10 Letters from Kibera

Letter 4

Housing in Kibera & the ghettos of Nairobi

But unfortunately my father had not gone to school and it was impossible for him to find a good job.

Now that you have come to know me quite well (through my past letters) I will welcome you to our home. I informed you earlier that I live in Kibera which is Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. I forgot to mention that I have lived here since birth. My father gives us tales of how he left the Northern part of Kenya to escape poverty and settled in the city. Hmm, he had so looked forward to finding a nice job, finding himself a nice house and settling his family. But unfortunately my father had not gone to school and it was impossible for him to find a good job. So he moved to Kibera and was helped by people from his village (who had come to the city before him) to find a job as a night guard. He married my mother and had five children. Sorry I was taking you on a tour of our house.

We are now at the door; as we go in, please mind your head, as the door is low, if you are not careful the beam will hurt you. Now that you are standing inside our house, it is okay to lift up your head. The room you see in front of you is our whole house. I hear people say it is 10 x 10 feet! Welcome anyway, you may take the seat. This is our living space. The sofa you are sitting on is also where my two sisters and I sleep at night but by the day, it is our living room. Remove your shoes and cool your feet on our PVC carpet, we are among the lucky households that have a nice carpet. Our floor is earth, it is cheaper to rent a house without a real floor and improvise to make yourself comfortable. It may seem dark in here as there is no window, we share walls with our neighbors so there is no place for a window; the wall facing the street has the door, we could leave it open but then every Tom, Dick and Harry passing by would poke their noses (and heads) into our business. At night we light a homemade kerosene lamp, which we hang on the wall, it is not enough light for reading but at least we are able to see each other faces!

I promised you a tour but since you can see the whole house from where you are sitting, you do not need to rise up. On your left, the corner that you see is our kitchen, we use a charcoal burner, we take it out to light on the street, (we don’t like smoke in our house) and we bring the stove back into the house when it is well lit. That corner of the house is a no go zone for young children, many children in our slum have fallen into the evening meal or boiling water! It is a real disaster, if the burns are just slight, a volunteer community health worker will be called to bandage the wounds, they will charge 50 Kenya Shillings but if the burns are severe, then the child will be taken to a nearby health clinic mostly run by an NGO for treatment. If the Mother has to stay home and watch this child, then the family income is so reduced, they cannot have two meals in a day. But there are far more serious accidents; in some homes, especially where children are in charge, they forget to put off the charcoal burner before going to sleep at night, some have been killed by Carbon Monoxide fumes and in some cases there have been house fires that wiped out whole families and their neighbours.

When the food is cooked, we pour it all out into a large tray and we sit on the floor where you have now placed your feet and enjoy our meal. It our culture, everybody eats together from the same plate or tray. This dining space is also the sleeping area for my two brothers; and also the bathing area for the whole family. My brothers place their mattress on the floor at night and remove it during the day. This is our fun space too; we sit and listen to our battery powered radio after our mid day meal and if our parents are not home, we even practice our dance moves. The curtain sheet you see in front to you separates the space where our parents sleep with the rest of the house. This is our parents’ space but we all store our clothes here, we have a rope running from one side of the wall to the opposite wall, we hang the clothes on it. Dirty clothes are hung on one side and clean ones on the other side.

Do not glance under our parents’ bed that is where everything else is stored; our school bags, shoes, washing basins and our water in jerrycans. We take turns bringing the water home from a ½ a mile away. You need to be up at 5:30 am if it is your turn, crawl out quietly, making sure you do not step on anyone on your way out; hurry to the water kiosk and queue with others. We use a 20 litre container which we balance on our heads and hurry home in time for breakfast. I am almost done with the tour; I need to quickly end this, before you ask to use our bathroom. That question is always met with silence, and then we glance at each other. Our parents space is our bathroom; We will give you the plastic bag that we sometimes use, or the bucket that we all relieve ourselves in and empty once a day and point for you to move behind the curtain and do your thing, because you are a guest and we do not want to embarrass you, we will wait outside!