Kibera (which is derived from a Nubian word, kibra, meaning forest) is a sprawling urban jungle of shanty-town housing. Home to as many as a million residents, Kibera is the world’s second-largest shanty town (after Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa). Although it covers 2.5 sq km in area, it’s home to somewhere between a quarter and a third of Nairobi’s population, and has a density of an estimated 300,000 people per square kilometre. The neighbourhood was thrust into the Western imagination when it featured prominently in the Fernando Meirelles film The Constant Gardener, which is based on the book of the same name by John le Carré. With the area heavily polluted by open sewers, and lacking even the most basic infrastructure, residents of Kibera suffer from disease and poor nutrition, not to mention violent crime.
Although it’s virtually impossible to collect accurate statistics on shanty towns, as the demographics change almost daily, the rough estimates for Kibera are shocking enough. According to local aid workers, Kibera has one pit toilet for every 100 people; the shanty town's inhabitants suffer from an HIV/AIDS infection rate of more than 20%; and four out of every five people living here are unemployed.
The British established Kibera in 1918 for Nubian soldiers as a reward for service in WWI. However, following Kenyan independence in 1963, housing in Kibera was rendered illegal by the government. But this new legislation inadvertently allowed the Nubians to rent out their property to a greater number of tenants than legally permitted and, for poorer tenants, Kibera was perceived as affordable despite the questionable legalities. Since the mid-1970s, though, control of Kibera has been firmly in Kikuyu hands; the Kikuyu now comprise the bulk of the population.
Kibera is located southwest of central Nairobi. The railway line heading to Kisumu intersects Kibera, though the shanty town doesn’t actually have a station. However, this railway line does serve as the main thoroughfare through Kibera, and you’ll find shops selling basic provisions along the tracks.
Visiting the Shanty Town
A visit to Kibera is one way to look behind the headlines and, albeit briefly, touch on the daily struggles and triumphs of life in the town; there’s nothing quite like the enjoyment of playing a bit of footy with street children aspiring to be the next Didier Drogba. Although you could visit on your own, security is an issue and such visits aren’t always appreciated by residents. The best way to visit is on a tour. Two recommended companies are Explore Kibera and Kibera Tours.
Getting There & Away
You can get to Kibera by taking bus 32 or matatu 32c from the Kencom building along Moi Ave. Be advised that this route is notorious for petty theft, so be extremely vigilant and pay attention to your surroundings.
The suburb of Karen takes its name from Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, a Danish coffee planter and aristocrat who went on to become one of Europe’s most famous writers on Africa. Although she lived in genteel luxury on the edge of the Ngong Hills, her personal life was full of heartbreak. After her first marriage broke down, she began a love affair with the British playboy Denys Finch Hatton, who subsequently died in a plane crash during one of his frequent flying visits to Tsavo National Park.
After the farm came close to bankruptcy, Blixen returned to Denmark, where she began her famous memoir Out of Africa. The book is one of the definitive tales of European endeavour in Africa, but Blixen was passed over for the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature in favour of Ernest Hemingway. She died from malnutrition at her family estate in Denmark in 1962.
In 1985 Out of Africa was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and one of the retired trains from Nairobi’s Railway Museum. The final production was terrific from a Hollywood perspective, but it left out enough of the colonial history to irk historians and Kenyan nationalists alike.
Nairobi: A Liveable City?
First-time visitors to Nairobi could – especially when stuck in traffic for hours on end – be forgiven for thinking that they've arrived in an apocalyptic vision of the urban African future. And yet many locals swear that theirs is the greatest city on earth. So who is right? Two global indexes that measure a city's liveability might provide some insight.
The 2017 Mercer Quality of Living Rankings (https://mobilityexchange.mercer.com/Insights/quality-of-living-rankings) placed Nairobi at 186th out of 231 cities, a middle-of-the road ranking when it comes to other African cities, but certainly nothing to boast about. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Liveability Ranking (www.economist.com) in 2016 placed Nairobi at a none-too-impressive 125th out of 140 cities worldwide, down five places from the year before.
Such indexes are to be taken with a grain of salt, as each uses different benchmarks. Furthermore, each index tends to favour infrastructure and cost of living for expats over intangibles that give cities their unique personalities. Even so, much work remains to be done if Nairobi is to live up to the grand claims of those who wouldn't live anywhere else.