10 Letters from Kibera

Letter 8

Doing your business in Kibera

Living in Kibera has its lows and I can tell you for free that not having a household toilet tops them all. In the slum several houses share a toilet (call it a small cubicle squeezed in at the end of a row of houses) with five to ten households sharing this space. You are lucky if this is a “free to use” toilet but most of us have to pay Kshs 5 (3p) per use per person. Now if you are five people in your house and each of you uses the toilet three times in the day, then there will not be any money left for food or any other needs. When you consider that the average wage is less than £1 per day and that the unemployment rate is 50% you can see how hard it is. So we get creative, plastic bags can be very helpful, you do your business in the bag and hide it. When the night comes, you step outside your door and haul the bag as far as you can, more often than not it hopefully will land on someone’s roof. However, the bag may land on some poor fellow walking around the narrow dark slum paths. You will often know when this occurs as there will be cursing and threats out of the darkness. All you care about is that you have saved money.

It is not always about the cash however. Just imagine your stomach is acting up, you have diarrhoea and you need a toilet really badly. There are about 10 people ahead of you in the queue waiting to use this same toilet. What do you do, you run back to the house get hold of a plastic bag and do your business. It is easy for children; we can always make fun of this whole business but pity the father or mother of the house whose stomach is upset when there is a long queue at the communal toilet! They come running shouting “Quick, quick everybody, get out of the house!” We kids know this is an absolute emergency and need to get out of the way fast. Just add to this the additional problems if it is raining as it so often does in the tropics!?

You must be wondering about our houses (I will tell you that story another day) but for now all I can say is, it is a single roomed shack made of corrugated iron and mud. They are 10 x 10 feet, divided by the use of a cloth curtain (a bed sheet does this job well) to create a bedroom, a cooking area and living room. Now you know why everyone has to get out of the house if adults need to use this space as a toilet!

Using a shared toilet needs special skills. These of course are not flushing toilets, they are ‘long drops’ approximately six foot deep. One has to balance well in order not to step on the mess made by the last person and so as to be careful not to fall into the pit. Children are trained and supervised in using the toilet, but generally toilets are not used for children below 10 years.

It is normally agreed that young children can do their business in the open and each one of them knows where to go. Some young children might be cheeky and do their business outside a neighbor’s house though this can cause huge trouble, bitter words, and even a few blows might be exchanged. It is considered a very big insult for an adult to do their business outside your house. It is different when the faeces is in a plastic bag, the culprit cannot be known as the offending bag may have been thrown from any corner of the slum, but that does not mean that insults and curses will not be hauled at the unknown offender.

When you live in Kibera, you learn to walk with your eyes open. If one is not careful you will step on some slimy stuff. I hear women saying they are good at multiple tasking; I challenge you to come to our slum and try walking as you speak on your mobile phone or as you chew gum, soon I will hear you cursing loudly as your foot will have landed squarely on some plastic bag especially when the full content of the bag splashes on your shoes and dress. It will simply ruin your day!

People in Kibera can be very kind. If there is an older person, a person living with disability or a person who suffers ill health; they will often let them use the toilet for free; they will even allow them to queue jump and use the toilet before those who are already waiting. If your family is wise and can afford it, they will invest in a bucket with a lid and everyone in the family can use this bucket and old newspapers are used for covering the stuff so that the next user does not see what was left in the bucket. You only empty this bucket once per day and only pay once for using the toilet, clever, isn’t it? You spend just Ksh 5 (3p) instead of Ksh 60 (36p) per day! That may not seem much to you but it often is the difference between feeding the family that day, or going hungry. Those are what we call survival strategies!