Photo: andrea trevisani/Shutterstock

Finding One's Place in Kibera

by Abby Higgins Aug 3, 2012
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY FROM THE SLUM OF KIBERA, in a small village in Western Kenya, as everyone else in the village closes their doors for the evening, a group of fishermen are preparing for their evening’s work.

With minimal electricity for miles, the night air is black as soot. As they walk, their arms swing below them, dropping off into the night, their hands obscured even to themselves by the darkness.

At the lake’s edge, men gather into rickety, overloaded fishing boats. Once filled, they push the boats off of the muddy shore, sliding silently into the shallow waters on the periphery of the lake. The path ahead is lit by a small lantern that balances at the front of the boat, casting a small circle of quivering light onto the water ahead.

When the right distance is reached, one man holds the lantern, extending his arm forward along the surface of the lake. Within moments, small, glimmering specks begin to flicker just below the surface. They grow in number until everything around the lantern is bright silver and the surface of the lake is churning..

As the movement and color peak the fishermen poised at the side of the boat spring to action. Their net plunges into the chaos of the water below, and they all hold their breath, praying that the yield will be enough to make the evening worth it.

They are fishing omena, silvery fish the size of paper clips that are a staple food of Luos, an ethnic group that predominates in the area. The Luos have survived off of the bounty of Lake Victoria for hundreds of years, fishing and drinking from the lake and farming the fertile land that surrounds it.

But in recent years, living off the lake has become less and less sustainable. Global warming, invasive species, dams and severe overfishing have caused the water levels to drop as much as six feet since 2003 and killed off a significant portion of the fish. There are an estimated 30 million people who rely on Lake Victoria for survival, and every year this population struggles more and more to make life viable.

Like so many of the residents of this region, John decided almost twenty years ago that life there was too difficult to make ends meet. He quit his job as a fisherman and he and his young wife Mary packed up two small bags of clothing and a narrow coffee table with charcoal smudges in the middle and headed to the city, following the rickety trucks packed full of the omena he used to fish.

John and Mary reunited with many of their family and friends from the village in Kibera, the Nairobi slum that had become their new home.

This trend has occurred across the country. The effects of modernization and global warming have made an agrarian lifestyle more and more difficult everywhere in Kenya, and every day more people like John decide to pack up their things and move to the city. When they move, they almost always end up in informal settlements like Kibera, the only places in the city where they can afford the rent: prices in Nairobi are astronomically higher than in rural areas.

John’s face becomes animated when he tells me about his home, making it suddenly clear where his daughter Martha, who is a student of mine at the Kibera School for Girls, gets the trait. He tells me about the expansive shores of Lake Victoria and his old job as a fisherman. He tells me about the pineapple farm he’d like to open and how well pineapples grow in the warm climate of his town, Homa Bay.

He voices the same feelings that I hear over and over again: life is good at home, but it’s impossible to make money.

When I asked him if he wanted to return he said enthusiastically “Of course! That is my home, and I always hope that someday I’ll be able to return. But for now, I don’t see how we could survive there.”

The Poster Child for an Overstretched Urban Planet

Despite its size and entrenchment, Kibera is a relatively young settlement.

In his project Nowhere People photographer Greg Constantine documented the history and struggle of the original inhabitants of Kibera, the Nubians, and the transformation of Kibera into the sprawling settlement that it is today.

Kibera is the tale told to describe what occurs when globalization and poverty collide to produce devastating results.

His modern photos of Kibera’s cramped alleyways and mish-mash structures that lean into and grow out of each other are juxtaposed against old family photos Kibera’s Nubians. Some of these are less than fifty years old and depict smiling schoolgirls walking through grassy, sloping fields. Others feature small, square houses with shingled roofs, tucked among banana trees in a sweeping green valley. Broad-shouldered women in intricately patterned dresses, scarves and nose rings are photographed in their banana and maize plantations. The name of the Kibera neighborhood where each is photographed is written in small print at the bottom of the photo: Makina, Karanja, Laini Saba.

The Nubians are originally from the borders of the Nile River in Sudan and Egypt. During World War I and II, many Nubians fought for the British Army throughout Africa to expand the land mass of the British crown.

As thanks for their service, the British Government gave the Nubian soldiers and their families a large parcel of lush, green forest outside of Nairobi, the colonial capital. It was fertile and beautiful, and the Nubian soldiers settled in with their families to live on and farm the land. In the early 1900s the area had a population of about 3,000 people. Nubians called their settlement ‘forest,’ or Kibra, in Nubian.

In 1964, Kenya achieved independence from British colonial rule. During decolonization the Nubians were given no legal status by the new Kenyan government and no legal ownership of the land they lived upon. Suddenly they were squatters, their land up for grabs to anyone who decided to move in.

Nairobi began to grow at an astonishing rate. As the city limits swelled and sprawled, the Nubian settlement was quickly encroached upon and then overtaken. Thousands of Kenyans began to settle on the Nubian land, desperate for more room and inexpensive housing. This trend continues today as Nairobi’s population climbs towards 4 million people: a far cry from the 350,000 occupants of 1964.

Martha and her family are among thousands, maybe even millions, of Nairobi’s residents who live in overpopulated, overcrowded informal settlements that have sprung up from nothing as the city has expanded rapidly and unsustainably.

These are sprawling, ramshackle, ever-growing settlements born from muddy valleys and fields, filled with structures built from materials that have been cast off by the rest of the city. They are the cheapest places to live, and for many of Nairobi’s lower-class residents the only affordable option.

There are no government-provided services in these settlements, because as far as the government is concerned, they don’t exist. Kibera’s many residents are all considered squatters, living with the constant possibility that their homes could be bulldozed by government tractors.

It is estimated that anywhere from 170,000 to over one million people live in Kibera: an area about the size of Central Park. In recent years, the slum has been the subject of a spate of newspaper articles, pop culture references, celebrity visits and non-profit endeavors that have launched it into the global consciousness.

It has been researched, written about, and filmed, and its inhabitants have been interviewed, experimented upon and enrolled in program after program designed to alleviate poverty.

Kibera has become an entity, a word used to describe a modern urban phenomenon. It is the tale told to describe what occurs when globalization and poverty collide to produce devastating results.

Kibera has become an entity, a word used to describe a modern urban phenomenon. It is the tale told to describe what occurs when globalization and poverty collide to produce devastating results.

Journalists and writers and aid workers watch it with fascination, trying to glean some understanding of how global cities will look and aid will work in the future. After all, an estimated one in six people in the world currently live in urban slums, a number that is expected to grow incrementally in coming decades.

Kibera has become a place through which the world is grappling to understand this new global reality. For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural areas.

The subsequent effects of this massive shift—pollution, overpopulation, massive amounts of waste—are the biggest problems facing the 21st century. For many Westerners, the tangible results of these problems remain far-off. For slum dwellers, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, garbage and waste are every-day realities.

Slums are the immediate products of our over-stretched planet and Kibera has become their poster child.

Take Me To Nairobi

Like most people, I’ll never forget the first time I set foot in Kibera.

I was in Kenya on a graduate research fellowship, conducting a year-long study on women’s rights and modes of informal economic empowerment. I had spent several months researching in rural areas and was struck by how many ties everyone had to the capital city. Friends and family already lived there and neighbors were preparing to leave.

Like most people, I’ll never forget the first time I set foot in Kibera.

People I interviewed, talked to, and spent time with all asked me with the same reverent tone used when speaking about The United States, to ‘take them to Nairobi.’

When rural-dwellers move to the city, almost all of them settle in Kibera and other slums. I was struck by the fact that every day, Nairobi’s slums grew bigger and their existence and subsequent problems more deeply entrenched. Increasingly, urban slums were the face of poverty in Kenya, and it seemed silly that I was travelling hours outside of the city to study economic empowerment.

Fascinated by the concept of rural-urban migration and the cultural transformation it was creating in Kenyan society, I transferred most of my research to Kibera.

I remember walking down the path that provided one of the many entrances to Kibera and wind churning the dirt up, turning the air around me and my research assistant into a brownish haze.

I remember how when we turned the corner and entered the slum, music filled the air, soaring out of the speakers of a record store on the corner: a steady and rolling beat permeating everything. It was the same simple, clean, lively music that always plays in Kibera, the kind that seems as if it’s always just beginning.

Kibera stretched out in front of me, massive, almost as far as the eye could see. It was an undulating valley of rusting corrugated iron, incomparable to anything I had ever seen before. It was a man-made monstrosity, the magnitude of which had been difficult to comprehend until I saw it in person. From above it looked peaceful, quiet, and uninhabited. After two years, my breath still catches just slightly in my throat when I turn that corner.

Once we leapt over the dribbling, brown stream and across the railroad track, everything came alive.

Kids careened down the rocky, dirt streets at full speed, giggling and weaving in and out of legs, food stalls, chickens and mangy dogs. Little girls sported tulle-embellished party dresses that dragged through the mud behind them, ghosts of American Easters past. Two young boys placed water bottle caps facing upward in the thick, mucky streams that hugged the sides of the road. They then chased them down the turns of the road until they came to a stop, colliding with a pile of soggy debris.

Periodically, I heard a whistle or a shout only moments before I had to dive to the side as a cart barreled down the road, a sweaty and wild-eyed man guiding it just enough to keep it moving downhill, deeper and deeper into the valley that Kibera was built upon.

Ten or eleven women sat on the stoop of a hair salon with combs clenched between teeth and fistfuls of fake hair streaming from the gaps between their fingers. Their hands moved rapidly and they laughed as they spent the day doing long braids and complicated weaves in each other’s hair.

I remember being struck by the businesses. It hadn’t occurred to me that Kibera would be a thriving economic hub. There wasn’t a square of street front property unoccupied by activity. Health clinics, pharmacies, butcheries, restaurants, tailors, cobblers, grocery stores, DVD shops, and cell phone stores lined the streets.

The music rolled on behind us. It wrapped what seemed to be chaos into a streamlined, highly functioning machine.

That order was the thing I first noted about Kibera: what appears to be chaos to an outsider is anything but. Everything is part of a delicate system, defined and refined over generations. The streets, the politics, the businesses, the rents, the economy, the toilets and the water supply are all part of a carefully planned and complicated social structure.

There is little that is informal about this settlement.

Attempting to solve the puzzle of foreign aid

I began to spend more and more of my time in Kibera. At some point, I heard about an organization that had been co-founded by a young American woman and a Kenyan man called Shining Hope for Communities. It offered a free school for girls in Kibera as well as a health clinic, a water tower and community center.

Many people become disenchanted with foreign aid once they experience it up close, often at a first job or a volunteer experience in Africa. I became cynical long before through the books and lectures about African politics and foreign aid I immersed myself in in college.

It was the billions of dollars pumped into the continent’s problems and the too-often abysmal results; the way the problems and solutions were always identified by the people who had the most and knew the least; the way that money seemed to leak out of intended projects and into politician’s pockets; the bloated UN salaries and the lavish lifestyles that many aid workers enjoyed: housekeepers, sushi dinners, trips to Italy and oversized luxury apartments. All of it made my stomach turn.

While part of me wanted to stay away, another part of me became fascinated. Foreign aid was like a puzzle I wanted to solve, a problem I couldn’t abandon until I had all the answers.

Foreign aid was like a puzzle I wanted to solve, a problem I couldn’t abandon until I had all the answers.

Shining Hope struck me as different. Their founder was from the community they were working in, they hired almost entirely locally, and worked for women’s empowerment without neglecting the role that men could play in that work. They operated on an American-Kenyan partnership that for once seemed like a real partnership. Their model didn’t include a nod to local leadership: it actually was local leadership. As cynical as I was about development, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that they were onto something. It wasn’t an answer, but maybe I had stumbled on the beginnings of one.

A year later, I had a job with Shining Hope.

“Sometimes at night, black cats come out.”

On my second day of work, everyone was ushered out of the meeting room, faces drawn and concerned. We stood on the cramped balcony of the building where we worked in the middle of Kibera, looking out over that ever-present corrugated iron.

“What’s going on?” an intern asked. Her question was answered with momentary eye contact, an opened mouth, and then nothing.

“A woman just brought a five-year-old into the clinic who was raped on her way to school earlier this week,” someone else responded under her breath.

“Jesus, what pleasure is there in raping a five year old?” my boss said, her face drawn.

“Rape isn’t about pleasure, it’s about power,” I answered, mustering the firm tone of a seasoned veteran, trying to ignore the fact that it felt like my insides had shriveled up.

“Yeah but what power is there in raping a five year old? Anyone could dominate a five-year-old,” said my coworker as we all gathered together.

The office had been cleared so that the headmistress of the school could interview the girl. Maybe she’d be smart, maybe she’d qualify for admission.

“Yeah but what power is there in raping a five year old? Anyone could dominate a five-year-old.”

She walked silently by, in a perfectly straight line, staring ahead and taking nothing in around her. Her school uniform hung loosely around her calves, a powder blue triangle several sizes too big. She turned the corner into the now cleared room and the headmistress closed the door behind them.


One afternoon as I walked past the school entrance, the sound of the girls in the after school program floated down the hallway. The collective cadence of a couple dozen young girls reciting poetry together blurs the pronunciation but punctuates the message, and I stopped to watch. Martha stood at the front of the group.

The way Martha speaks captivates me. Her mouth is slightly open, with her eyes cast skyward. Her hands are placed below her chin, as if she were praying. Instead of holding her fingers together, though, she splays them far apart. It reminds me of what a yoga teacher once told me: when you die, your fingers curl inward. So when you open your fingers as wide as you can it is the opposite of death, it is as alive as you can be.

“Life in Kibera is good,” Martha has told me. “People are friendly, you can buy everything you need here, and things are affordable: you can get vegetables for less than ten shillings and an entire jerry can of water is two shillings.”

Since I met her, I’ve been impressed by how articulate Martha is, not least of all because English is the third language she’s acquired by age seven.

“Do you ever feel unsafe in Kibera?” I asked her.

“Yes, at night,” she said, nodding.

“Why?” I asked,

“Sometimes, at night, black cats come out.”

Martha’s maturity makes it clear that her parents have included her in adult conversations from a young age—conversations about money, about basic needs, about her family’s living situation and why they chose to live in a place like Kibera.

Of course, even if they had wanted to, they couldn’t exclude Martha from these conversations. Like most people in Kibera, Martha lives in a small, one-room house. Her mother, father, two sisters, a teenage brother, and an uncle who just moved to Nairobi from their village all live there with her.

Kids in Kibera grow up faster than most kids, and too often, this is a result of traumas at an early age that no child should have to experience. But Martha, and I assumed many others like her, seemed to have gained maturity not through trauma but through the high expectations and support of adults around her.

“You can get a little bit to survive.”

After twenty years of living in Kibera, John still doesn’t have a steady job. Like the majority of men here, he is a casual laborer. He performs what is called jua kali, manual labor that consists of constructing expensive new apartments, repairing roads, digging trenches, working in factories or working with cars and machines in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.

The jobs are many, but so are the applicants, and the work and the pay are unreliable. In a fruitful week, John may get work for four or five days. Another time he could wait for over a week without receiving a day of work.

Nairobi has a thriving informal sector, which means a lot of low-income work is unregulated. This type of labor pays very little, and there are no repercussions for employees who underpay or refuse to pay their employees.

“Sometimes, they will delay payment, saying that they’ll get it to you another day, and then another day, sometimes that payment never comes,” he tells me.

The work is strenuous, and many Kibera residents will walk two or three hours each way to reach construction sites. Once there, they are unprotected by any kind of labor laws or safety regulations. When injuries occur, compensation is almost never considered.

“Sometimes, they will delay payment, saying that they’ll get it to you another day, and then another day, sometimes that payment never comes,” he tells me.

John recently took out a loan from one of his employers to pay for his son’s school fees. Three days a week he now works for free, paying back the money from the loan he took. The other days he looks for small amounts of money to provide for the rest of the family.

At the end of a long day of hard labor, John leaves the worksite on the other side of the city. Sometimes he takes a matatu, Kenyan public transportation, but usually he walks to save the money.

He’ll reach Kibera after dark, when crowds of thousands like him are streaming back in from the wealthier streets of the surrounding neighborhoods. The small streets and alleyways swell with people, everyone heading home

The business that came slow during the day now runs thick, everyone needing cheap grains and a few vegetables to feed their family after the long day. The women peddle large piles of softening, browning vegetables and fry vats of whole fish in oil on the sides of the streets. With little electricity, everything is lit by lamps and candles. This creates rows of tiny, dancing flames that wind their way down the bumpy, dusty streets. The vendors’ silhouettes are eerily lit by the lamplight, the wrinkles and folds of their faces highlighted as they talk to friends and call out to customers. People are laughing and talking and hurrying home and drunks are weaving down the street shouting obscenities at whoever catches their fickle attention.

When John gets home, the kids are already home from school, working on their homework.

As there often isn’t money for much food, Mary frequently cooks uji, a brown, porridge-like food made from millet flour. Martha and her sisters will help serve, pouring the brownish liquid into plastic mugs for everyone. Mary, John, the kids and John’s younger brother, will all gather around a charcoal smudged coffee table sipping the porridge and debriefing their days.


“Life in rural areas is easy, vegetables you get from the field, water you get from the river,” Mary explained to me, “but money, money is the problem… its hard to make money in rural areas, people don’t need to buy vegetables because they have their own farms. In Kibera they have to buy vegetables, you have to buy everything, so there is business here,” Mary said, explaining to me why she didn’t ever think about moving back to their rural village from Kibera.

She talks to me in Swahili because she doesn’t speak any English. John speaks a small amount and Martha’s siblings have mixed levels, but mostly pretty basic. The language they are actually the most comfortable speaking is Luo, the language in which both business and social life is often conducted in Kibera.

We sat in Mary’s home, clustered around the small wooden table with the charcoal-smudged hole in the middle. Mary and I sat on hard wooden benches, and the children sat clustered together on the floor, peeking out from behind a sheet used to divide the room in half and giggling when I made eye contact with them. Behind the sheet, in the other half of the room, there was a small coal burner, pots stacked neatly on the floor, and some straw mats on the ground in the corner.

The one room houses in Kibera are almost always set up with a partition in the middle made of a bed sheet or an old curtain that divides the home. One side is for cooking and sleeping, usually with a small coal burner and a bed or sleeping mats on either side of the room. The other half serves as a sitting room where guests are entertained and tea is served. Benches or sofas are usually placed up against the walls with some kind of a serving table that everything in centered around.

Class in Kibera is displayed in nuances indiscernible to most outsiders. The one-room houses can be made out of different materials that range from cement to wood to corrugated iron to a mixture of mud and dung packed together. The houses vary in size and quality and the belongings inside vary wildly: from plush couches to benches, wooden bed frames with mattresses to straw mats, empty shelving to radios and televisions. The neighborhoods are more or less desirable and expensive depending on the level of security, the proximity to other parts of the city and other sanitation and basic services concerns.

I remembered Martha telling me that her family slept on straw mats, “but that it was okay,” betraying her awareness of her family’s financial situation. She realized many people would not find it okay. The lack of furniture in their home and several other indicators told me Martha’s family was very poor. Not just poor because they lived in Kibera, but poor in comparison to their neighbors around them.

I was struck, as I always am, at how much more complicated poverty in Kibera is than it is typically made out to be.

But I was struck, as I always am, at how much more complicated poverty in Kibera is than it is typically made out to be. Life in Kibera is hard without question, but for many residents, there are possibilities for employment and entrepreneurship that didn’t exist in the rural areas they moved from.

“At least in Kibera, you can usually get a little bit to survive,” Mary said. “At least in Kibera, there are so many organizations working to help people and improve their lives.”

Mary also pointed out, “We wouldn’t be able to afford to send Martha to school if it wasn’t for the Kibera School for Girls, and now she speaks English better than her siblings, her parents and her neighbors.” Mary is also now employed as a cook at Shining Hope, giving her family additional financial support they really needed.

“In Kibera, there are so many organizations. So many foreigners come here to help us and make our lives better,” she said.

I shifted uncomfortably on the bench, unsure of whether to nod or shake my head. The best NGOs in Kibera help bridge the huge gaps in services left open by the Kenyan government. What they also do is more deeply entrench ideas about foreign saviors, dependence on aid and lack of agency amongst Kibera residents.

The Brooklyn of Nairobi

Walking to work several weeks ago, my eyes were glued to the jagged ground so as not to lose my footing. I looked up just in time to catch the eye of a gangly white man ambling up the path. Hiss shaggy, blonde hair looked as if he was about to shake California sand out of it and he wore dark sunglasses, khaki shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt. We both averted our eyes, pretending we hadn’t see each other.

I witness and experience this often in Kibera, this collision of white foreigners in a place where clearly they don’t belong. It’s a little difficult to say exactly why, but Kibera is a slum with a degree of foreign presence perhaps unlike anywhere in the world.

Kibera is packed full of artwork for empowerment, theater groups, toilet accessibility projects, photography exhibitions, bead making, reproductive health clinics, orphanages, slam poetry competitions, street children rehabilitation centers, community gardens, musical outreach, sanitary pad distribution centers, mapping initiatives and of course, slum tours. These are the summer projects of Americans from liberal arts colleges, the byproducts of religious mission trips, and the community service trips by British high school students and long defunct Dutch school buildings.

Recently, I met someone who wants to start an espresso bar in Kibera as well as a project that would make Kibera wireless. My friend said to me afterwards, “Imagine Kibera three years from now with an espresso bar and wireless: it’s going to be the Brooklyn of Nairobi.”

There are a lot of these projects that are probably helping people. There are also a lot that are probably damaging community structures, creating dependence and fueling corruption, or simply doing nothing.

People who have never been to Africa, who couldn’t identify Kenya on a map, have heard of Kibera. A colleague recently told me that there are over 600 community-based organizations registered by the government in the slum. Professors say that Kibera residents are expert research subjects, always able to calculate exactly what the researcher wants to hear, a skill honed by years of being surveyed and interviewed and studied by Westerners.

Kibera has also had a remarkable degree of foreign press, with movies, music videos, and documentaries liberally using scenes from its streets. Probably the biggest was in 2005 when The Constant Gardener featured Rachel Weisz picking her way through throngs of African children in Kibera.

Bill Bryson wrote about visiting Kibera in Africa Diary that, “whatever is the most awful place you have ever experienced, Kibera is worse.”

What is perhaps more striking than the volume of press about Kibera, however, is the type of press. It is as if writers and filmmakers and aid workers compete to describe the horrors of Kibera in increasingly drastic and shocking ways. Writers and journalists and narrators gleefully provide definitions for ‘flying toilets’ and describe the smell of flowing rivers of sewage, the horrors of children playing in garbage piles, the starving and abused dogs, the kids without shoes and the brutal realities of sexual assault.

Bill Bryson wrote about visiting Kibera in Africa Diary that, “whatever is the most awful place you have ever experienced, Kibera is worse,” without a trace of his typical tongue-in-cheek tone.

Those negative realities aren’t made up: they all exist. It is remarkable, however, the degree to which these stories prevail, time and again floating to the surface in stories that are told about Kibera.

The limits of understanding

I remembered the group of men running up and surrounding us, about five of them, pausing awkwardly when they reached us, unsure of how to proceed. We both stared at each other for a moment, and then they started yelling.

I remembered the glint of the silver, the choked commands that came less from confidence than from fear.

“Get on the ground!” one of them shouted, “I’ll kill you!”

It occurred to me later that they didn’t speak any English and didn’t actually know what they were saying; it was just what they had heard people say in movies. I stood there dumbfounded.

One reached over my head and grabbed the purse I had strapped over my shoulder, then reached down to pull my cell phone out of my pocket. Another guy grabbed my research assistant’s purse.

And then they all turned and ran away, disappearing into the turning, twisting alleyways; obscured by a million structures formed from mud and shit and sticks and aluminum.

I stood there, watching the alleyway where they disappeared, and before I even understood what I had happened, I understood that I knew nothing about this place, and I never would.

“There is air here too, just like everywhere else.”

After my afternoon at Martha’s house with her family, I sat down with my coworker Emily, a lifelong Kibera resident, and we talked about what it was like living in a place that had become so infamous for its horrors.

“You see their face change immediately,” Emily told me of when people find out that she lives in Kibera. Emily said that often she feels the gaze of people in Nairobi, people throughout the world, “looking at you like your life is not worth living.”

As we talked, Emily asked “Why do they talk about people in Kibera like they’re not normal?” she paused, not necessarily waiting for an answer. “Kibera is also a place, there is air here too, just like everywhere else,” she said.

“You see their face change immediately,” Emily told me of when people find out that she lives in Kibera.

Emily is 22, and has lived in Kibera her entire life. She grew up in a typical one-room house, with her father who is a mechanic, her mother who operates a salon, and her four brothers and sisters.

She is dark-skinned and soft-spoken, but when she speaks, she spits fire. She grew up watching many of her friends become teenage mothers and was determined to be different. She worked hard in school and stayed focused, spending her time writing poetry and caring for her younger siblings.

She is now the coordinator for the adolescent girls group at Shining Hope, working to provide reproductive rights education and a positive role model to other girls who are growing up in Kibera.

Emily is candid about the difficulties of life in Kibera; they are the things that inspire her to do the work that she does. She is also, however, quick to talk animatedly about the things she loves about life in Kibera.

“The love that people in Kibera share,” Emily explained, “means that everyone is always concerned about each other… we’re not relatives, we’ve only met in Nairobi, but we treat each other as if we are relatives.”

Emily told me about when she had recently been hospitalized with typhoid, and how her room was always filled with visitors from the community.

“In other places, only your family would have come and visited you, but I had visitors every day, people brought food for me, and stayed with me overnight… In Kibera, you have so many people who care about you and look out for you, because we all share the same experience living here,” she said.

Finding one’s place in an age of rapid change

When I woke up the next morning, I thought about how Martha and her family had probably been awake for hours already, preparing for the day’s work.

Martha would be helping her younger sister get bathed and dressed for school, and Mary would be boiling milk and water with sugar and tea leaves over their small coal burner.

There probably wasn’t money for food, but they would all sit down together as a family and drink tea in the makeshift sitting room. Afterwards, Martha and her mother would walk to school together, while her father headed up the steep path to the rest of the city searching for work that would support his family for another day. When they arrived at school Mary would turn into the kitchen and join the other mothers of girls at the school, while Martha continued on to the second grade classroom in the new school building.

I thought about how around the world, people are navigating an increasingly confusing age. Things are changing at an incomprehensible rate, and many people to question where they belong or what function they serve in society. In the midst of all of this, Martha and her family had found a place for themselves.

Somehow they had all found a place where they belonged, had become part of a community. It was, I believed, an achievement that many people with much greater resources and means will never attain. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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