If you’re one of a new breed of traveller looking to substitute safari with the chance to explore Nairobi through a sociopolitical lens then Kibera’s Olympic area is a good place to start. Ivy Nyayieka takes a walk through East Africa’s largest slum.
Accept the invitation from Chef Morgan Etete to try one of his mandazis; this café at the Town Centre will wow you with the samosas and fries as well as an assortment of international dishes. Apart from a laundry, an IT hub, a library and a range of classes to choose from, the Town Centre also boasts a studio. A large glass window separates people inside the narrow room with black walls and grey curtains from the rest of us, making them seem too cool for school. Or perhaps they seem cool because they are on first name basis with the Hollywood actress famous for her role as the mother in Wonder Woman, Connie Nielson (yes that is who they mean when they say “Connie”).
Let a jilted lover’s Luo rhumba song floating idly in the air guide you to Uweza Art Centre, almost next door to Town Centre. The artfully decorated outside walls of Uweza are a feast for the eyes. The exterior is a great cue to prepare yourself for the work displayed inside. And it’s truly beautiful art at quite affordable prices (and if I say something is affordable, it is). If you are a resident of Kibera, you can submit your work and join the workshop. They will consider any applications, even a drawing in your exercise book. The little art shop boasts a significantly large footprint on the globe, too, shipping some of their artwork to regions in the US and Dubai. However, Frank, who runs the place, insists that the artists must be passionate before they succeed: “Ukiingia art juu ya dough hautaifanya.” (“If you get into art because of money, you won’t make it”)
If you keep walking away from Town Centre, you will come across the railway line. In times of political turmoil, residents have been known to pull up the railway line, bringing to a grinding halt the commuter train that runs through Olympic twice a day. The railway line also bears a wealth of historical significance. In the early 20th Century, the British settled Nubian veterans who had helped expand their empire in a forest near the railway line. They called the forest “Kibr.” Other migrant workers moved in as tenants and were drawn there perhaps by the availability of housing, and proximity to work in the European areas.
Once you make the about turn you will find, opposite a vegetable stall, a small mysterious looking cinema owned by the charming Peter and Redempta Ochieng. If it is your first time watching a DJ Afro movie, proceed with care. This stuff is addictive. It’s a movie with comical translations from English into hyperbolised Sheng. A simple “Tea?” becomes “Utakunywa chai? Chai ni ‘tea’. Hii ni dawa.” [“Will you take tea? Chai is ‘tea’. This is medicine.”] The verdict is in. Everything is funnier and juicier in Swahili. It costs … wait for it … 10 shillings to watch. You can also buy a few movies to take home.
Next you should definitely visit Victoria’s Bone factory. Don’t wear black. The dust will wear you in return and you will look like you walked through a cement bag. The factory shapes the bones of cattle into a lot of fun things. Imagine being the kid with a comb made out of bones in school. I know. I know. I am finally rehabilitating you from your awkward teen years. Charles, who runs the place, thinks bones are cute but is actually passionate about education, with much of his and his colleagues’ earnings going towards their kids’ schooling. They are working extra hard now because the long election season affected their business and now some of their kids are not in school. Even if not every kid takes advantage of schooling, he feels he has done his part, at least. “Ulimpa dawa akatema,” he says. (“You gave them the medicine, and they spat it out.”)
The slum upgrade dwellings are visible on the section of the railway line that leads you out of the bone factory. The upgrading project began in 2003; the tall apartment buildings look down on the rusty corrugatediron ceilings of the houses so typical of Kibera. When the government relocated the first lot of Kibera dwellers into the apartments, it was a short-lived solution. Struggling with the higher monthly living costs (approximately Ksh 1,500 rent and Ksh 1,000 shillings in rates), they mostly moved back into their old homes, where the cost of living was much cheaper.
On your way out, there is another opportunity to spend your money – at the amazing craft shop, Power Women, run by 15 women. An orange, beaded butterfly they had on display is etched into my memory. They have earrings, skirts made out of lesos, dashiki shirts among others. Hellen Moraa, the chairwoman, says the women faced a lot of challenges when they first set up the shop in 2004 because they were all living with HIV/AIDS, and were initially shunned. But they never gave up.
The walk out past Olympic Primary School to the matatu stage is a great chance to stock up on anything from shoes to basins to kitchen racks from the stalls flanking the road. A fun thing to do while leaving is to see how long it is before Solo 7’s door-to-door graffiti (“Peace Wanted Alive”) which ushered you in is no longer visible.
Our writer visited Kibera with Chocolate City Tours, which charges Ksh 3,500 per person for a tour lasting two to three hours. Contact Henry on firstname.lastname@example.org