Three hours in Africa’s largest slum

(Ben Sales)

(Ben Sales)

When fashioning their flying toilets, residents of the Nairobi neighborhood of Kibera prefer to use thick plastic bags. But to save money, area resident Wellington Nabwoba said, they’ll settle for a black garbage bag with a drawstring.

Kibera neighborhood lacks indoor plumbing and when night falls, gangs roam the area, making it unsafe to use the outhouses. With no other choice, Nabwoba said, Kiberans relieve themselves in plastic bags then throw them out the window the next morning: Flying toilets.

“We don’t have any protection here,” said Nabwoba, who runs a free school in Kibera. “Here the police can’t come. We have more criminals than they can handle.”

To walk through Kibera is to enter a world of almost surreal poverty. Reputedly Africa’s largest slum, it’s home to an estimated one million people, all of whom live in shanties whose corrugated roofs form a sea of metal sheets.


Basic municipal services many of us take for granted are nowhere to be found here: No roads, no electricity, no sidewalks, no signs. The only running water flows through a dirt gutter that snakes through almost every passageway before emptying into a ravine filled with trash, sewage and children playing.

Until I visited Kibera, I had only a sheltered foreigner’s view of Nairobi. On assignment to cover Israeli commercial and humanitarian efforts in Kenya, I stayed at a hotel for businessmen and traversed the city in taxis. Interviews took place at shiny malls, corporate compounds or at the lavish gated estates of rich businessmen whose security precautions would make Israelis blush.

The only security in Kibera, according to Nabwoba, comes from so-called “vigilant groups” armed with knives, machetes and the occasional gun. Each gang controls a district of the slum and reports to an “elder”who settles disputes and extracts tribute from the residents. If the residents can’t pay, the gangs are liable to steal their property.

On Tuesday, a group of elders sat chatting in a shanty next to a cooler filled with soft drinks. Stop by next time you visit, they said. Just don’t take our photo.

Outside the shanty is a wide dirt road lined with produce stands and small shops colored in bright graffiti advertising bread, a haircut or salvation from Jesus. Men pushing wheelbarrows or driving cheap motorbikes mix with unsupervised children whose parents can’t afford the roughly $1,200 annual fee for public school. A woman nurses her baby while selling fruit. On the side of the road, a man wielding an ax chops wood for kindling.

A few yards down, the road passes under a new highway. Goats and dogs climb up the side of the paved overpass intended to ease the unending traffic jam that is Nairobi.

In one shanty, bedsheets separate three tiny rooms that house six people — a relatively comfortable setup here. The owner is Vitalis Otieno, a pastor at a neighborhood church who lost his wife in childbirth more than a year ago. He has cared for his newborn twins with the help of a niece and with donations of formula from a wealthier Nairobian who supports humanitarian work in Kibera.

Smiling, Otieno says his own struggles help him empower his 60 congregants.

“If I say, ‘I’m never going to be a mother, so I can’t nurture these boys,’ who will do it?” he said. “I use my personal example.”

The new highway runs next to Otieno’s home. Leaving his shanty, we drove down the highway back toward the city center. Half an hour later, I was sitting in a cafe at an upscale mall, four miles and a world away from Kibera.

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.