Saturday, July 14


A couple of weeks into my time here, I saw a Reuters story in the local Nation newspaper on slum tourism in Nairobi - which had just experienced a sharp rise with the World Social Forum in town - with many slum residents expressing irritation at the growing number of wazungu passing through to see the sites. I don't generally have much interest in checking out the slums without a purpose. And the feel of being in one slum can pretty well extend to others (unless you're willing to spend the time to get a real feel for a community).

But the other day I went to one with Caitlin, whose UN work takes her to slums fairly often. Mitumba is smaller than the more-famous Kibera (which is thought to house up to a third of Nairobi's population), or Mathare (site of much of the recent Mungiki violence), but a similar idea. We accompanied a few other UN interns who had been working with a couple of schools. After passing through a maze of narrow streets - which bears some resemblance to a lower-rising medieval district of a European town, if you can ignore the smell of sewage and the corrugated iron walls and the shoeless children - we were treated to lots of smiling kids screaming "mzungu, how are you!" and grabbing at our white hands. The kids got a meal and were in pretty high spirits.

But in general, these slums aren't pleasant places. They may not be "poorer" than rural villages, but the poverty can feel more oppressive. It's pretty easy to feel a little helpless when you're faced with the enormity of these settlements, but I'm impressed with people who spend time working in these places. And more impressed with the people who live there and turn the places into mostly-functioning communities.

It's good to be aware that this is how 60 percent of the population in Nairobi - and a sixth of the world's population - lives. I don't have much particular insight on slums, though I'd like to get more. There are a couple new books that look at the global rise of slums - Mike Davis' Planet of Slums and Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities. UN-HABITAT's The Challenge of Slums is, as far as I know, the most prominent report on the issue. The BBC's Andrew Harding did a series of reports on Kibera in 2002, and you can find tons of other things by googling Kibera.

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