‘Theres a lot of weirdness in a slum’: making a living in Kenya’s anarchic mud city

Despite the poverty, lawlessness and pollution of life in Kibera, creativity still thrives thanks to a mix of determination, guts and luck. The Guardian spoke to people who have all three

Living in a slum is the reality for 1 billion people and rising across the world. More than half of Africas city dwellers live in informal settlements and the continents biggest is Kibera, in Kenya. We heard from people there about their struggles, aspirations and their innovation, busting the myths and stereotypes about being poor and powerless.

The performer

Mammito,

Mammito Eunice, 25, is a stand-up comic.

I can make a living as long as I can make people laugh.

This place has a lot of material. Theres a lot of weirdness in a slum, theres a special weirdness in Kibera. And you cannot be sad all day.

My comedy comes from pain, having lived and grown up in Kibera. This is the life I know, I cant compare it to anything else. To me, having a teatime is funny, why would you have meals between meals that are already a struggle to find? If anything bad happens to me I have to laugh at it. First I cry, then I laugh. Theres a sad and a funny side to everything.

In my show there are a lot of NGO jokes. I make jokes about the small kids in the 20-year-old (donated) T-shirts that are too big, jokes about how many verses of song the children will sing for the money the white lady has donated to the school. Theres a lot of laughter to be had at the uniqueness of this place. I talk about issues, corruption, leadership, just through the prism of comedy.

I come from a single-mother family and my mum is very chilled about what I do. Maybe if my dad was around he would be very harsh about my job.

Men are a difficult area for me. Its challenging because men [in Kibera] still have the thing: I am a man and no woman can tell me anything, which is frustrating for a career woman. They want to change you, distract you.

In Kibera there is a great network of creative people, musicians, dancers, actors, even people making beadwork. We only have very small spaces and that is something I think that needs to, and will, change.

The hotel owner

Tom

Tom Aduda, 48, is the proprietor of Dreams, a hotel and one of very few buildings in Kibera above a single storey.

The hotel has grown over the years wood, metal, panels, stairs and floors have been tacked and welded together with an ingenuity perfected in a place where conventional building materials are beyond reach. Aduda employs eight people and works 20-hour days. He moved to Kibera as a schoolboy when his dad left home, leaving his mother to bring up eight children alone.

Things were better then in Kibera, cleaner. The water was clean in the river. We played football. Now, where I played football, there are buildings, and where we used to swim, theres dirty garbage.

Its hard for the children. Kids have to be kids. They have no place to play, no place to run. I would not start a family here.

My mother made illicit beer, thats what paid to bring us up. I dont drink now because of what I saw growing up around alcohol. I went to college. Then I started with a tiny shop and then built up the hotel bit by bit. Now I have 10 rooms and a reputation for cleanliness. I am proud of this place.

This is a tough job, you are your own security. But I am a tough guy. 99% of business in Kibera is about survival.

I dont pay tax but I dont get any services from the government either. The police are just out to collect money at every opportunity.

You have to pay off the police, whether you have a licence or not. Every week I have to give the police something, and on a monthly basis as well.

Youd rather do your business than have disruption so you pay it. Im from here and known here, so for me the gangs are not so much of a problem, but for women its very bad here. Very bad.

When Kibera was began building up there were so many rooms. Now you cant find a room anywhere thats vacant.

My clientele come here from up country to look for jobs and find its not the place they thought, but 99% dont go back. Life is cheap, so they get used to it and stay. In my mind I would rather be up country. I would love to retire with some chickens and goats and have a simple, good life. It would be lovely.

I dont believe anything is changing. They [the government] talk about upgrading, but they have been saying that for years and then they spend the money somewhere else.

Nothing changes in Kibera.

The shopkeeper

Kibera

Evaline Atieno, 36, has been running her chip shop for six years, expanding from a stall to a back room with two long tables and benches for sit-in customers. A bucket of cold water holds bottles of neon-coloured drinks. She employs four people and sends her three children to school.

It is called Evas Place, she says. Our special thing is that this place is very clean.

Evaline

Between her and her friend Caroline Ayuma, they peel their way through six buckets of potatoes each day by hand.

We are different tribes, Luo and Luhya, but here we work for the same thing. We have to be a special place, better than the others.

The problem is that we now have a lot of competition here in Kibera. So many new people are arriving all the time and setting up new places. It is becoming harder and harder to earn a living. It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to keep a business going in this place.

You have to maintain the price, you have to maintain the cleanliness. That is what makes my place the best.

The IT businesswoman

Margaret

Margaret Aoko, 23, was born and lives in Kibera. It is a very difficult place to live. Theres a lot of harassment for women. Its embarrassing and its difficult and you just cant do anything about it. You have to accept it.

Aoko, the fifth of seven children of a mechanic and a seamstress, founded a company called Papshop linking entrepreneurs to wider markets, connecting them to consumers, and building their brand awareness and sales on and offline.

I was passionate about local artisans and I was blogging their stories so people could see the amazing things they were doing. So this was the natural next step.

After school she won a place to study IT with local charity Shofco, and then a scholarship to study entrepreneurship in Ghana. She left the slum to study, but suffered from depression and anxiety in an unfamiliar culture. I was so low in weight, I was constantly sick, I cried all the time. It just got really messy. I was drawn to come back.

My family didnt understand what I was doing. When I started my business no one believed in me. They said you should get a job, you wont survive. But this is something I love. I feel I need to grow. More connections need to be made between people.

There are so many problems that I want to solve in Kibera, I wouldnt just leave here. I cant leave here.

The musician

Henry

Henry Octopizzo Ohango, 31, is a successful Kenyan rap artist, born in Kibera: My dad met my mum here when she was running a groundnut stall. My dad bought a lot of groundnuts before she would be persuaded to marry him.

I wanted to be a horticulturist I thought it must be wonderful to see flowers. Growing up, I counted that I saw maybe five flowers in 21 years in Kibera. Can you imagine a flower at every door here? The peace that might bring?

My parents died when I was 14. The three youngest children went back to our village but my mum was in a microfinance scheme so I was able to finish school. Afterwards, I just wanted to find a job but its hard in Kibera, you have to know people such as a family member. I applied for college but I could not afford the fees.

I soon realised nobody was telling our story. The only thing people know about Kibera is poverty and disaster, but its more than that.

Young people need spaces to create and be ourselves. Kids want to be poets, dancers, footballers. But they cannot express themselves. When we grew up we thought mental health was a rich persons disease. We dont even talk to our parents. The only time my dad said I love you, he died the next day. I never heard my mum say it. But she fed us so she must have. There were no hugs.

Two

You were not allowed to cry or complain. You were dubbed weak. Because you cant survive if you cry. So you hold a lot of stuff in and thats a lot of trauma.

I Googled how to be a dad when my daughter was born.

Here people dont consider you a success with art until you are really successful. My aunt didnt talk to me for three years because she thought rap was a shameful thing. The problem with this generation of ours is that people are so afraid of failing that they dont even try: 99% are so convinced they will never make it out of here that they never try.

People assume if you come from here you are a thug. If you cant speak English they think you are stupid. But that is not us. The young people here are creative, there is a slang called Sheng, a mix of Swahili, English and our mother tongues. It changes every day, its a vibrant, amazing thing, and that is who the people here are.

I love this place to death. There is nowhere in the world like Kibera.

The teacher

People

Cecilia Ayoti,was 15 when she was forced to leave home afterfalling pregnant. I was a bright daughter and my father was very bitter, he was a drunkard and he would get mad every time he looked at me. I thought leaving home would be better for everyone else in the family.

But my babys father believed in witchcraft and sorcery and was very violent. He would try to force me to have sex in front of the children. You are programmed from an early age that you have to make your marriage work. And society already saw me as a bad girl because I got pregnant at an early age. This society, your family, your brothers and fathers, can be very harsh.

The more you suffer rejection the more you start to die inside.

I read some magazine articles and I joined some workshops and I got the courage to leave [my husband].

Cecila

For a single mother there are challenges to make ends meet in Kibera, Ayoti says simply. She nearly starved. There are also, she insists, real positive energies around. She started sharing childcare with two other single mothers, then expanded to a daycare centre. She now has a school for 350 students, half of whom were street orphans.

My kids are all fabulous, everyone is unique. In other schools they will expel you for disruption, but we really try to help correct them with love because we know most of them have gone through so much. We lose some girls. From nine upwards they go to live as women they are so used to that kind of life that they are not children anymore.

Ayoti has nine children, four of whom are adopted, and in 2013 she sat her high school certificate alongside the son she had aged 15. In 2017 she was elected to the county assembly to represent her ward in Kibera and has already won funding for a new vocational training centre to be built. Our financial struggles need big solutions, she says.

The great challenge in working with the poorest of the poor is that they will not ask for anything.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/aug/07/entrepreneurs-beat-the-odds-in-kenyas-anarchic-mud-city

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