Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum, and reportedly one of Africa’s largest, has been basking in world media attention recently.
At the recent World Social Forum, in the Kenyan capital, thousands of delegates marched through the teeming slum, calling on governments to give serious attention to the plight of a majority of their people forced to live in such terrible squalor as in Kibera.
Last week, Ban Ki-moon, the new United Nations Secretary General, toured the vast squatter settlement, about 7km south-west of Nairobi, where there is no sewage system or safe drinking water facility. Its mud-walled shacks are covered with an assortment of rusting iron sheets, polythene and cartons.
He could not have missed the tightly tied polythene bags on every roof: some bags have burst open revealing their contents — human excreta. Flies buzz all around what have come to be known as “flying toilets”. In the absence of toilets, people defecate in bags and throw them as far as they can, on to other people’s roofs and homes.
“This visit gives me an opportunity to see first hand the challenges and problems the people are facing,” said Ban. “I feel very humbled by what I am seeing now. Improvement of living conditions, water, sanitation — all these are challenges which we must overcome.”
Ban noted that upgrading slums would go a long way in addressing poverty, as well as achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The UN endorsed eight such goals, seeking to reduce poverty by 2015. They include among others, combating hunger, HIV/Aids, illiteracy, child mortality, maternal mortality: issues that are rarely tackled, particularly in slum settlements. Nearly a billion people worldwide live in desperate poverty in illegal squatter colonies.
He praised a slum-upgrading project jointly supported by the Kenyan government and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) that seeks to improve livelihoods of people living in slums by building them permanent houses and roads, as well as providing water and sanitation.
The project was launched in Soweto, one of Kibera’s 12 villages, in 2004. Kenya’s Housing Minister, Soita Shitanda, said the first 600 houses in Soweto would be ready for occupation in November this year.
Its residents cannot wait. “Human needs must come first. It is critical that people’s living conditions are upgraded to ensure they live in dignity,” Raphael Handa, chairperson of the Soweto community, said.
At present, the population of about 71 000 makes do with just 50 bathrooms and 110 toilets. Handa described it as “grossly insufficient”. He observed: “These facilities are not enough. That is why we have flying toilets.”
The unsanitary situation, coupled with the lack of clean water, has continued to put residents at a risk of water-borne diseases. The settlement becomes virtually impassable during the rainy season, when sewage also spills into shacks, posing a serious health threat. Mountains of garbage and scarce water provision add to the health hazards.
“Water is an issue. Water pipes are passing through sewers and that is why most people — 85% — suffer from typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea. We need water and sanitation urgently, we need slum conditions to be improved,” Handa appealed.
However, there are others who think that slum upgrading alone will not improve the lives of slum dwellers. A holistic plan of action, which includes addressing the widespread problem of unemployment, is critical to a sustainable strategy for urban poverty upliftment.
“Most of the youth in the slums do not have jobs. We do casual jobs here and there where we are paid about a dollar a day. This is not enough to keep one going for a month. We have rent to pay and families to care for,” said James Nzioka, a resident who works as a casual labourer at a construction site.
Gerald Maingi, another youth living in Soweto, has already given up. “I have no job and no education. I have to take chang’aa [a cheap, illicit brew] so as to forget my frustrations,” he said. Kenyan youth comprise 61% of the jobless — 90% of whom have no skills, according to government figures.
Many have taken to crime. Kenya’s Youth Minister, Mohammed Kuti, pointed out last year that 60% of prisoners in the country’s jails were between 16 and 24 years old. — IPS