Kibera floods

A section of Kibera slum, Nairobi County, where houses were destroyed and residents rendered homeless after heavy rains, as pictured on May 14, 2021.

| Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

Millions of shillings later, Kibera still wallows in poverty. Why?

What you need to know:

  • With all the attention that Kibera has received, and the millions in donor aid and funding, why is it unable to rise above extreme poverty?

Inside Africa’s “biggest” slum, Kibera, the rusty iron sheet shacks, “flying toilets” and smelly sewage continue to be the order of the day.

There’s an air of desperation as hundreds of the Nairobi city slum’s residents go about their daily activities to put bread on the table.

Kibera needs no introduction. Even some Hollywood stars who fly in in private jets can tell you about it.

Take American pop star Madonna, for instance. While on vacation in Kenya in 2016, she spent a day in the slum while visiting Shining Hope for Communities, an organisation that links schools offering free learning for girls to essential services like clean water and free healthcare.

The slum has received its fair share of “fame”, to the point of overshadowing other slums in Nairobi when goodies and donations from well-wishers come.

Hundreds of NGOs have been formed to help raise funds for different needs of people living in Kibera.

Kibera garbage

A boy walks past a heap of garbage in Kibera slum, Nairobi on April 6, 2021.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

To get funding through the NGOs, extreme poverty and low standards of living was the currency being sold, and rightly so. Just like any other slum, the living conditions here were, and still are, quite pathetic.

But with all the attention that Kibera has received, and the millions in donor aid and funding, why is it unable to rise above extreme poverty?

“When donors came to Kibera, they came with sympathy. This means they quickly responded to their emotions in terms of interventions,” explains Mr Joshua Tembo, a community leader in the slum. But what the donors do ends up not being sustainable, he adds.

“That degenerated into a new culture of handouts, which is currently the trend. So you find that a big organisation or a respected one is turned into a pawn that offers handouts,” he adds.

Kenya railway line in Kibera composed of a garbage dumpsite

Skills training

The dilemma, Mr Tembo says, is that when an organisation turns to offering skills and empowering locals for sustainability, it becomes unattractive.

Those who are mostly affected by the handouts mind-set are young people.

“They have been conditioned to believe that they have a problem and their problem can only be solved by outsiders who come with goodies. Now, if you tell this young person that they can go somewhere and learn some business development skills and set up their own business and have financial independence, it seems like a long process and they want more of a microwave process,” he adds.

When donors respond to calls to help Kibera residents, it is most of the time from the articles they read or information they get from other people, which is mostly not factual.

According to Mr Tembo, many interventions targeting Kibera were designed for distribution of goodies, with only a few using data to create innovations that bring change.

“There are organisations in Kibera that have received huge donations but donors are not seeing the impact, resulting in a new mind-set being adopted, where organisations are now working towards sustainable and innovative projects. But there is a donor mind-shift that is happening because they have done the handout module long enough,” explains Mr Tembo.

Population question

Kibera’s population has also been an issue of debate. A 2004 report by UN-Habitat under the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme estimated the population to be between 600,000 and 1,000,000.

However, according to the 2019 national population census, Kibera only has 185,777 inhabitants.

In a past interview with the Nation, Mr Tom Aosa, the leader of community-based organisations in Kibera, said that there were between 6,000 and 15,000 CBOs working there. That translates to one charitable organisation for every 15 residents. Throw in an estimated 2,000 governmental organisations, and you get a rough idea of the billions of shillings pumped into the slum.

Each ward in Kibera has its own gatekeeper or, as Mr Tembo explains, cartels that control different territories in the slum.

“With many NGOs setting up base in Kibera, a lot of funds started trickling in. This resulted in the formation of gatekeepers who have now become cartels. For instance, when you look for youth leaders, they will introduce you to their network. So you realise most organisations have their representatives living in the community so as to give them easy entry.

“It is a position of power, if you are a gatekeeper, it is easy for you to benefit yourself first before you channel it to other people. For lack of a better word, Kibera is like a Mafia zone, which means you cannot come here as an outsider and set up a project and succeed without going through the gatekeepers. And every area has its own designated leader,” says Mr Tembo.

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This might explain why Kibera cannot change from an informal settlement to a formal one, even with the thousands of donations and goodwill it has been receiving.

According to Mr Tembo, the cartels who play the middleman have created a disconnect between the beneficiary and the donor. Sometimes projects are not 100 per cent done because some of the funds donated only benefit individuals.

In fact, he says that this is the main reason Kibera is yet to realise significant changes in the lives of residents.

“The cartels are beneficiaries, so to them this a way of earning a living and they believe that if they sustain it, they have their lives taken care of; so things should remain the way they are. In fact, some of the NGOs with big names have some youths on their payroll. This ensures that they can manoeuvre through the slum with nobody opposing them or what they do,” remarks Mr Tembo.

Apart from the high levels of poverty, Kibera also lacks sanitation, infrastructure and access to clean water, among other things. Unemployment is also a major problem.

Mr Moses Tito, a resident and community worker in Kibera, agrees that some unscrupulous businessmen have taken advantage of the situation in the slum for commercial gain.

Kibera fire

Residents of katwekera in Kibera slum, Nairobi, assess the damage following a fire that destroyed houses on February 26, 2021. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Slum tourism

In Kibera, he says, there is class just like in any society.

“I was among the first people to start the slum tourism before it was distorted to commercial tourism. The aim we had for slum tourism was to showcase people beyond the rusty roofs. Then the idea was stolen and made into something else so I decided to retreat from it,” says Mr Tito.

The “briefcase” organisations, he says, have their roots deep in Kibera. And even though in some cases the community may come out to challenge these organisations for their misconduct, the same residents easily forget when the organisations dangle another carrot in terms of goodies.

“I came to realise that the scramble for Kibera is real, that sometimes even getting funds from donors can be difficult because, already there are organisations, which are known to be in operation here. And it’s a fact that there are those who have used Kibera to enrich themselves,” says Mr Tito.

The National Council of NGOs chairman Steven Cheboi explained that the council has noted how Kibera is a favourite of many organisations seeking registration.

“We regulate all the NGOs and we are asking the organisations to choose the counties where they will be in operation. Before, we never used to go as far as recording the sub-county the NGOs have settled in. However, we have started to do a follow up and we are working to ensure that NGOs do not flood one particular area,” said Mr Cheboi.

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The government has also had numerous interventions through the Kibera slum upgrading programme, a multi-million-shilling initiative done in collaboration with UN-Habitat.

However, some of the houses built under this programme are reportedly occupied by people who are not from Kibera.

“What happened was that the people who were allocated the houses decided to make money out of them. They decided to sublet the apartments to other tenants at a higher price. These individuals moved back to Kibera. The allocation of the houses by the government was done fairly. It is only that the people who were given the houses fairly gave them out to other people unfairly,” says Mr Tito.

“There is also what I call slum addiction. You can be addicted to this kind of life to a point that you are free to give up that good thing so that you can continue struggling. You have been used to a hand-to-mouth kind of life to a point that when a better situation arises and you are able to have some money in the bank, you just want to spend it all,” he went on.