Planet of Slums

Planet of Slums

A new film gives insight into the lives of those living in Kibera, an urban slum of Nairobi.
 Photo Credit: Flickr, Hunter David Lane
Kibera school boys. Photo Credit: Flickr, Hunter David Lane
The following transcript is from the IRIN film, Planet of the Slums, by Mike Davis. Watch the trailer.





Voiceover: This is Jane Auma's eighth child - born in a slum called Kibera in the heart of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Jane is too poor to pay hospital fees so all her children were born like this.

Her neighbours help out as best they can, but there's no one here with medical skills if things go wrong.

Jane's husband is not around for the birth either - in fact he's rarely at home - and when he does turn up - late and unannounced, she says - he refuses to use condoms/contraception.

Leaving Jane with the last thing she needs right now - another mouth to feed.

Jane: Giving birth is the easy part, the difficulty is feeding them. I want my kids to eat how other children are eating, to dress the way other children dress.

My eldest son has just finished primary school but there's no money for secondary school so he just stays here at home doing nothing.

I think my children will blame me for not helping them in the same way that I blame my father. Even though he's dead I still blame him. So my children will say: ‘Mother never helped us'.

Their father should help but he has abandoned them. He likes moving around with other women and this has made him forget his children.

That makes me angry - very angry.

Voiceover: Some days, Jane gets work at an illegal alcohol brewery where she's paid little more than a dollar a day.

Worldwide, more than one billion people live in slums. As many as a million of them in Kibera. A majority of them are unemployed, meaning hundreds of thousands of people all struggling to survive.


Her husband sometimes leaves a little money, but for the most part it's down to her to keep her family alive.

Carol Wairimu fares no better. She has three young children, no husband and no permanent job.

Every morning Carol gets ready to go out in search of the casual work she needs to make ends meet.

It's a hand to mouth life. If she manages to find work she can buy food - if not, she and her children will go to bed hungry.

School books, sweets or clothing, are luxuries, not essentials in this household.

Carol: I hope you understand the problems of a single mother. She is the one who has to meet all the needs for her children and herself. The problems of a widow. She has to meet all the needs for herself and her children. So you do find a lot of challenges in life - difficulties, problems - and we still survive.

We hope that one day God will come down - we keep on saying that. One day God will come down and change our situations.



Voiceover: But for now, Carol must rely on herself to change her situation - so every day she braves the alleyways of Africa's most crowded slum hoping to find a job washing clothes.

Worldwide, more than one billion people live in slums. As many as a million of them in Kibera.

A majority of them are unemployed, meaning hundreds of thousands of people all struggling to survive.

So however little she's paid and regardless of the weather - Carol washes as if her life depended on it.

What the girls love most about the school is the chance to lead different lives.


In fact it does.

Like many women born to poor families, Carol has only a basic education to fall back on and in a country where university graduates work as street vendors, she must take whatever work she can get.

Carol: What normally makes me feel so down is when I don't have anything for the kids to eat. I don't have anything for me to eat, or hope of where I can get rent for the landlord, because he won't let you not pay for two months. Every time he's at your door, knocking, knocking. He doesn't want to know how you are, what you have or don't have.

I have these kids and I have to work for them so that in the future they will know that their Mum was working for them. If I could find some employment so that I can educate these children, so they can grow up to be people who are bright, people who are learned, people who are educated - people who can stand on their own two feet. So I can say that my future is most focused on my kids.

Voiceover: Carol doubts there's much she can do to turn her own life around but she's determined that life will be different for her children.

With a lack of proper education this vicious cycle of poverty will keep increasing, and that is why the only way to cut down this vicious cycle is really to educate these children.


If she can at least give them the chance of a better life, she reasons, then her own won't have been entirely in vain.

Carol and a friend are trying their luck in the wealthy Nairobi suburb of Langata - cold-selling their services door to door.

It's a typical day - knocking on doors and hoping that opportunity will answer.

No luck today, so Carol heads back to Kibera with empty pockets.

Carol has no one to fall back on for support - her husband and mother are dead, her father is an alcoholic.

Apart from her brother who's unemployed, Carol's had no help from the men in her life.

Carol: I like a hardworking man, who cares for his family, who minds about his family. But there is someone that I do hate and that is a man who forsakes his family. A man who is brutal, who is harsh, who is always drunk and fighting with his wife - I really hate such a man. In the world that we are living in today I can say that women are the ones who are working hard to make their families survive. So I don't value men … I don't value them.

Voiceover: For many of Kibera's men, this is a typical evening. Back from work or job-hunting they spend their nights and meagre earnings in illegal drinking dens like this.

Dennis Onyango has spent a large part of his life in Kibera and is a regular at this bar.

Home-brewed alcohol is sometimes deadly but it's also very cheap.

Dennis fell into poverty when his father left his mother for another woman. Forced out of school because of unpaid fees, he ended up in Mombasa where he found work as a DJ.

Life was good until inter-tribal fighting forced Dennis back to the safety of Nairobi.

Dennis: When I came back to the slum, life was difficult, I was used to having money and living the good life. I used to live in a room with its own bathroom, but when I got back to the slum I didn't have those things. I saw that some of my old friends were doing quite well and I realised it was because of the work they did.

Voiceover: Soon after he got back to Kibera, Dennis settled into a life of idle days spent smoking with friends and practising his rhymes.

Dennis: Many of my friends had guns. I had grown up in the hands of the police because my father was a policeman with the dog section. So I grew up with guns in the house. My father used to leave his gun on the table so I knew how to dismantle and reassemble guns so my friends used to bring their guns to me for cleaning, so that's how I got started.

One day some friends needed four people for a job but there were only three of them so they asked me to join them. They said: ‘It's a five minute job - we'll be done quickly.' So I went, we did the robbery and it was successful. So then I did it a second time, then a third time and after the fourth time I was used to it.

Voiceover: With such high levels of unemployment many young men turn to crime as an obvious ticket out of poverty.

Many end up in prison or dead.

Leaving women like Carol to pick up the pieces.

Carol: As I said, I'm a single parent - I'm the only one to meet the daily needs of my kids - also I'm HIV-positive.

The biggest problem in this case of being positive is that most of the time you are very weak - you don't have enough strength to work or you don't have enough strength to meet all the daily needs that you are supposed to do.

And in this condition, to survive you have to work hard, you have to force yourself even if your body is not ok.

If there was an equitable distribution of resources around the world, chances are there would be a more peaceful world, because this inequality is what brings around hatred.


Voiceover: Carol had no idea that her husband was dying of AIDS until he finally confessed to her on his deathbed.

Overnight her life changed - and having already lost her husband, she then lost the support of her family as well.

Carol was living with her husband's family when he died but they threw her out of the house when she told them that their son had died of AIDS and that she was HIV-positive.

Carol was left with no choice but to go back to her own parents' house. The reception was not a warm one.

Carol: My Mum had passed away a year before my husband died so I stayed with my father who was so harsh - so harsh. He would insult me saying, ‘You went to prostitution and that's why you contracted this disease.' But I know how I got it. I got married to a man who I never knew was HIV-positive, and that's how I happened to contract this disease.

So you find a lot of stigma upcountry. I came to learn that in the city there were some good facilities being offered to people with HIV. So I decided to dedicate myself to how I could regain my strength and prolong my life. I learnt that there were some tablets, medicines being given to people with HIV and that they were becoming healthy and strong. Upcountry you could not find any medicines so I decided that as I had lived in Kibera before, I decided to come back to Kibera.

I found that my neighbours could treat you well, could support you, help you and understand you. But upcountry there is a lot of stigma from your relatives, from everyone.

Voiceover: But reduced stigma and free access to anti-retroviral drugs are just about all that is good about Carol's life in Kibera.

If she succeeds in getting work three times a week she's doing well and even then the money's not enough - often the kids fall asleep waiting for food that will never come.

Carol: It's now 10 years since I became positive so now I can be thinking that my time is getting short, maybe now is my time to die - so it's very hard.

I had a very bad headache, a toothache and these eyes are still aching. I had a stomach-ache and other problems. I was asking God, ‘What is happening?' That pain was too much so I decided to hang myself - first off I hang my kids and then I hang myself, so that if I die I don't want to leave my kids behind. So I decided to kill myself not for the first time, because me I hate pain.

Voiceover: But it's the thought of her kids and their future that gives Carol the strength to carry on.

So she keeps washing - and keeps hoping.

In overcrowded Kibera, where many households use naked flames to cook inside their wooden shacks, fires are common.

And given the lack of access - they're difficult to put out as well.

Looters are drawn to steal whatever escaped the fire and time was when Dennis would have been one of them.

But today he's come to help the shocked victims. Dennis is looking for a change - he wants to turn his back on crime and start afresh.

These days, he spends the morning cooking doughnuts - trying to earn an honest crust.

He never felt comfortable with the life of a criminal, he says, and the memories of his former life have left their scars.

"My life has been changed since I came to this school because the way that my parents are living I don't want to live the same life that they are living - I want to improve," says Dennis.


Dennis: I remember robberies when people were raped or killed. Memories like that must haunt you. You can't stop thinking about them. You see an innocent person killed - man or woman - and you can't help thinking about your own life. You are in a robbery and you find yourself thinking that could be my sister, my brother or my cousin.

I am haunted by the crimes I have committed. But if you are with a gang it's hard to stop it once it's started - you can't go against the wishes of the gang. If you're committing a crime and a beautiful girl is there and some members of the gang want to rape her you can't stop them because they will think you are weak. Those kinds of crimes haunt you afterwards. Every day I am haunted by these memories and that is why I am trying to change.

Gangster: Let him smile.

Voiceover: But Dennis finds it hard to break links with his past.

Here, he gathers with former gang-members to mourn a friend killed during a robbery. The violence of his former life is never far away.

Gangster: I'm going to go into someone's house, get a machete and cut someone. I will go out and shed blood for my friend.

Dennis: The boy who was killed was a good friend of mine. We grew up together and went to the forest together but greed and temptation led him to crime. Everyone has to look for money but he chose a shortcut. He fell in with a bad gang who used him as a diversion and while they were robbing he got shot by the police.

I tried to persuade him to stop thieving but once he had a gun in his hand he wouldn't listen. When someone gets a gun he thinks he's 10 years older, and when I reminded him that he was just a kid, I became an enemy in his mind. When I told him to change his ways he said: ‘I am a man and I don't recognise the name boy any more.'

Voiceover: Every day, more and more young men flood into Kibera in search of a better life.

For a man committed to a new life, Dennis is still prone to the temptation of an easy buck.

A fence divides Kibera from the rapidly disappearing Ngong forest. Wood is a valuable commodity and Dennis braves armed forest guards most nights to cut trees for firewood and house building.

Dennis: Cutting trees in the forest is also dangerous, but the jail time is shorter than the sentence for robbery. And if you work hard while you are in the forest, you get more money than working on a construction site. If you work in construction you get up at 5am and work all day for 150 shillings. But in the forest, one branch alone is worth 200 shillings. You can make two trips to the forest and within four hours you've finished your work and made 400 shillings.

With such high levels of unemployment many young men turn to crime as an obvious ticket out of poverty. Many end up in prison or dead. Leaving women like Carol to pick up the pieces.


Voice over:Patrick Mburu also works nights.

Mburu: I was born and bred in Kibera - this is my home. It's the only place I know. From what I know, the worst thing about Kibera is crime. Many of the youth are jobless, but it's their own fault that they're jobless. Look at me, I'm self-employed yet I'm also a youth - why can't the youths do the same as me?

Voiceover: Mburu empties toilets for a living.

Most toilets in Kibera are privately owned and residents must pay to use them. Toilet owners usually wait until they are overflowing before calling Mburu in to empty them.

It's a dirty job but the money is good and Mburu says he's proud of the fact that it's a business he's built with his own sweat.

Mburu: Let me tell you the truth, my parents were alcoholics. They drank a lot and didn't care whether I ate or not. Just drinking … nothing else!

Voiceover: From a very young age Mburu had to fend for himself so he's used to taking opportunities wherever he can find them.

There are so few toilets in Kibera that on average, each one is shared by more than a thousand people.

They fill up quickly.

At the same place that Mburu has dumped his load the night before, people head off to work while the desperate scavenge behind them.

Most slum dwellers never finish school and end up trapped in poverty, and that's why Mburu is adamant that his kids will get an education.

Mburu: In Kenya, no education means you can't get a good job, that's why I send my son to a good school, because I want him to know that the job that I do is only for people like me who didn't go to school. When he is grown up and he sits down and remembers the work his father used to do and remembers that this is not a job for an educated person then hopefully this will motivate him to find a better job. So, I will struggle - I will carry a lot of shit, I will do anything but steal to keep him in school.

Voiceover: Abdul Kassim is another man who believes in the importance of education.

Abdul works as a telecoms engineer, but puts most of his income into a free secondary school for girls that he started in January 2006.

Primary education in Kenya is free while secondary is not, meaning most kids leave school with only a basic education.

Abdul: I saw that there was no gender equity between the boy child and the girl child here in Kibera, and at that small level that I was I thought we should start these girls doing something that these boys can do and they can do it fairly better, so we started a girl's soccer team.

Then as the girls went through their primary education - because I started it with girls of 13 or 14 years old, they went through primary but most of them never made it to secondary. Then all the challenges, all the bad things that happen within Kibera saw some of them getting into early marriages, some of them got pregnant - there was a time when I lost the entire striking force of my team and it brought into question the starting of another alternative which was nothing but education.

Voiceover: The school operates on a shoestring and relies entirely on the goodwill of Abdul and a few of his friends.

A donation just in means that Abdul can finally start work on the next classroom.

Abdul: I'm always under pressure, because it's the end of the month and as I go and pick my pay-cheque I keep asking myself what pay cheque do I have for the teachers? This is one constant challenge that I always have especially when it comes to the end of the month. Last month we got some little money to pay the teachers but as it stands right now and it's the 30th I have nothing, nothing coming up for the teachers.

Dennis is looking for a change - he wants to turn his back on crime and start afresh.


Voiceover: 17-year-old Christina is just one of 48 pupils at Abdul's school but her story is typical.

She lives with her mother, father and five siblings in a one-room shack. Her parents' relationship is fraught and Christina is often left alone in charge of the house.

When she finished primary school her father refused to send her to secondary school - educating girls, he told her, is a waste of money.

Staying at Abdul's school - even though it's free - is a constant battle.

Christina: My dad wants everyone to drop out of school. He complains that he has no money, or that he's sick … I don't know … I don't know why he doesn't want us to learn.

Like me, he wants me to go and look for a job to feed my brothers, but I'm too small to be going out earning money now.

Voiceover: Against her father's wishes Christina sets off for class knowing that Abdul's school is probably her last chance of a better life.

Christina has a hole in her heart - a serious condition for which she should take daily medication but the cost of the medicine - US$10 a day - is far beyond the means of her family.

School, a job and then a salary might just save her life.

Christina: I fear dropping out of school because if I stay at home, men will say, ‘Here are some girls for us to play with.' So I fear dropping out of school because maybe I'll become a mother, be raped or go into prostitution. That's what I don't want to do because I fear those things.

Voiceover: The teachers at Abdul's school are all unqualified volunteers - so the school is some way from academic excellence - but that's not the point.

What the girls love most about the school is the chance to lead different lives.

Carol doubts there's much she can do to turn her own life around but she's determined that life will be different for her children.


Christina: My life has been changed since I came to this school because the way that my parents are living I don't want to live the same life that they are living - I want to improve.

I don't think it's a good thing for girls to drop out of school - not girls only, boys as well - we have to be educated so that for our future we may at least be good parents to our children.

Voiceover: Abdul has put not just his money, but his heart, into the school.

If he wanted, he could knock down the school tomorrow, build houses and rent them out for a tidy profit - but instead, he puts the girls' education first.

Abdul: With a lack of proper education this vicious cycle of poverty will keep increasing, and that is why the only way to cut down this vicious cycle is really to educate these children. Education is only replacing an empty mind with an open mind. We just need to make their minds open and show them that there are so many alternatives out there, so many opportunities out there, so many better ways of doing things out there.

Voiceover: If he wanted, Abdul could leave Kibera tomorrow but he thinks running away is not the solution.

Abdul: I don't see a reason why people are living the way they are living in Kibera, or in any other slums, there is no reason - there is no justification. If there was an equitable distribution of resources around the world, chances are there would be a more peaceful world, because this inequality is what brings around hatred.

And in Kibera, if this issue is not handled at some time, this problem is going to come knocking at people's doors - and those who think it's not their problem might be surprised one day when this problem comes knocking at their door.




Reprinted with permission from IRIN news service, the humanitarian news and analysis service, IRIN. © IRIN. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

To read another Global Envision article about urban slums, see Mixed Blessings of the Megacities.



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