10 December 2012

Kenya: Living With Sewage Inside a Kibera House

Photo: Lauren Everitt/AllAfrica
A toilet in Kenya's Mukuru slum

A familiar Congolese tune blares out onto the street. The source a shack made out of iron sheets painted blue; the owner selling music CDs. Similar structures populate both sides of the road. I struggle to catch up with Felix, my camera man, and Steve our guide into Kibera but there are so many distractions.

The words 'Soweto Hair Parlour' are painted on a board outside one such structure. Outside sits a woman on a wooden stool, as her hair is being plaited by another woman stands over her.

Across the road is a cafe. I take a quick glance inside to see a vat of hot oil; mandazis piled high on a counter and patrons on benches beyond it.

"This must be Soweto," Felix shouts back at me emphasising a rather obvious point. We are not in the South African township but at the mouth of the world's second largest slum: Kibera.

As we go along, the tarmac fades away and the path becomes narrower until we come to a railway track and just like the road, there are rows of shacks surrounding it.

To say that the track is littered would be an understatement; there is plastic everywhere. Small piles of rubbish burn at intervals along the line as children hop, skip and jump along the tracks.

I feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland falling down a rabbit hole when Steve leads us down a slope between two shacks.

"We've taken so many turns," Felix tells me, "I wouldn't know my way back."

"Perhaps we should leave behind a trail of bread crumbs," I reply and at Felix' quizzical look I add, "Hansel and Gretel?"

The smell of stagnant water and rotting rubbish hits us and all thoughts of children's fairytales vanish. There is hardly a path to walk comfortably on. I hold on to the sides of the iron sheet shacks all around us to avoid stepping into putrid water.

I'm relieved to spot Andrew Bura Shuma and I stare enviously at his gumboots. Flies buzz around my feet as I struggle not to crinkle my nose.

If you look up the meaning of the phrase 'living in squalor' in the dictionary its synonyms would include filth and misery and those are the conditions Andrew and his tenants are living in.

"Sewage flows down here from Magiwa," Andrew says pointing at stone houses just beyond the slum, "until it gets blocked here and enters our houses," Andrew continues turning back to point at a stone wall behind him.

The stone wall separates what is from what is meant to be. On one side are shacks made from what looks like rusty corrugated iron sheets, open on the side that faces the stone wall and on the other side are flats made from stone and cement coming up.

The Kibera residents are intended to move out of the slum into the flats but until then they live with sewage flooding their homes.

The flats are part of the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP). A decanting site for Kibera residents has already been put up in Lang'ata. It consists of 600 units and with three families in each unit it houses 1,800 households.

This is a drop in the ocean considering over 200,000 people live in Kibera. The decanting site has also been riddled with controversy. Some of the residents have failed to pay the Sh1,000 monthly rents since 2009 when they moved in.

Others have been accused of renting out the houses and moving back to the slum.

Oundo Vincent, one of Andrew's tenants, has lived in Kibera for the last 23 years. He invites me to his home to show me the damage the sewage has caused.

It looks more like a shed than a home. There isn't much other than a dirty mattress on corrugated iron sheets. There is no need to remove my shoes because there is nothing covering the ground. A sheet hang on pegs separates his home from his neighbours.

He had more, he tells me, until a fire gutted down everything within a kilometre of where we stand a month ago. "The fire brigade tried their best but there was simply no way for them to reach us," Andrew tells me.

"I was unable to salvage anything because it happened around eight in the morning and I was at work," Oundo, a construction worker, contributes.

As we speak his five children hang on the wooden poles that support the iron sheets looking out at the stone wall and construction beyond; they range from thirteen to eight years of age.

Maureen who lives next to Oundo also has children, two girls; Ruth is six months old and Rachel four years old.

They had to sleep out in the open when their house burnt down. Andrew rebuilt his tenants' houses from the iron sheets the fire didn't consume."

There wasn't enough left though and that's why one side of the shacks stands open.

"What the fire didn't take the thieves did," Andrew laments.

Maureen has had to take both her daughters to hospital because of the cold draught it lets in. With the rent money he collects, Andrew has been able to buy a few more iron sheets and now they provide the roofing on Oundo's shack. Their shine doesn't fit in with the drab surroundings.

Maureen has no roof yet. Canvas covers her home but she's done the best with what she has. New cooking pots glimmer in one corner. A green sofa sits against one wall. On its left are buckets and soap where they take baths and at the centre of the room a mattress.

I haven't seen a toilet or pit latrine on my way in or on my tour of the shacks. "We pay five shillings to go to the bathroom," Maureen explains.

There's a gap in the wall where the buckets are and beyond them I see sewage flowing.

"It gets worse, much worse," she says following my gaze, "Sometimes it's like a tap just opens and it floods our homes. Everything it touches you have to throw." It got so bad one night she climbed the stone wall with her children to seek shelter in the unfinished flats beyond but they were turned away.

"We tried creating a hole in the stone wall so the sewage could flow out but they closed it back up," Andrew says.

It certainly is no way to live. I ask Oundo why he just doesn't move into better accommodation.

"I'd love to move but this is the only rent I can afford," he replies.

It is at this point that Joseph Mutiso strong-arms his way into our conversation. He reeks of alcohol and it's hardly midday. He holds a tomato in one hand.

"After the fire some charities gave us rice and flour but it was no help. We were sleeping out in the open and it got soaked in rainwater."

Maureen, Oundo and Mutiso's stories are unfortunately not unique. According to an Oxfam report, two million Kenyans live in slums making up 60 percent of Nairobi's population given the city's population was pegged at 3.4 million in the last census and is expected to reach 6 million in ten years.

Contrary to popular opinion, only 25 percent of this growth is fuelled by rural to urban migration and most of this migration is not made in hope of getting white collar jobs but necessitated by natural disasters such as drought.

Greater than half of this growth results from the already resident urban population.

Poor planning has meant the slum population has no access to proper sanitation exposing their children to mortality rates higher than the national average; the sewer and drainage systems already in place overwhelmed.

In the event of a fire breaking out in the slums as it did in Andrew, Maureen, Oundo and Mutiso's cases, fire fighters cannot get through to salvage property and prevent the even greater loss of life; the fire spreading even faster due to the overcrowded nature of the slums.

Worse, when such incidents occur, the urban poor often have nowhere to turn; the Oxfam report reads:

'Relative to rural areas, 'social capital' is thought to be weak in Nairobi and consequently people do not have the same kin and support networks.'

In the spirit of being your neighbour's keeper, Andrew seeks to set the record straight as Felix and I climb back out of Kibera.

"In the wake of the fire it was reported by some media outlets that one woman and two children died. They were just missing. We found them."

This time, I think to myself, they got off easy. If you can call watching your home go up in flames that; they might not be so lucky next time.

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