If I hadn’t gone to The GoDown arts centre, I probably would not have gone to Kibera. It just so happened that The GoDown on Dunga Road in Industrial area was featuring a photo exhibition by Greg Constantine entitled ‘Kenya’s Nubians – Then and Now’.
These were pictures of a community dating as far back as 1912 with the contemporary ones by Constantine, a self-trained photojournalist who became interested in the plight of stateless people when he worked as a music producer in the Far East.
The photographs were stunning – of a Kibera that I have lived within a stone’s throw from all my life and which now took on a new identity. They were of a people who have been in Kenya for 140 years and yet we know so little about them.
It was about a Kibera that was once a beautiful estate, forested with clean streams flowing through. The people who were granted this land were the Nubians from Sudan who were part of the regiment of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) formed in 1902 to protect British interests in East Africa and beyond in the First and Second World Wars.
There were pictures of Nubian women dressed in traditional finery from the early 1900s at weddings; of men in spotless kanzus at social gatherings and children playing amidst the mango trees.
Pictures pulled out of the old shoe-boxes which were stored safely in the aged trunks. Even Queen Elizabeth, visited Kibera in 1952 to open a school. The word Kibera is derived from the Nubian language ‘Kibra’ meaning forest.
I walked into Kibera curious to see the ‘then and now’ situation. The now is identified as a slum – the biggest in Africa and possibly the world. There’s a new genre of tourism called ‘slum tourism’ which features quite prominently in South Africa where the townships were once the homes of luminaries like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
I didn’t want anyone showing me around – preferring to be alone and take my time. The general perception of slums anywhere in the world is that they are a ‘no-go’ zones, with the underprivileged, dirty denizens living where crime proliferates.
At one time, Kibera comprised of 4,200 acres stretching from Dagoretti Corner to Wilson Airport but with no title-deed granted to the Nubians, chunks of land were hived off for estates like Jamhuri, Otiende, Langata, Olympic and Toi and the Nubians forced to squeeze into smaller plots.
Immigrant workers from all over Kenya then moved in because of the cheap rents – but with no social services including drainage, sewer or waste management.
A bright pink and orange khanga hung on the line – anything with cheerful colours is always inviting and I stepped off the tarmac road and into Kibera. It was the homestead of Mama Hina who was busy doing laundry.
She was a Nubian – born and bred here just as her parents and grandparents were. She has had no title deed to her house but recently acquired her identity card.
It was easy to identify the Nubian women – at least the older ones – they all wear golden studs in their noses and khangas wrapped around them.
On 17 October 2007, a Nubian delegation from Kibera went to see President Kibaki. Among their requests, was that they are officially recognized as the 43rd tribe of Kenya – a request that was granted.
The request for the 780 acres to be officially set aside for the Nubian community still hangs in the balance. In the meantime, Kibera is the cradle for the underprivileged and the landless – a place that was once a forested haven with a dam where yachters unfurled their sails to catch the wind on Nairobi Dam.
Today, only black veins of noxious water flows through Kibera and sails no longer unfurl in the wind for the dam is full of the water hyacinth, which thrives in contaminated waters. But the spirit of humanity which makes Kibera fascinating to visit still thrives.