Kibera is a sprawling mass of shacks, just a few kilometres southwest of Nairobi’s city centre. It was long thought to be the largest shanty town in sub-Saharan Africa, home to around one million people; although recent mapping exercises have dramatically reduced the estimated number of residents down to as few as 250,000, the scale of the place can still be difficult for most Westerners to imagine. The slums were a flashpoint during the post-election violence in January 2008, when protestors torched buildings and uprooted the Nairobi–Nakuru railway line that runs right through Kibera, and the area is still the scene of occasional politically motivated riots. There have been no major incidents since, however, and although it’s perhaps best not to just wander down there, it’s safe to visit if you’re accompanied by local residents or NGO workers – a number of local operators even offer morning excursions to the area.

Kibera started at the end of World War I as a village housing Sudanese Nubian soldiers of the demobilized armies of British East Africa. Subsequently, as rural-to-urban migration increased, people moved into the area and began putting up mud-and-wattle structures. Today most residents live in makeshift huts, typically measuring 3m by 3m, with an average of five people per dwelling. Access to electricity, running water and sanitation ranges from zero to very minimal – the occasional makeshift pit latrines are shared between anything from ten to one hundred homes, though foreign donors have constructed some new toilet blocks. The streets are a mass of seemingly endless trenches, alleyways and open gutters clogged with waste and sewage. As well as lacking even the most basic services, Kibera has an HIV infection rate of between fourteen and twenty percent, and the number of orphans rises daily. However, the slum somehow works and is full of small businesses, from video cinemas to bakeries. Few residents buy newspapers or own TVs; the community radio station Pamoja FM (99.9 FM; bit.ly/Pamoja) provides a vital “glue” that helped prevent Kibera from ripping apart.

When booking an escorted visit to Kibera, make sure before you sign up that you know exactly where your money is going: some businesses are not above running “pro-poor” tourism as part of their activities while pocketing much of the cash supposed to be supporting slum projects. As you visit various premises and community projects, you should find the experience deeply affecting, if not enjoyable, and not without its lighter moments. Good options for a tour include: Kibera Tours (wkiberatours.com) or Explore Kibera Tours (wexplorekibera.com).

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