The Slums

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So far I have lived and described a charmed life. I have had a Nairobi of double beds (bar that awful hotel), mosquito nets, oysters, jazz festivals and schmoozing with the great and the good.  This is consistently contrasted with the immense, shocking and saddening poverty which abounds on every street.

Outside the plush bar which has become my haunt, where they now know my name and drink, can be found at anytime two different families begging. Outside the shopping centre in Buru Buru can be found a shoal of street children. These are some of the daily encounters with extreme poverty.  It is the sadder because there is so little I can do, despite having come here idiotically, in retrospect, to try do some good.

However, these daily contacts with a life I cannot imagine is no preparation for entry into a slum. The name Kiberia is relatively familiar to any Guardian reader, it is a terrible sight to behold. Though its sheer size has meant that it has come to dominate the idea of a slum in our minds. There are hundreds in Nairobi of various sizes, buildings and density.

My first Slum was Mathare, where I helped with some medical tests. Unlike Kiberia, this has been ignored and there are considerably fewer organisations working there. The thing which struck me first is the sheer number of people smashed into such a small, close and dark space. There were people in every crevice, every nook and every cranny. Where one person came another and another would follow: at every window a face, and at every door a body.

There was a smell. That cannot be a surprise when what was once a main street has now become a festering rubbish heap, picked at by goats and other scavengers, all beneath the cruel African sun. These scavengers constantly turned over this heap, revealing new layers to decay and stench.

There is also a certain risk and insecurity attached. For reasons which escape me, these slums, which are sadly riddled with organised crime and primed towards petty theft, are considered by my organisation safe enough to visit, whilst Hell’s Gate National Park was not. It is not easy, or advisable, to even momentarily lower one’s guard. This sense of vulnerability is not limited to the slums but instead pervades daily life. It is exhausting

Though the thing which stuck with me most was the number of street children and all of them without fail clutching a bottle of cobbler’s glue. The air was thick with the fumes. Some merely held the bottle beneath their nose, occasionally aggravating the vapours with a stick. Others more advanced in their addiction held it with the teeth directly under their nose at all times, the mucus feeding back into the bottle.

A flask of Konyagi, the spirit of Tanzania and choice of the down and out, costs around the 200 shilling mark, around £1.40, a bottle of glue costs 5 shillings, that is 3 pence. It is little wonder with so little to do, so little support and so few prospects that such a cheap means of forgetting and momentarily gaining euphoria should be so endemic. It was heartbreaking.



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