[Marxism] (Fwd) The Economist goes slumming in Nairobi

Patrick Bond pbond at mail.ngo.za
Wed Dec 26 01:10:05 MST 2012

(Dickensian Kibera is the subject of this beautifully written and 
rigorously researched study of microcapitalism in last week's Economist 
magazine. One day last month, I wandered through Kibera and a nearby 
slum, and with three exceptions, don't have anything to object to in 
terms of how the correspondent reports about the commodification of 
everything under the Kenyan sun. I was lucky to hang out with people 
like Wahu Kaara - undoubtedly one of Africa's greatest revolutionaries - 
so, unlike The Economist's hack, I learned that these characteristics of 
truncated social reproduction were challenges to organise against, not 
celebrate. Kibera demonstrates a great many aspects of venal dog-eat-dog 
life, so any strong civic group - and there are a few - has many 
examples to tackle, starting with sanitation. It's an income-generating 
system there, setting you back about US$0.10 to pay to pee or poo, with 
NGOs getting in on the business because entrepreneurs also typically 
fail to offer acceptable services. So the first exception I take to this 
article is that it fails to acknowledge that on occasion, when the 
municipality does try to set up public toilets, local for-profit water 
cartels prevent the public good from emerging because they make good 
money out of selling a privatised service. Physically wrecking the 
infrastructure so as to make more cash is possible because of inadequate 
state policing and insufficient power in the civic groups. The second 
exception is the writer's lack of concern for socio-ecological 
processes, including the dumping of trash and the overflow of toilets 
into the local water courses which serve as extreme disease vectors, 
especially during rains. Addressing the need for such public goods would 
be logical if Kenya's elites scaled up their vision and local employers 
insisted on decent living conditions for their employees - but in 
neoliberal, state-shrunk Africa, mainly positioned within world 
capitalism as a source of resource looting, don't expect that degree of 
municipal planning. To be fair, there was a hint of that process at the 
main entrance to Kibera where a gentrification initiative is underway 
driven by UN Habitat - whose int'l hq is nearby - and the Kenyan state. 
They are replacing shacks with 10-story housing units, which is already 
changing the economic dynamics of the area because renting space will be 
unaffordable to most. Still, it's clear no one with political power to 
intervene - even the president, whose MP constituency includes Kibera - 
has the gumption to challenge the for-profit entrepreneurs running 
rampant in the slum. Even in one of the very richest cities in Africa, 
from where I write in Durban, slum-economics as described below 
characterises life for hundreds of thousands of people. The overarching 
problem in Kenya and most African states is the durability of 
neocolonial power relations which prevent the society from shifting 
these extraordinary survival instincts described below, from their 
private expressions into social resistance. With a near 
universally-corrupt political leadership continuing to fragment the 
citizenry along ethnic and class lines, and with the 'international 
community' [imperial powers] satisfied to make Nairobi a branch-plant 
city for multinational corporations, this ultra-cheap reproduction of 
the proletariat will continue, especially because women who remain in 
the countryside continue to serve as a fall-back safety net site, 
helping the children, the ill and the elderly survive when the perils of 
Kibera and other urban slums repel those who are too weak to continue 
there. So the third exception I have is that the rural-urban dynamic is 
seen simplistically by this writer, as a one-way 'bright-lights' 
opportunity, as moths seek out the city's candles - not as a circular 
process in which tribal patriarchy allows migrant labour to sell itself 
especially cheap, thanks to rural women's unpaid caregiving roles. In 
sum, while the Economist writer does fib a bit - "No tolls are charged, 
no protection fees paid. Most of its markets are free of cartels" - the 
real problem with this article is that the reader is left convinced that 
this is all ok, because this is "Upwardly mobile Africa... Backs are 
straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able 
limbs... Everything in the city is an opportunity... The economy is 
booming and incomes are rising in Kibera... Kibera may be the most 
entrepreneurial place on the planet... Kibera is an African version of a 
Chinese boomtown, an advertisement for solid human ambition. Like 
Guangzhou and Xiamen, it acts as a magnet for talent from rural areas, 
attracting the most determined among young farmers... To equate slums 
with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them... all bright shining 
cities start as mud. Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not 
where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow's 
winners... Kibera only looks like a slum from the outside... They are 
not unhappy, at least most of them are not." If some Soviet-era 
publication put out such ridiculous normative arguments about life in 
the USSR's impoverished cities, it would be derided as Stalinist 
propaganda. But you decide.)

*Upwardly mobile Africa**
**Boomtown slum**
A day in the economic life of Africa's biggest shanty-town*

Dec 22nd 2012 | from the print edition

MEN in patched overalls and women in freshly washed blouses walk down a 
narrow lane just after six in the morning. They are packed in tightly 
like spectators leaving a sports stadium, but this is their life, their 
every morning. Backs are straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, 
exposing mottled yet able limbs. They crush discarded wrappers of 
quick-fry breakfasts under foot, corn and oil dripping from mouths. 
Banana skins are ground to dust by thousands of feet.

Everyone is moving in one direction, jostling and shoving, out of a maze 
of low-strung shacks, past shops selling shoes and phones that have 
already been open an hour, out into the high-rise centre of Nairobi, 
where factories and offices pay salaries---everyone, that is, except a 
limp male figure huddled in a corner strafed by the first delicate rays 
of the sun. He seems to wait for the crowd to pass or at least thin 
before he dares to swim upstream. His hair is short and shiny as if 
sanded down rather than cut; his shirt is in pieces. He tells your 
correspondent that he has just arrived from the countryside. This is not 
home, he says. He does not sound convinced it ever will be.

His name is Jonah Kasiri and he is 23 years old. He came to Nairobi on 
an overnight minibus with his worldly possessions---a battered alarm 
clock and an additional pair of cotton trousers---packed into a canvas 
bag that smells of ripe fruit. His village in Kenya's west, as he 
describes it, sounds like many: a verdant clump of trees and animals 
where man eats what he can hunt or gather but has little chance of 

For that one has to come to the city. His cousin went to Nairobi two 
years ago and returned for a visit last week, wearing two mobile phones 
in a leather pouch on the belt of a brand new pair of pleated trousers. 
That made an impression on Mr Kasiri. When his cousin offered to help 
him follow suit, he jumped at the chance.

The crowd eases and we walk into the maze of shacks. Mr Kasiri says he 
must relieve himself but cannot afford to. In the city nothing is free. 
We come to a cement floor divided into seven stalls, each with a hole. 
"Is it clean?" asks the customer in front of us. The proprietor, Teresia 
Ngusye, seated on a stool, handing out tissue paper, says she cleans 
every hour, pointing down the alley to similar looking shacks. "See the 
competition I have." She charges us ten shillings (12 cents), which she 
says will go toward building a second set of toilets. Mr Kasiri nods. 
Everything in the city is an opportunity. He too might one day like to 
run such an establishment. In parting, the newly minted city boy hears a 
warning, "Bowel problems are expensive."

This is Kibera. Often, and probably rightly, described as Africa's 
biggest slum, it is home to perhaps a million people. Nobody knows for 
sure, since Kibera is left to its own devices. Government is absent: it 
offers the residents (regarded as squatters) no services, opens no 
schools, operates no hospitals, paves no roads, connects no power lines 
and pumps no water into homes.

To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them

And yet Kibera, wedged in between ornate embassies and a well-tended 
golf course, is an integral part of Nairobi. Its residents live in a 
dozen villages on a piece of land half a mile wide and two miles long, 
draped like a bath mat on a tub across a slope falling into a man-made 
lake. Once the slope was wooded and each village had only a few houses. 
In the past 30 years they have fused to become one of the world's most 
densely populated places, garnering a measure of first-world notoriety. 
Kibera features in the film "The Constant Gardener", based on the 
eponymous John le Carré novel, as well as in a music video by Sarah 
McLachlan, a Canadian pop singer, representing the epitome of poverty.

Kibera's origins are Western. A century ago British colonial rulers gave 
small plots of land on the edge of Nairobi to Nubian soldiers serving in 
the King's African Rifles. They built mud huts below the road leading to 
the farm of Karen Blixen---made famous in the film "Out of Africa", 
based on the Danish writer's life. The land was later nationalised but 
the Nubians stayed put and rented parts of it to newcomers. Today most 
homes are made of ragged tin and reused timber. Walking in the warren of 
narrow lanes that divide them, some only shoulder-wide and all of them 
devoid of cars, one is reminded of a medieval European city.

At seven in the morning Cecilia Achieng leads the children in her school 
in prayer and song. They chirp like birds; not all have had breakfast. 
When lessons begin at eight, she inspects a well-thumbed ledger that 
records who has paid school fees. We don't expel kids who cannot afford 
class," she insists. They may be asked to rear chickens in the 
schoolyard and sell the eggs.

Ms Achieng has frizzy hair that forms a tall bulb and is partly dyed 
red. She wears large silver earrings with a baby-blue two-piece suit. 
The 36-year-old has given birth to four children, adopted a further two 
and also looks after a niece. With no public schools to send them to, 
she started her own four years ago. Other mothers helped her rent an 
empty church hall and hire teachers. She was soon inundated with 
children. Asking parents to pay 7,500 shillings ($87) in annual fees 
enabled her to move to a bigger hall. Two years later she had saved 
enough money to erect half a dozen primitive classrooms: cement holds in 
place sturdy sheets of corrugated iron known as mabati. Yellow paint 
gives them an uncomplicated cheerfulness.

With her charges settled in, Ms Achieng takes a mid-morning stroll. She 
navigates lanes that look like dry river beds. When it rains, Kibera 
floods. Open sewers are covered with planks worn smooth by water and 
constant trampling. Scavengers rake over debris before it is washed 
downhill. Residents burn the rest, enveloping homes in acrid smoke. 
Laundry on washing lines is covered in soot.

"This street was much wider a few years ago," says Ms Achieng. Vendors 
line both sides, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, soap, sweets, 
cigarettes. They have encroached on what once was a thoroughfare, 
building stalls ever farther into the throng of customers. The economy 
is booming and incomes are rising in Kibera. "What's playing?" Ms 
Achieng asks Tyson Muigai, who rents out a 600W sound system for 
parties, weddings and wakes, charging 5,000 shillings ($58) a day. 
"Happy or sad?"

We pass a shack with a sign saying, "Load music on iPods", and another, 
"We do not write any local material." Ms Achieng explains, "They make 
[counterfeit] copies of Jay-Z or Beyoncé songs, but not of rappers from 
Kibera. We protect our own." Around the corner John Mwangi runs a cinema 
with 70 plastic seats, which he fills six times a day. Ms Achieng 
marvels at the orange clock face on his gold watch. "I tell you, people 
have money," he says.

Kibera is a thriving economic machine. Local residents provide most of 
the goods and services. Tailors are hunched over pedal-powered sewing 
machines. Accountants and lawyers share trestle tables in open-air 
offices. Carpenters carve frames for double beds along a railway line. 
Whole skinned cows hang in spotless butcher shops. "Give me 30 bob," 
says a customer to a paraffin seller, who has just taken delivery of 
several jerry cans from a porter with a steel-frame wheelbarrow. All day 
long, sweaty porters cart supplies along filthy lanes, hissing to shoo 
people out of the way.

Life in Kibera can be harsh. Disease is rife, food is short for some, 
and death can come suddenly. Just after eleven o'clock an explosion 
thunders past the paraffin seller. Lights in the shops along the lane 
expire instantly, then a mob charges past, accompanied by sharp screams 
and a sizzling, dancing power cable that has blasted off a faulty 
transformer overhead. The cable eventually goes limp and the crowd 
disperses. Minutes later the lights come back.

The transformer, like all power in Kibera, is run by shady types who tap 
into the city grid. They are less than scrupulous when it comes to 
safety and they charge heavily. But at least Kibera has power, unlike 
many other parts of Africa. Soft drinks sold in shops are chilled. 
Rooftops are awash with TV aerials and mobile phones are as ubiquitous 
as in the West.

Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet

The key to making it in Kibera is access to capital. A market of one 
million potential customers crowds in on entrepreneurs, but raising the 
money to start a business is hard. Most banks won't lend to them because 
they have no collateral, perhaps not even a fixed address. Those who 
manage to borrow face high interest rates. Moses Mwega pays 25% a year 
and considers himself lucky. Over the years he has built up a cosmetics 
shop selling creams, wigs and shampoos. The bank recently accepted his 
stock, a television set and a second-hand sofa, including lace doilies, 
as collateral. He got 350,000 shillings ($4,000) to expand his business.

But first the 53-year-old had to join a savers club---a cross between a 
support group and a control organ. Late in the morning Mr Mwega sets off 
to attend the group's weekly meeting, wearing black shoes as polished as 
his bare forehead. His skin is smooth and his hands shiny, proud 
testament to his choice of products, he says. He joins a dozen men and 
women in a dank shack to receive instructions on record-keeping. Then 
they inspect each other's books---no secrets. Mr Mwega takes in 15,000 
to 20,000 shillings a week and pays 7,000 shillings to the bank. He will 
be done in 15 months. "Then I will get a proper loan," he says.

After the meeting we have lunch at the Katulani café, a bare room with 
an anaemic roof that lets in daylight and fresh air. Guests sit on 
wooden benches and talk over each other. Most are penniless students who 
call this "the campus". Boniface Ngewa, the owner, serves chapati bread 
and sukuma wiki, a leafy vegetable whose name translates as "push the 
week", which is how long it is said to last. He goes through 100lb of 
flour a day, serving 3,000 customers.

In Kibera everyone eats out, Mr Ngewa says. Home-cooking is a luxury. 
The poor have no capital and cannot buy food in bulk. A single portion 
of charcoal to cook a meal costs at least 20 shillings (23 cents). 
Employing cooks, on the other hand, is cheap (300 shillings a day) and 
café prices are low. Mr Ngewa charges 30 shillings for a meal. An hour 
later when we leave the café, as if to prove his point, the lane outside 
resembles a food court: countless stalls have fired up pots and pans; 
vendors fan grills laden with nyama choma (cooked meat) and throw 
potatoes into roiling fat.

In the afternoon, school is out and Ms Achieng turns to her second 
career. She is in the food business too, but as a caterer. She regularly 
cooks for private functions attended by 500 people, and has served as 
many as 1,600. "Funerals are a good business," she says. Couples getting 
married are too picky. They do not want plastic plates and Ms Achieng 
cannot yet afford to buy her own ceramic ones. "I have bid for a few 
weddings but didn't win the tender."

Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet. Residents 
have no choice but to look after themselves. If they want to escape 
poverty---and have the necessary drive---they will try to strike out on 
their own. Ms Achieng has a third career as a hairdresser. When she has 
a free moment she goes from door-to-door and braids, earning 250 
shillings ($3) in two hours. Regular clients call on her by mobile 
phone. At the annual Miss Kibera beauty pageant she is the lead stylist.

Does Mr Kasiri, the new arrival, have what she has? He finally finds his 
cousin after wandering the dusty lanes for hours. Kibera is bigger and 
denser than he had imagined. Every speck is in use. Residents have 
started building second storeys to expand upwards. In the Nubian 
language, kibera means forest, but there are no trees left.

The country boy stands at an intersection and looks left and right and 
left again. His cousin has arranged for him to meet a man about a job. 
But where is he? Mr Kasiri looks tired. His luxuriant hair is covered 
with flakes of ash from a rubbish fire. At least he no longer waits for 
crowds to thin; he plunges straight in and gropes his way past 
wheelbarrow porters, careful to jump out of the way when their 
sharp-edged carts swivel around. Talking about jobs he would like to do, 
a note of excitement creeps into his voice. "I could repair stoves. I 
saw a man do that," he says. His cousin whistles and shakes his head. 
"Where will you get tools? Who will pay for them?"

Around six in the evening Kibera fills up to bursting point. The tens, 
or perhaps hundreds, of thousands who left in the morning for faraway 
offices and factories are returning. To save money, prim secretaries and 
exhausted labourers walk back rather than take a bus. Their wages are 
meagre and yet in compound several million dollars walk into the slum 
every night.

Kibera is an African version of a Chinese boomtown, an advertisement for 
solid human ambition. Like Guangzhou and Xiamen, it acts as a magnet for 
talent from rural areas, attracting the most determined among young 
farmers. To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand 
them. Two out of three Nairobians live in one, half of them in Kibera. 
Officials occasionally try to evict squatter-residents but many fight 
back, with the help of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, their own lobby group. In 
"Shadow Cities", a book that describes a tour of slums across the globe, 
Robert Neuwirth recalls that New York's Upper East Side was once a 
shantytown and suggests that all bright shining cities start as mud. 
Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers 
end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow's winners.

The pace of commerce on Kibera's streets picks up with the setting sun. 
Jane Nzembi sells cereals to mothers cooking dinner; she holds cobs of 
corn with both hands and twists them in opposite directions to strip off 
the husks. Ruth Chesi refills buckets of charcoal as soon as they are 
empty. Carolina Awuor's electric maize mill---rented for 15,000 
shillings ($175) a month---runs nonstop to make flour for ugali buns.

When the vendors eventually close down around eight o'clock they deliver 
their cash receipts to nearby mobile-phone stores. Kenyan phone 
companies double up as banks; they take deposits and transfer funds. 
After decades of being excluded from banking, slum-dwellers now move 
their money fast and often; they no longer keep it under a mattress.

Mr Mwega, the cosmetics man who took out a loan, closes his store at 
nine, having eaten already at his counter. Through a curtain he slips 
into his windowless living room at the back of his streetside shack. An 
electric Christmas tree is perched on a stereo. He removes his polished 
shoes and rests them on a low table. He is halfway through reading "The 
Last Don" by Mario Puzo but says he prefers the thrillers of James 
Pattinson. He keeps a thick dictionary by his side.

The room is immaculate, as are those of many neighbours. Kibera only 
looks like a slum from the outside. Mr Mwega's wife fetches water from a 
privately run street tap, paying a few shillings to fill a 20-litre 
jerry can, and does the washing up. Mr Mwega says in the wealthy parts 
of Nairobi the residents get municipal water and pay a tenth of what it 
costs here. "But still I'm not moving. My friends and my business are here."

The evening is reserved for leisure, and leisure is good business. 
Barber chairs are never empty more than a few seconds. Ogola Simenon, 
whose salon is five feet high and about as wide, calls this the rush 
hour. Customers keep coming through his diminutive door. "Pray, why not 
in daytime?" He charges about 40 shillings (46 cents) to snip, shear, 
crop and clip. Economists define the African middle class as people 
earning at least $100 a month---that is many of his customers. They have 
a little money left over after paying for food, rent and school fees.

All manner of paid entertainment is available in Kibera. Some residents 
drink changaa, a moonshine made in backyard stills. Blindness is one of 
the lesser side effects. One step up is busaa, a fermented maize drink 
made on site in bars like Mama Sarah's. The bar uses half-litre tin cans 
instead of glasses to serve customers. Many are cost conscious, says a 
waiter, John Wasilwa. When the price of maize goes up the bar owner cuts 
a strip of tin from the top of each can. The punters prefer that to 
higher prices. And it does not seem to slow their consumption. Around 
ten o'clock several of them have bedded down blearily on the mud floor 
next to a plastic sheet filled with roasted maize. Others throw empty 
tin cans at waiters. Mr Wasilwa fires them back.

Better-off residents congregate at beer taverns with cement floors and 
cushioned seats. The aspirationally named Pentagon features a large 
poster of Barack Obama, celebrating his Kenyan origins. Talk is of 
politics and sport. This could be almost anywhere. One group of patrons 
is drinking draft beer and debating why busaa joints are so rowdy. Often 
those people have not eaten, says one. "Straight to their head," crows a 
carpenter with more than a hint of superiority.

During the day, Kibera is a rough place but a safe one. Guns are rare. 
No tolls are charged, no protection fees paid. Most of its markets are 
free of cartels. The slum is so vast and diverse that no ethnic group 
dominates it. But what is a virtue during the day turns into a danger at 
night. With nobody ruling the roost, muggers and thieves have a free 
rein. Some residents have installed metal gates at the entrances to 
their alleys and lock them at midnight.

Leaving the Pentagon, your correspondent is persuaded by concerned 
patrons to hire a watchman as an escort. He is summoned by mobile phone 
and turns up in minutes, dressed in red-and-white beads and a red cloth 
and carrying a spear and a torch. Most watchmen in Kibera are Masai. 
They have a reputation for fearlessness and loyalty---for which they are 
paid 50 shillings (58 cents).

Walking through empty streets we hear music doodling behind thin walls. 
Life happens indoors now. Most people are too scared to even visit a 
public toilet at night. Those who need to instead use a plastic bag at 
home and throw it over a wall. This is known as a "flying toilet". 
Anyone out walking late is advised to look up as well as down.

We bump into Edith Nyawate, a vegetable seller escorted by another Masai 
watchman. She sets off to the wholesale market in the city centre every 
night around this time to buy produce when it opens and bring it back to 
Kibera at daybreak. She is tired, she says, but does not want a daytime 
job in a factory. "Maybe they pay you 50 bob but that's not enough for 
school fees."

Slum business runs around the clock. An electrical workshop is finishing 
a rush order at three o'clock. A lone baker's face is illuminated by the 
earthy glow of his cavernous wood-fired oven. A tithe-hunting preacher, 
Augustus Omiti, is holding an all-night vigil at a shack church with a 
sturdy gate. His congregation is locked in until morning, singing and 
dancing---for their own safety, he cackles. They have nowhere to sit 
because he has rented out the church's plastic chairs for 1,000 
shillings ($12) to a wedding that is taking place nearby. Nonetheless he 
has high hopes his flock will donate generously.

The Masai watchman, who alone among residents refuses to divulge his 
name, takes your correspondent to where many of his nightly journeys 
end. We knock on the door of the Stage Inn, a spot for revellers to bed 
down for a few hours---for 300 shillings ($3.50). A dimly lit corridor 
bordered by sheet-metal walls leads to two dozen rooms with sagging 
beds, many of them unmade and recently vacated. Who would depart at this 
hour? The Masai and a hotel porter exchange glances. A young woman in a 
light dress passes us on the way to the communal washroom.

Worried about getting home at night? Phone a Masai

Emmanuel Mukhoa, the 35-year-old porter, hears a knock on the front door 
and walks over to a peephole, then opens up and hands a room key tied to 
a black shingle to a drunk, older businessman with a girl in tow. "I 
know most of the guests. They come at all times," he says, and adds 
wistfully, "wish I was one."

Mr Mukhoa is a rarity, a salaried worker employed within the slum. He is 
paid 5,000 shillings ($60) a month. His hours are long but regular, his 
financial risk minimal, yet he dreams of running a business, like his 

The new day in the slum starts by five o'clock. Alarms echo down dark 
streets, drowning out what little music is left from the night. Ms 
Achieng rouses herself and then the brood of children that surrounds her 
on the floor, washes them and erects her frizzy dome of red and black 
hair. She can afford to feed her children but mornings are always 
chaotic and some of the older ones miss breakfast.

Heading to school, they join the ranks of workers walking to one of 
Kibera's eight exits and on to jobs in Nairobi proper where buildings 
rise higher than just one or two floors. The shoving and jostling 
resumes. The lanes are bursting with people by six, all heading in one 
direction. Among them is Mr Kasiri, the new arrival. He has been 
promised work on a construction site and is following a foreman through 
a world that has yet to fully reveal itself to him.

Mr Kasiri is amazed that among the people surrounding him is not one 
face he recognises, not one man who would lend him a few bob. Yet nor 
would any of them tell on him if he spent his wage on a bottle of 
changaa and got drunk tonight after his shift. They do not care. There 
are just so many of them squeezing through the gate; they crowd in as if 
celebrating a festival, yet few talk to each other or even look up. They 
are not unhappy, at least most of them are not. They have jobs to do and 
things to buy. Last night he talked to a man who sells stoves and 
learned that broken ones are cheap and easy to repair. Soon he will try 
his hand. He finds the idea of going back to the village hard to imagine.

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