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East Africa's Largest Shantytown: Kibera

Kibera, the name given to Africa's largest informal settlement -- commonly referred to as a slum -- is a Nubian word meaning "forest." In today's urban psyche, however, Kibera conjures awful images of a way of life that is almost incomprehensible to Westerners or privileged Africans. Housing more than one quarter of Nairobi's population, Kibera is 5km (3 miles) southwest of downtown Nairobi and is about the same size as New York's Central Park, with a population density estimated to be 2,000 people per hectare. It was originally settled by Sudanese (Nubian) soldiers who fought in the British army during the First World War. While the British government tolerated the informal settlement for political and tactical reasons, the post-independence government made certain types of housing illegal, and Kibera was consequently deauthorized. With "legal" land beyond the means of most ordinary Kenyans, Kibera's poor tenants were forced to stay on and occupy the illegal land. They officially became squatters, and the area has continued to grow as more people immigrate to the city hoping to find their place in the sun. Kibera's rate of growth is estimated to be around 17% per annum; since its boom years at the end of the 1970s, when 62,000 people lived there, the population has grown to an estimated 1 million. In late 2009, the government finally began addressing the situation with the inaugural relocation of an initial batch of Kibera residents to a new low-cost housing scheme. Unfortunately, such a translocation hardly puts a dent in the existing problem.

Most people living in Kibera -- where an average makeshift home is 3m x 3m (9 3/4 ft. x 9 3/4 ft.) and most dwellings house an average of five people -- are without basic amenities. Electricity, clean water, and sanitation are not readily available, and there is an average of one pit latrine for every 50 to 500 people (or, by some accounts, one for every 500-1,000 people). Two in every three residents must defecate in the open, while the river and dam into which the human waste and sewerage runs are used for swimming, bathing, and laundry -- cholera and typhoid are an ever-present threat. It goes without saying that the combination of poor nutrition and an overwhelming lack of sanitation contributes to widespread disease and death. There are more than 50,000 AIDS orphans in Kibera; those without grandparents or a place in one of the overcrowded orphanages are left to fend for themselves or are raised by older siblings, many of whom are themselves young children. Schooling remains a luxury.

With survival itself a miracle, it's hard to imagine the industriousness and business savvy of the people living in Kibera. Despite the hardships, there's a strong sense of community, and all kinds of entrepreneurial and business enterprises -- as well as many grassroots organizations -- are contributing to an evolving economy, known in Kenya as the Jua Kali, or "Fierce Sun." It's part of the massive informal sector that drives up to 75% of Africa's economy. For some insight into contemporary community life in Kibera, pick up a copy of Michael Holman's satirical novel Last Orders at Harrods -- An African Tale (Abacus), which conjures some fabulous characters in a thinly veiled version of Kibera called Kireba.

Tours of Kibera are available, but they're currently the subject of mixed opinion, and I've heard too many residents express their unhappiness at the way some of the tours are run to be able to recommend them at this stage. If you're truly interested in seeing life within Kibera and feel you have something to give in return, it might be best to do so through one of the NGOs working there rather than by joining a potentially exploitative tour. Better still, contact one of the community groups started and run by people actually living there; a good place to start is the dynamic youth-oriented organization SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Community; www.shofco.org).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.