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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Africa’s largest slum By Amanda Lindhout In Iraq

Published: August 16, 2008 4:00 AM The railway line snaking through Kibera becomes a highway of human activity as the first rays of morning sun begin to warm the muddy earth, signalling the start of another day in this Kenyan ghetto.

Men and women in faded but pressed suits walk the tracks into Nairobi, tentatively hopeful that today they will find a job in the city.

Groups of old men sit under tin awnings, anticipating rain.

Some have their heads in their hands.

Others just stare across the railway and out over the endless maze of shacks that make up Africa’s largest slum.

Barefoot children with distended bellies pick through mountains of garbage alongside the tracks, competing with stray dogs for the find of a half-eaten corn cob or a bone with a bit of meat.

Here, hunger is a way of life — a never forgotten pang that is all consuming. Many of these children haven’t eaten in days.

A scramble down a muddy slope, slick with human waste, leads into the most densely populated slum in the world.

More than 1.2 million people are living in haphazard, makeshift homes.

There are no sewage pipes. No services. No roads. What began as an unregulated settlement in the First World War for Nubian solders is now a veritable hell on Earth, ironically adjacent to a city booming with one of the best economies in Africa.

Solomon Akello sits inside his family’s mud hut, palms open in a gesture that resembles both despair and a form of special pleading.

His baby brother Hezron lies in a swath of dirty blankets on the floor, and 17-year-old Solomon is desperate to get the child to a hospital. Inside Kibera, government medical care is too expensive for most squatters (whose average monthly income is less then $20 a month).

The infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world.

He brushes away the determined flies that crawl into the child’s mouth and grows sadly nostalgic.

“My parents were good people. We came here two years ago from the Rift Valley because they thought there would be jobs in Nairobi.”

“They didn’t imagine that we’d be stuck in Kibera, living like animals, sick and with no help.”

Solomon slumps over in his chair when he tells that his mother and father were both killed in the politically motivated fighting that erupted in Kenya earlier this year.

The random brutality of criminal gangs claimed hundreds of lives inside Kibera as homes were set ablaze and guns appeared on every corner.

He struggles to take care of his four siblings by begging on the streets. But he hasn’t lost sight of his dream, to become a construction engineer, despite not having the money to attend school since 2005.

Beside a river of open sewage is another row of crumbling mud shacks. Parting the curtain door of one, Doreen Achieng Olale’s gaunt face appears.

A matronly woman, with a belly indicating she will soon have another baby, she has lived here for 10 years.

Olale lines up bottles of pills on a small table. This is her HIV medication, given to her each month by a group of foreign non- governmental organizations. One fifth of all HIV positive Kenyans live in Kibera. Since her husband died of AIDS two years ago, she is alone each day with her four children.

The answers to the disturbing, frightful questions that creep into the mind of anyone witnessing this kind of incomprehensible abject poverty are obvious.

“I am a prostitute,” Olale says with a kind of defensive pride. “Do I sell my body for a bag of rice so my kids don’t die? Absolutely. No one else is going to help us.”

Recently, the Kenyan government has taken small steps to upgrade the slums. One government water line is now available to residents, but at a cost few can afford.

For five cents, 20 litres of clean water can be bought from a single piped-in source. Down the road, for less then half the price, Kiberians can buy water from a private pipe.

It’s often dirty, but when every penny counts, many don’t feel they have a choice.

“No one can afford the government water. If they are trying to help us, why don’t they make it the cheapest option?” complains one man.

The overwhelming stench of human waste in Kibera is unbearable. It flows openly between the rows of homes. In other places, men roll up their pant legs and wade ankle deep through it. Children play alongside the filth.

There are only two government toilet facilities to accommodate the vast population.

A teenage boy sits up on the railway tracks watching the scene around him. Henry waits here for the next train to roll through, destined for Mombassa, a coastal city in Kenya.

“One day, I’m going to hop on the back of the train. I’m going to ride it all the way to the sea and see what the rest of the world looks like.”

Amanda Lindhout is a Red Deer journalist working for a Middle East news channel in Iraq. Contact her at

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