Condemned to live in the slums

Saturday November 23 2013

Ms Grace Adhiambo with her Children outside their house in Kibera slums, yesterday. Ms Adhiambo’s grandparents and parents have lived in Kibera since 1978. PHOTO/EVANS HABIL

Ms Grace Adhiambo with her Children outside their house in Kibera slums, yesterday. Ms Adhiambo’s grandparents and parents have lived in Kibera since 1978. PHOTO/EVANS HABIL 

By Vincent Achuka

Inside his dimly lit house in the sprawling Makina area of Kibera slum, Lihanda Savai keenly searches for quotes from an old Daily Nation article to use as reference for a manuscript he is working on.

Several blue strokes indicate the ones he considers for use in his book whose title is Kenya’s Recolonisation. There are many of them.

Unable to afford a computer, Mr Savai uses long hand to piece together his book in an A4 size exercise book. The physical condition of the book tells you the amount of time he has spent writing in it.

In the manuscript, Mr Savai compares the slums to the colonial reserve camps where some Kenyan communities were confined to living in harsh and filthy conditions as the colonialists lived in plush farm land. 

He writes: “Like the natives during the pre-colonial times, slum dwellers in Kenya have been trapped in mini-colonies as the elite together with their English speaking children live the Kenyan independence dream.” 

Mr Savai is no ordinary slum dweller. He is highly educated but has nothing to show for his education except talking about it.

In 1997, he attempted to run for president but failed because he could not afford to collect enough signatures or raise the money candidates were required to deposit with the electoral commission.

Mr Savai, aged 78 years and a holder of four degrees from the University of Athens, is yet to land his first formal job.


But he has not lost hope in his dream to one day leave Kibera for a more decent place.

However, he is waiting to travel to Greece to study on a scholarship provided by the Orthodox Church.

Mr Savai’s life reads like a drama or movie script. He came to Nairobi from Maragoli in Vihiga County for the first time in 1962 after completing Form Six in Uganda.

“The whole of this area was an affordable neighbourhood for a first timer in Nairobi but it was not a slum as we know it today,” he remembers with nostalgia.

“It was very sparsely populated, you could count the houses and there were a lot of bushes,” he says.

In 1966, he left the country for Greece where he obtained degrees in Philosophy, Law, Culture and Comparative Education. He even practised law as an advocate in Greece for two years before returning home in December 1988 to “build the nation”.

He also hoped to uplift his family from poverty.

He went back to Kibera hoping that it would be temporary. It had already transformed into a slum but with his education, he was sure of getting a job soon. That was not to be.

Mr Savai enrolled at the Kenya School of Law to get admitted to the bar but, without enough money to sit exams, he started searching for a job in the various ministries to raise money but got a rude shock. He discovered that he was unemployable.

“After visiting the Ministry of Public Service for a long time and not getting a job, some officers who had seen me on numerous  occasions approached me and informed me that I was never going to get a job with government due to my opposition to the Kanu government,” he recalls.

Since Kenya was a single party state under an authoritarian Kanu government then, his fate was sealed. He has lived in Kibera without a job ever since. He married and got two children.

Mr Savai’s is a story of many people who grow up in the slums and cannot escape the jungle of poverty with or without education until luck strikes in a form of a talent or a good Samaritan or a strong will coupled with ambition to succeed.

According to the United Nations, Kenya is facing an increasing growth of informal settlements in the urban centres. Urbanisation in Kenya grows at the rate of four per cent every year.

By the end of 2009, more than 71 per cent of the city’s population was living in the slums, which occupy less than four per cent of the city’s residential area.

The UN estimates that Kenya’s slums grow at the rate of five per cent per year, the highest in the world, and this is likely to double by 2015 if unchecked.

Ms Beverly Awuor, a social worker who has worked in a number of slums, says the population in the slums will not reduce if the people are not empowered and something done to slow down rural-urban migration.

“Most of the people who come to the slums are from rural areas, thinking that they will get jobs but they don’t realise that the skills they learned in rural areas are not applicable in Nairobi’s job market; so they end up doing casual jobs and marry fellow slum dwellers who cannot uplift them in any way,” she argued.

“And a child born in a slum goes to a poor school, gets poor education and will most likely get a poor paying job and marry a person of the same status and the cycle continues,” she said.

Ms Awuor added that poverty trap that prevents many from extricating themselves. Hence they live there for generations.

Nonetheless, Shaka Boy, a seventeen-year-old, is determined to break the cycle of two generations of his family that have been trapped in the slum.

His ticket is education. The first born in a family of six children recently sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams at Shiners Boys’ High School in Nakuru and hopes to be enrolled in university. 

If he succeeds, Shaka Boy still has a tough test of finding a job in a competitive market. He will have to gain his freedom before thinking of attempting to move his family out of the slums.

His mother, Grace Adhiambo, was born in Gatwikira village, Kibera, in 1978, shortly after his grandmother Benita Atieno came to Nairobi from Ugenya together with her husband to work at a Steel Wool Company as casual labourers.

“In 1989, I got sick and my fingers deformed. I was admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital for two years. When I recovered, I had already lost my job because I was a casual employee,” Ms Atieno narrates from her roadside micro business.

In her stock are two trays of eggs that she hopes will fetch some money to buy dinner.

Her husband and two children have since passed on and, at 65 years, age appears to have caught up with her. The last time she visited her rural home in Nyanza was 17 years ago.

“I don’t even have a house there. I used to go there but when my parents died in 1996, I stopped going,” she says.

“If I go there, who is going to construct a house for me?” she asks.

“I don’t even have a phone so I don’t communicate with anyone there. I don’t even think about it because I am the only one remaining in my family and if I die I will be buried at the Lang’ata cemetery and the story ends there.”

Her only remaining child, Grace Adhiambo is Shaka Boy’s mother who only schooled up to class eight and got married when she was 18 years old to a man also born in Kibera-- and worked as a casual labourer. 

Grace says it is not a good idea to live in the same conditions as your parents. She, however, blames her lack of education for her inability to leave the slum and she banks on her son to break the chains.

“It is not a good thing for someone to get married in the same area where they were born and beget children. If I had the means, I would move to another area but I don’t,” she says.

To complement her husband’s meagre earnings, she does laundry work in the neighbouring Lang’ata estate for Sh200 on Wednesdays and Fridays which is not enough to support her six children.

If Shaka qualifies to join university on a government sponsorship like the entire family hopes, he is the family’s candle to light the way for the three generations stuck in Kibera slums.

If he doesn’t, he will fall in the same trap as people like Mr Savai, whose only hope for a better future is to just hope.