Kibera: It’s rich city folks who need slums most

Wednesday July 8 2009

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

The other week, a reporter from the Nation’s sister paper in Uganda, Daily Monitor, visited Nairobi and was given an initiation visit to the Kibera slums, Africa’s largest.

Like many foreigners, and indeed Kenyans, he was appalled by what he saw, and you could feel his horror dripping off the page on which his article was published.

Occasionally, you meet the romantic who is in love with the ‘‘creative drive’’ of the slums surrounding Nairobi.

And, from time to time, the cynic and hardened urbanite who thinks it is patronising to feel pity for Kibera citizens.

I too used to get all mooshy woosh about slums, until a University of Nairobi professor cured me of the fuzzy-headedness at a conference in Nairobi last year.

The conference had reached the point where everyone was warning about the crisis that East Africa’s cities, particularly Nairobi, will face from the explosion of the slums.

The violence witnessed in the slums during the post-election violence was the warning, the arguments went.

The university don got up and said the slums were a ‘‘necessary evil’’, and a very important ‘‘transitional phenomenon’’ and ‘‘conveyor belt’’ that feed a city the population it needs to survive.

I had never heard that stuff about slums being an important transitional phenomenon and conveyor belt. I was quietly impressed.

The room jumped on the poor professor, with quite stout arguments about how a slum and its brutal life can never be the first choice for the people who live there, and he was defeated. Or at least, he was hopelessly out-voiced.

Since then, I have looked at some subversive literature on slums, and I think the professor was on to something.

If we didn’t have slums, then people from the countryside would never move to the city.

Many good people frown upon this migration to the cities from the countryside, but it is misplaced.

Everyone deserves the comfort — or at least the greater opportunities — that cities offer.

If you are a teacher in a poor village school and decide to move and take your chances in Nairobi and are lucky to get a job, you might be a watchman earning Sh5,000 a month.

Without a shack in the slum that such people rent for Sh500 a month, they wouldn’t survive in the city.

Not everyone who lives in a slum ends up there. Some eventually move to the slightly better working class areas, and then to the suburbs.

They might join the police, army, or improve themselves slowly. But eventually, several make it.

Some of them get to be MPs and ministers, and one day one of these people who started out in a slum could become president.

Some of the women (a friend swears that Nairobi’s most beautiful are to be found in the slums) usually get married to powerful men, or get by as pampered mistresses.

However, if you look thoughtfully at the slums from the leafy suburbs and central business district, the story begins to change.

There are slums because cities in poor Third World countries can’t survive without them.

Take the watchman who is paid Sh5,000. At that low wage, the middle class can afford to hire a watchman for day and another for night.

If there were no slums, and the cheapest accommodation a watchman could find was Sh5,000 a month, and all his other expenses were up accordingly, then the lowest a watchman or househelp (housegirl, to use the politically incorrect word) would be paid is Sh50,000.

At that wage, the middle class wouldn’t afford watchmen, househelps and nannies for their children.

Slums, therefore, are vehicles through which the urban poor subsidise its middle class.

For that reason, it’s the height of hypocrisy when the middle class moralise about how terrible things are in the slums.

In Kenya’s case, slums — all their risks notwithstanding — are actually a stabilising force.

The pressures created by the great land dispossession in Kenya by the colonialists, which continued after independence, were partly soaked up by Nairobi’s slums.

Nairobi is unique in that it’s the one African city that is ringed on all sides by slums and shanty cities — Kibera, Mathare, Kawangware, Mukuru, Kibagare, Kangemi, and Dandora.

Without them, perhaps there would have been a second Mau Mau uprising.

One could argue that the slums also explain why Nairobi is the biggest city in East Africa and has the region’s largest and richest middle class — because it also has the largest number of slums and slum population to subsidise it.

cobbo@nation.co.ke