtown core, highlighting bizarre right angles and triangularly shaped hut-like structures, soaring 50 feet in the air. The city had a very exotic feeling to it, despite having all the hallmarks of any modern city–office buildings, markets, mobile stores, and the like. Huge signs for Tusker Beer, the national beer of Kenya, were painted on all manner of surfaces, and Java House coffee shops (the Kenyan version of Starbucks) were common on every street corner. The streets were also quite lively and full of people, with lots of dance halls, casinos and discos.
The traffic on the 15 km stretch of highway going to the airport was horrendous, as the Nairobi airport is rather small for the amount of traffic it receives. It’s the only modern airport in all of East Africa, and all safari-goers fly through it, along with tons of Somalian refugees (the Somali border is not far from Nairobi). There are often huge lines flying out, and bad traffic on the last 15 kms of highway as it is the only way to enter or exit the airport. But after that, the traffic wasn’t too bad getting into the city, and eventually I arrived at my hotel and was delighted to find I was upgraded to the “Windsor Suite”! It was a
huge suite with a living room, dining room, massive terrace, and beautiful bed. I couldn’t have been more happy with the room, or with the accompanying beautiful breakfast spread the next day, that I consumed while sitting beneath a beautiful acacia tree in the hotel courtyard.
After breakfast, I had a few hours to kill before my 2pm tour of the Kibera slums, which are the largest slums in Africa and which sit about 5 kms from Nairobi’s city center, where my hotel was located. To pass the time until my tour began, I decided to walk to the nearby famous City Market in the dead center of
Nairobi, and after a few attempts at finding it, turned a corner into a massive parking lot filled to the brim with vendors selling all manner of “Africana”. I made the walk alone, and despite almost being arrested for smoking on the street (apparently it is a dire crime to smoke a cigarette on a public street in Kenya), and after bribing my way out of Kenyan jail with roughly 600 Kenyan Shillings (about $7 USD), I was finally able to shop to my hearts content.
It was rather disappointing to me that the City Market was mainly touristy garbage and not authentic African handicrafts, but what can one expect really? It’s a market geared towards tourists, not natives, and there’s more of a profit to be made off of marked up Chinese manufactured, mass produced “Masai shields” than there is off of the real deal. I get it. But word to the wise: don’t go shopping there expecting real handicrafts. Also, don’t go if you don’t care to bargain or are scared of bargaining. Everything is massively overpriced because of the expectation that one will spend at least 15 minutes haggling over the price of each item you want to purchase. Also, bring Kenyan Shillings with you–
you’ll end up getting better prices that way because you can haggle down to a lower level. Sure, vendors there accept USD as well as Shillings, but instead of bargaining to say, $5 USD (433 Shillings) you could go do to an even 400 Shillings and save yourself some money.
Everything an African tourist could possibly want can be found at this market, from wooden carved statues and masks, to paintings, to Masai bric-a-brac, to spears, clothing, jewelry, etc. All of it is sold by Masai tribesmen, and most of the men speak fairly good English (and probably some other languages such as Dutch and German as well). All are friendly and inviting but beware that if you express interest in something you will be accosted heartily to buy it. Look furtively and strike when you’re sure you want something. And if you want multiples of something try to buy all from the same vendor, to get a discount.
After shopping my little heart out, it was time for the Kibera slum tour. I had called an arranged the tour the evening before, and was easily accommodated at the timing of my choice. At 2pm sharp, a taxi driver sent by the Kibera Tours company arrived in the lobby of my hotel. My friends and I got in the cab and were taken on a short drive to the suburbs of Nairobi, where we were dropped of at a Java House Coffee shop. There we met with the other tourists taking the 2pm tour, along with our guides, Freddy and Martin. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, especially Freddy and Martin, who mentioned several times that they were from the same Kenyan tribe as President Barack Obama. 🙂
We all started out on foot to the slums, meandering behind the shopping center with the Java House coffee shop and a few other stores, and down some dirt roads, and through some light bush. Eventually, we popped out into one of the most impressive shanty towns I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen shanty towns in Mumbai, Brazil, Bangkok, etc, but Kibera was different. It was so BIG! Plus, everything was built on rubbish, literally. Kibera sits on one massive rubbish heap, and the ground beneath my feet turned into compressed garbage as we got closer and closer to the heart of the area.
The tour passed through several enclosed markets, and the dwellings all began to be made of corrugated iron sheets and blue tarps, with a few made of scrap lumber and plywood. In one of the markets, a local woman pulled me aside and showed me how to wear my purse–clutched in front of me, not hanging loosely to the side. Our guides hadn’t mentioned any danger of theft in the area, but looking back, I should have probably known not to look like a rich white tourist with a dangling purse waltzing through a place where the
vast majority of people lack basic food, water, and electrical services. I thanked her for her advice, and asked Freddy and Martin how dangerous the slums really were. I am not a big believer in danger, as in, I don’t ever notice it or feel it or even really believe in it. I feel like people who perceive danger are all making it up in their heads. Freddy told me that it probably wasn’t a safe place to walk around at night, but during the day, with them, that I would be alright.
A word about the guides–Freddy and Martin are native Kenyans who grew up and who currently live in Kibera. Their homes just recently began to benefit from electricity. They still don’t have running water or plumbing in their homes. I really enjoyed having them as tour guides because they were FROM Kibera and could really represent their home to foreigners without feeling like we were somehow exploiting or gawking at their misfortune. It was fun to walk around Kibera and hear a “Hey Freddy, how’s it going!” or “Martin, when are you coming by, your mother says to visit her later!”. It really felt like I was part of the neighborhood, so to speak. I probably wouldn’t have taken the tour, otherwise. I generally feel that tours of economically impoverished areas are unsavory, but given the circumstances, I gave it a go.
After a general tour of the main streets of Kibera, which were hard to navigate in sandals (wear closed
toed shoes if you go–there’s a lot of open sewage, rotting food, sharp nails and waste in the streets), we were taken to a small primary school which functioned inside Kibera to try to educate children who grew up there. It was very difficult to see, as these children were all huddled in a dirt floored, corrugated iron shed, with about 30 small children to one teacher. However, they were lively, bright eyed, obviously eager to learn, and singing a song and dancing around when we visited. They had some blackboards and some chalk and were doing some lessons, but the teacher stopped for a moment and let them swarm us, giving us hugs and shaking our hands and asking in broken English all manner of things–“What name? Come from? You live Kibera?”. It was utterly adorable and I just loved all the attention these kids were willing to give us! Plus, they were so HAPPY, which I think goes to show you that money is not the dividing line between being satisfied in life and being empty. Almost all of the people, young and old, that I ran into and had the privilege to interact with were happy, or at least, in good spirits. People were laughing with their neighbors, telling stories, working hard with their friends. It was a very social place, because no one had much privacy as all the buildings were right next to each other, and the walls simply a plywood board. Kibera may be lacking in water, food and electricity but the people there certainly don’t fixate on what they don’t have. It’s more of a community that any I’ve seen and more tight knit and supportive.
Speaking of which, our next stop were several charities based in Kibera, mainly there to assist people who were HIV positive (which a large
portion of Kibera was) and especially women who were HIV positive. A lot of the education these NGOs gave (most were Kenyan founded, run and directed) were geared towards women who were HIV positive who became pregnant. They focused a lot on how to keep the child from getting HIV from the mother’s breast milk, in addition to supplying small loans and financing to women who wanted to start their own businesses. I was very impressed by the work they were doing and met some amazing HIV positive women who owned bead and jewelry stores. A few people on our tour wouldn’t touch the HIV positive women, which I found supremely insulting, especially after it had been explained a few times that HIV cannot be spread by touch or even by kissing! I was rather disappointed in a few people on my tour and wanted to apologize for their actions.
Our last stop on the tour was Freddy and Martin’s house, where we were able to make donations to any of the NGOs we had visited or to Freddy and Martin themselves. We all signed a tour book and were offered hand made t-shirts for $10 USD. It was interesting to visit their home, as it was like any other home in Kibera–made of scrap metal and wood, with no running water and furniture dug out of the garbage heaps. After spending 4 hours walking around with Freddy and Martin and getting to know them as friends and humans, seeing their living situation made you realize that all of these people living in Kibera were both human and intelligent, and not so different (in fact, the same) as you or me. A lot of people see poverty as a dividing line between humans and that poverty brings certain characteristics with it, such as sloth, lack of intelligence, or some sort of other defect. Fact is, poverty just happens. You’re born into it, and once there, in ANY country, and especially in Kenya, it’s almost impossible to remove oneself from it’s clutches. I admired Freddy and Martin for doing what they could to make money and to build a business based off of their situation, rather than being ashamed of it. I hoped that the people on the tour realized what I did, and that they saw poverty not as a result of a defective character but as a circumstance that should be fought as much as possible through charitable work, education, NGO resources, and correct political policy.
The tour lasted about 4 hours, and by the time the tour was over, the sun was setting and everyone said their goodbyes and went our separate
ways. My friends and I caught a cab back to our hotel, and after so many hours in the bright African sun, we happily took a nap before dinner. Well, I took a 30 minute nap (as opposed to everyone else who slept for 3 hours!) and then hit the pool. Hey, you can sleep when you’re dead! I had some swimming to do…
To Get There: SWISS Airways, a codeshare partner of United Airways and part of the Star Alliance. They have daily flights to and from Nairobi from Zurich, priced around $800-900 USD, round trip. Decent airline, with modern airplanes, replete with economy plus seats, personal entertainment centers, and charging outlets under the seat. Flight is approximately 8 hours.
To Stay: Sarova Stanley Hotel, the first 5 star luxury hotel in Nairobi, built in 1902, and upgraded in the mid-90s. Rooms start at roughly $150/night, and go up to $400+/night for luxury suites. Location is great, in the heart of downtown Nairobi, and the City Market is within walking distance, as are many shops, restaurants, and discos. The pool is rather small and the menu during the day is limited, but the breakfast spread is to die for!
To See: Kibera Tours, the only walking tour of the Kibera slums, which sit on the outskirts of Nairobi and are the biggest slums in Africa. The tours are run by Freddy and Martin, two local Kibera residents (born and still living there). Highly recommended. 2500 Kenyan Shillings (about $30) per person, with the option to donate money to various aid agencies at the end of the tour or to buy handmade t-shirts that promote Kibera tours. Tours depart once in the morning, at 8am, and once in the afternoon, at 2pm. To arrange a tour, simply call the number listed on the website, or send an email. The response is quick, and pick-ups easy to arrange.
To Shop: City Market, located in central downtown Nairobi. Looking for African souvenirs? This is the place to go. From Masai shields and spears to carved wooden masks and beaded necklaces and bracelets, City Market has it all. Be ready to haggle, bring your money in Kenyan Shillings, and be aware that most of the items being sold are not locally produced.