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Kibera Examined


Kibera: Nairobi’s Biggest Slum Challenges the Development Narrative
Kibera is home to between 150k to one million people. The population is transient and undocumented so its difficult to fix a figure.

I remember my first visit to Kenya in 1998.  While being driven around Nairobi, I remember I kept seeing some brown looking tin roofs spanning a vast space.  We could drive for 5 minutes and still see this site.  Eventually, I asked my hosts, “What is that over there”  They told that was the slums.  I was amazed at how large it was.  I requested to drive closer to it to have a proper look.  A few days later we took the trip.  We drove down the dirt track which serves as the only way in or out.  I was very sad at what I witnessed. I wished I could do something to help. You never forget Kibera.
Outsiders watch it with fascination, trying to glean some understanding of how global cities will look and aid will work in the future. After all, one in six people in the world now live in slums and that number continues to grow.
Kibera often feels like a testing ground for foreign aid. It is packed full of theater groups, toilet accessibility projects, photography exhibits, bead making, reproductive health clinics, slam poetry competitions, community gardens, and sanitary pad distribution centers. These are the summer projects of Americans from liberal arts colleges, the byproducts of religious mission trips, and the work of long defunct Dutch organizations. There are over 600 registered community-based organizations in Kibera.
I once met someone who wants to start an espresso bar in Kibera and another who is working on a project that would make Kibera wireless. My friend said to me afterwards, “Imagine Kibera three years from now with an espresso bar and wireless: it’s going to be the Brooklyn of Nairobi.”
There are difficulties with life in a slum—lack of water and sanitation, high rates of sexual assault and disease. However there is a community feel in Kibera. Emily used to live and work there to assist the people for 2 years.
“The love that people in Kibera share,” Emily explained, “means that everyone is always concerned about each other… we’re not relatives, we’ve only met in Nairobi, but we treat each other as if we are.”
Emily said she had recently been hospitalized with typhoid. Her room was filled with visitors every day.
“In other places, only your family would have come and visited you, but I had visitors every day. People brought food for me, and stayed with me overnight… In Kibera, you have so many people who care about you and look out for you, because we all share the same experience living here,” she said.


There are approx 2.5 million slum dwellers in about 200 settlements in Nairobi representing 60% of the Nairobi population, occupying just 6% of the land. Kibera houses almost 1 Million of these people. Kibera is the biggest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world.

Land Ownership

Roofs of Kibera
The Government owns all the land. 10% of people are shack owners and many of these people own many other shacks and sub-let them. All the rest are tenants with no rights.


The average size of shack in this area is 12ft x 12ft built with mud walls, screened with concrete, a corrugated tin roof, dirt or concrete floor. The cost is about Ksh 700 per Month (£6). These shacks often house up to 8 or more, many sleeping on the floor.

The population

All the people are African. The original settlers were the Nubian people from the Kenyan/Sudanese border – they now occupy about 15% of Kibera, are mostly Muslim and are also mostly shack owners. The other shack owners are mostly Kikuyu (the majority tribe in Nairobi) – although in most cases they do not live there but are absentee landlords. The majority of the tenants are Luo, Luhya and some Kamba – these people are from the west of Kenya. There are many tensions in Kibera, particularly tribal tensions between the Luo & Kikuyu, but also between landlord and tenant and those with and without jobs.


People walking alongside a train track
Only about 20% of Kibera has electricity. UN-Habitat is in the process of providing it to some parts of Kibera – this will include street lighting, security lighting and connection to shacks (this costs Ksch 900 per shack, which in most cases is not affordable).


Until recently Kibera had no water and it had to be collected from the Nairobi dam. The dam water is not clean and causes typhoid and cholera. Now there are two mains water pipes into Kibera, one from the municipal council and one from the World Bank. Residents collect water at Ksh 3 per 20 litres.


In most of Kibera there are no toilet facilities. One latrine (hole in the ground) is shared by up to 50 shacks. Once full, young boys are employed to empty – they take the contents to the river. UN-Habitat and a few other agencies are trying to help and improve this situation but it is painfully slow.

Medical facilities and HIV/AIDS Clinics

Roofs of Kibera
In Kibera there are no government clinics or hospitals. The providers are the charitable organisations: AMREF, MSF, churches plus some others. They do a great job. All people are encouraged to have a free HIV test and if positive to take free generic ARV medicine.


This is cheap alcoholic brew. It is widely available, very strong (over 50% alcohol) and made incorrectly, so is usually very high in Methanol. The cost is only Ksh10 per glass and after a couple of glasses people become very drunk. With over 50% unemployment in Kibera many start drinking early in the morning leading to problems of violence, crime, rapes etc. Several charities are trying to help by showing the Changaa makers how to make the drink less dangerous.


Rubbish in the river
Cheap drugs and glue sniffing are an increasing problem. Initially taken to alleviate boredom but then people find themselves hooked. A big challenge to the charities!


Due to many men still not using condoms and the availability of Changaa, many girls become pregnant, at any one time about 50% of 16 to 25 yr old girls are pregnant. Most of these pregnancies are unwanted, resulting in many cases of abortion. This can be very dangerous, particularly in such a poor area as Kibera. Many charities are working on this problem.


Kibera is near the industrial area of Nairobi where up to 50% of the available workforce are employed (usually in fairly unskilled jobs). However, there is still an unemployment rate of 50%.
A change is coming
Kibera, is undergoing an intensive  slum upgrading  process. The government, UN-HABITAT and a contingent of NGOs, (Non Governmental Organisations)  notably Maji na Ufanisi, are making inroads into the settlements in an attempt to facelift the housing and sanitary conditions.
There are three significant complicating factors to construction or upgrade within Kibera.

  • The first is the rate of petty and serious crime. Building materials cannot be left unattended for long at any time because there is a very high chance of them being stolen. It is not uncommon for owners of storm-damaged dwellings to have to camp on top of the remnants of their homes until repairs can be made, to protect the raw materials from would-be thieves.
  • The second is the lack of building foundations. The ground in much of Kibera is literally composed of refuse and rubbish. Dwellings are often constructed atop this unstable ground, and therefore many structures collapse whenever the slum experiences flooding, which it does regularly. This means that even well-constructed buildings are often damaged by the collapse of nearby poorly constructed ones.
  • The third complicating factor is the unyielding topography  and cramped sprawl of the area. Few houses have vehicle access, and many are at the bottoms of steep inclines (which heightens the flooding risk). This means that any construction efforts are made more difficult and costly by the fact that all materials must be brought in by hand.


The new apartments being built adjacent to Kibera

On 16 September 2009 the Kenyan government, which claims ownership of the land on which Kibera stands, began a long-term movement scheme which will rehouse the people who live in slums in Nairobi.

The clearance of Kibera is expected to take between two and five years to complete. The entire project is planned to take nine years and will rehouse all the slum residents in the city. The project has the backing of the  United Nations and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is a Former local MP, and is expected to cost $1.2 billion.  The new communities are planned to include schools, markets, playgrounds and other facilities.The first batch of around 1,500 people to leave the slum were taken away by truck on 16 September 2009 from 6:30 am local time and were rehoused in 300 newly constructed apartments with a monthly rent of around $10.

Source: Good Magazine & Kibera.org