The Town that Doesn’t Exist

With all the mania since I’ve been back from Africa, I never got around to posting this piece, on my time in Kibera, which appeared as a four-page spread in the Sunday Business Post.  Incidentally, there’s a Viewfinder feature on the people mentioned in this piece on Storyful right now. Go check it out.
Sunday Business Post, November 7, 2010

In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, up to a million people live in a place that doesn’t exist. It does not appear on any government maps. It receives the bare minimum of services.

Officially, this city within a city is an uninhabited ‘forest’.

But the residents of the Kibera slum are no longer happy to be anonymous. Using free social media technology such as YouTube, they’re doing what no one else will: putting themselves on the map.

No buses go into Kibera.

Public transport deposits people at the fringe of this giant slum.

The few roads that penetrate the periphery narrow after a few hundred yards to become pedestrian paths.

On the interior, there are no paved surfaces; every track is, at best, packed mud underfoot, coated with brown slime when it rains. In many areas, it’s compressed garbage and organic waste, human and otherwise.

Pedestrians dodge their way through the narrow lanes, ducking under the tin eaves of wattle-and-daub houses, skipping over open sewers and around playing children. Kibera is a maze of pathways, a hilly, mud brick labyrinth of streets with no names.

There are no street signs, no directional pointers, making it nearly impossible to navigate for anyone unfamiliar with its contours and landmarks. Buying a map of Nairobi won’t help: ibera is simply not there. Outsiders need insiders to find their way around.

‘‘You get somebody who will guide you inside.

Otherwise, if you are looking for a place and you do not have someone to direct you, you will get lost,” says Douglas Namale, a Kibera resident involved in mapping the massive slum. ‘‘Kibera is not seen anywhere on the map. It is not classed as a place where people are living. If you go looking at any of the maps we have of Nairobi, Kibera is seen as a jungle.”

The name Kibera derives from a Nubian word, kibra, which means ‘‘forest’’. After World War I, the land on which Kibera now stands was forest, granted as living space to Nubian warriors, proxy fighters used by English settlers.

Kibera grew informally, with other Kenyans renting from the Nubians, and the land became subdivided, parcelled smaller and smaller as the population grew. Partly because of its embarrassing colonial history, Kibera has seen development pass it by.

Its existence is barely acknowledged by Kenyan authorities any more. Services are spartan, the gaps filled by a loose matrix of charities and non-governmental organisations. Land rights are non-existent.

By not recognising the town or its residents’ right to land ownership, the government largely evades responsibility for it.

For somewhere that doesn’t exist, Kibera makes headlines often enough, and mostly for the wrong reasons. Trains periodically derail on the line that cuts it in two, rolling over houses in the process.

Fires romp through the tightly-packed houses unchecked, leaving nothing behind. Bodies are dumped there, often a result of murders from areas outside Kibera, but the stigma of violence has been impossible to shake ever since riots in the wake of the 2007/08 Kenyan elections.

Bad news is as synonymous with Kibera as open sewers and grubby street urchins.

However, pro-active Kiberans are forcing outsiders to look at their home in a new way, and using new media to take their story to a global audience.

Two of these, the Kibera News Network (KNN) and Map Kibera, have begun filing local news reports online via YouTube, and mapping the slum using open-source geographical technology, opening up an impermeable urban jungle for the first time. In doing so, they’re colouring in the black-and-white image that most people have of the slums.

Google ‘Kibera News’, and you’ll find short films from the KNN staff. Whenever news breaks in Kibera, KNN volunteer reporters head to the site armed with small hand-held Flip cameras.

The team are all Kibera residents, locals of the 13 suburbs within the slum.

None of them receives any pay for their work, and some have small businesses or work other casual jobs.

Amateur as they might be, their reporting skills, coupled with local knowledge and a passion for their hometown, mean they are able to get greater detail than any of the professional Kenyan networks, which gloss over slum life in broad strokes.

Rather than report an outbreak of fire, for example, the KNN reporters link the fires to problems of informal (read: stolen) electrical connections or poor education on fire safety.

While other stations report only the extremes, the disasters or stories of escape from the slum, KNN’s tales of everyday life give Kibera a more human face.

On their YouTube channel, you’ll find the tale of Jey Jey, a local jeans designer, next to stories of how Scientologists are using the Scouts to infiltrate the townships.

With their small cameras, they visit clinics offering circumcision as an HIV/ Aids measure and internationally renowned artists living in the slum, but then will move right on to a cover the opening of a new bank in Kibera.

With reports recorded, the team head back to their offices to edit the footage on hand-me-down computers with the most basic of software and upload it to YouTube. After only a few months of the project, their skills are already improving exponentially.

Some of the team have an eye on making a jump to Kenyan TV, or the likes of CNN, as reporters or cameramen, and take their training workshops very carefully.

Others, like Joshua Ogure, want to see KNN grow to become a resource of record. Joshua is tall and speaks slowly, every sentence considered carefully.

‘‘I want us to grow as a media organisation,” he says. ‘‘I want to see KNN grow to be as big as CNN.”

After only a short time in operation, the KNN reporters have caught the eye of global organisations.

The International Red Cross commissioned KNN to make a film about Kibera to launch their annual global report, with KNN reporters involved in a lengthy debate with government about how to improve slum life after the showing of the documentary.

That video was seen by thousands of people, marking the high point so far of KNN’s reach, and a new realisation of how far their simple internet video can go. But they must go further.

KNN’s video reports make everyday life visible and real to the outsider, but they lack the analytical, statistical detail that campaigners and lobbyists crave. They want harder data, lists of Kibera’s needs and wants which they can use as leverage on politicians and donors.

As a blank on the map, Kibera has proven hard to quantify, in every sense.

A recent government census saying there were perhaps ‘only’ 150,000 people living in Kibera caused uproar, challenging the round million figure most often bandied about.

The lack of mapping makes a census itself a pointless task. Without roads or postal addresses, rough estimates are all there is.

This is where Map Kibera comes in. The organisation has begun the process of cataloguing the slum on a freely-available online map.

Using open-source technology called Open Street Map, their mappers have tramped the paths of Kibera, tagging churches, schools, chemists, clinics and water sources with GPS coordinates, and adding them to the online chart.

What was once a white, kidney-shaped space on a map is now peppered with icons for various resources.

The few towering street-lights, major navigational landmarks, stand out, as do water tanks and mosques.

The tapestry of life in the slum is gradually being embroidered in rich, online detail. Again, it’s local knowledge that counts.

Kiberan residents were recruited to map their own suburbs, like 21-year-oldHassan Yussuf from the Mashimoni area.

Mashimoni means ‘‘hole’’ in Swahili, the area originally a quarry for material used in the building of the slums. Sure enough, it still sits in a deep hollow, its topography reflecting its history.

Mapping his home area was an enjoyable process, not least for the kudos Hassan gained. ‘‘Here in Mashimoni, I’m known, I’m like a celebrity, I’m known everywhere,” says Hassan. ‘‘It made it easy, I enjoyed the whole process.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however.

Kibera has not been mapped comprehensively in the past, but scrutiny has come in fits and starts, usually motivated by government plans that might not be in line with what residents want.

Houses have no numbers, so a number daubed on your door can indicate a countdown to its destruction.

When people come around counting shops and measuring distances, the usual result is evictions by the authorities, arrests, and even jail time.

As a result, mappers on the streets in Kibera were put on the defensive on a regular basis.

‘‘When I had the GPS, people were scared,” says Hassan. ‘‘They asked what am I doing.

They might think that I am doing something with the Nairobi City Council so I can set up them so they end up in court. Other people asked them: ‘What are you doing?’ So I told them I’m mapping. ‘What’s the benefit of mapping?’ they asked.

So I told them.”

Among other things, Hassan’s mapping led to reallocation of resources, moving NGOs to the areas in Kibera where they were needed most. ‘‘Through the mapping, I established that there was 20 organisations here that did not benefit the people living in Mashimoni,” he says. ‘‘It was like a highlighting.

So we said: ‘There is no need to be operating in this area – if you can, you should work with other people’.” On a personal level, Hassan’s recruitment has led him on to a career, and a route to prosperity.

‘‘Growing up in Kibera, there’s a lot of hustling,” he says.

You must do a lot of work to upgrade yourself. If you are not keen, you will end up in the street.”

Since volunteering with Map Kibera, he has won a scholarship to study geographical information systems at university, and is on the path to becoming a professional cartographer.

Mapping has shown him a path out of poverty, and away to help raise his neighbourhood in a similar fashion.

‘‘The moment I will leave is when I feel everything is in good shape.

Then I will be proud of myself.

As for mapping, I am doing it now as a passion, and I must return something as a thanks to the community. I will push all the stakeholders to do something for the Kibera community.”

The project of mapping Kibera is far from over.

Whereas regular maps chart right turns, the Map Kibera team are trying to chart human rights, or rather where they are absent.

By pointing out what little exists, and where it is located, attention is drawn to the real blank spots, where the government must step in and effect change.

But as a street map, the Map Kibera chart is, arguably, useless. Paths are so narrow as to be indescribable on paper, so the map lacks detail.

The mappers argue that in Kenya, directions are given in terms of landmarks rather than street names or left/ right terminology, so the laying out of Kibera’s maze is inconsequential.

‘‘The houses are squeezed, so it’s very difficult to identify a path,” says Regina, another mapper.

Kibera is also in constant flux, so the map evolves regularly on a micro level.

With no legally-enforceable land rights, parcels of land are grabbed when they become available, ownership of homes can change hands with little notice, and buildings appear and disappear constantly.

Large institutions remain in place for some time, while all else is subject to change. ‘‘It’s so hard,” says Kevin Otieno, ‘‘because you can map a place as a school today, but the next day you go there you find it has been changed to something else, maybe a butchery.

What we normally do is change things every day.”

Linking both projects is a live website called Voice of Kibera, which is where the greater slum population can put their shop, event, school or news item on a living map of the slum.

Notifications, once verified, appear immediately as a hotspot on the map with links to more detail.

Again, Voice of Kibera relies on free online platforms.

Ushahidi, a mapping alert system developed just a mile from Kibera, powers their website.

Locals text in news alerts to the Voice of Kibera team with a description of its location.

They plot it on the online map and, if it’s newsworthy, alert the KNN news team and staff from the Kibera Journal, a local newspaper.

Mobile phone usage is high in Kenya, with many people spending 50 per cent of their income on communications, so uptake has been good.

‘‘It acts like a media tool for the community, where people show information, videos, whatever, anything pertaining to the community,” said Frederick Ubari, who works for the team behind Voice of Kibera.

With these simple websites, Kibera is now more accessible than ever before.

s they move on to replicate the model in other slums in Nairobi (Mathare is next) the hope is that copycats will do the same the world over.

The tools they use are free and available online. The means are inexpensive. The results can be massive.

A bus will drop you at the edge of Kibera, a human and urban forest, leaving you lost on the fringe. But, thanks to the pioneering work of Map Kibera and the Kibera News Network, there is now away for everyone to get into the heart of everyday life in slums, and see what successive governments have long claimed was not there.

With excuses and barriers removed, all that remains is to act.

Markham Nolan’s travel to Kenya was assisted with grant aid from the Simon

Cumbers media fund

3 Replies to “The Town that Doesn’t Exist”

  1. You’re right of course, which is why I used the phrase ‘up to a million’. Many of the people in kibera vociferously dispute the small numbers in the government census, and in speaking to the Map Kibera guys, they agreed with what you’ve put forward.

    Pretty hard to see how any census can be accurate in Kibera, however, with an innate fear of any form of government count and the general disorganisation within the city.

  2. Counting people isn’t easy, but good estimates can be got. Aerial photos and estimates of the numbers in different types of dwelling type can work. I did something similar about 15 years ago in Dar es Salaam, using an out of date Ordnance Survey map, we (me and a colleague) counted mapped houses and estimated the numbers of new houses for the area or those not mapped originally (for an area which we knew well). We then used a guestimate of the numbers in each house type. Our estimate – this all took about 15 minutes – was pretty close to both local government figures and a census that was taken a couple of years later. The area was much smaller than Kibera, but such approaches are accurate.

    These numbers are important. They allow for informed lobbying and fair resource allocation. There are no recorded estimates (with a clear methodology) that are close to one million. Acceptance of that figure can lead to poor decision making – which is not good for the people of Kibera, or other under serviced areas of Nairobi.

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