Going Inside: My journey to Kenya’s infamous Kibera Slum

A lump grew inside my throat. The bus’ idling diesel engine vibrated with a violent vigor below my feet somewhere, as if trying to jar me loose from my seat. But I wasn’t budging. I was traveling in Kenya alone, but for the first time in nearly a decade of solo adventuring, I sought the comfort that comes from being inside a large hunk of metal on wheels.

The priest was not here, and I was not in a good place. 

We had just pulled in three hours late after six hours on the road, well after dark. After snaking through the dark streets of downtown Nairobi, the driver stopped the bus abruptly. We were to disembark on the street — now, quickly, the driver’s body language seemed to insist — directly into the center of a sprawling African metropolis known for carjacking, armed robbery and murder. I knew Nairobi’s reputation, of course. I just didn’t know we’d be pulling in at nine o’clock instead of six, and I didn’t know that, in Nairobi, a poorly-lit street corner is apparently where everyone gets out when there is no centralized city bus station. It’s where you get out when the offices of this particular bus company have closed for the night because your bus happened to be really late. Nobody gets paid to wait for a late bus. This is the way it works in Nairobi.

On both sides of the bus, along the exterior luggage compartments, a group of men appear from seemingly nowhere. From what I can tell, they want to carry our luggage quite badly. In a place with high unemployment, any little bit helps.

I’d caught this bus in Moshi, in Tanzania, and we’d crossed into Kenya hours ago. Our 50-50 mix of locals and foreigners (most of the muzzungus were fresh off the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, like me) all piled out of the bus in a frenzy, happy to be done with the ride. Except me. Not only was my ride not here, but one of my feet had swollen after the long descent off the 19,000-foot mountain the day before, so much so that it looked like a huge water balloon.

The bus had largely followed dusty single-lane roads before finding the highway into the capital city. This was an especially dry July in East Africa, and drought was causing famine in parts of both Tanzania and Kenya. I deeply sensed my white privilege here —  to travel freely, simply because I could, because I had a tiny bit of savings and some frequent-flier miles, and because my culture allows women to do pretty much whatever we want. I felt lucky and guilty all at once, and up until now, I felt perhaps a false sense of security in a less-than-secure part of the world.

 Maybe it was my intended destination – a Catholic enclave — that had fooled me a little into thinking I was safer than most single women traveling here. But in truth, I actually would be pretty darn safe. Through the grace of friends at the Holy Cross-run university where I worked back home, I’ve managed a special three day stay in the McCauley House Seminary of Nairobi to learn more about their charitable programs in the slums and to photograph them for my university. While here, the plan is to spend most of my time traveling from project to project, including a visit to an AIDS clinic on the grounds of a Catholic church near the Dandora Slum.

My main focus, though, is Kibera Slum. I’m here, officially, on a photography assignment. I don’t know what to expect, but I do know I’m grateful for an “in”. I’ll be an outsider, for sure, but one priest, Brother Kyomuhendo Atwooki Cleophas —the priest I’m hoping will show up soon – will be taking me inside Kibera, home to 1 million of the world’s poorest people.

 I gingerly step off the bus. Ignoring how uncomfortable I feel, limping a little on the bad foot, I concentrate on looking confident.  One by one, the other passengers meet family and friends and disappear. Once the driver’s assistant hands me my backpack, one of the men offers to carry it for me. I throw the backpack over my shoulder and look directly at the man.

 “No thanks!” I say cheerily, wondering if that was the right tone to take.

 Where was the priest?


My mind searches for reasons for his absence as I look over both shoulders to see BEWARE OF CARJACKERS signs tacked to nearly every telephone pole and building. I swivel my torso back and forth in an effort to steel my backpack against sticky fingers. Must. Not. Smile. I talk myself into giving off a don’t-mess-with-me look.

 The only light coming from anywhere near is from a decrepit-looking hotel across the street. I hope that I won’t end up spending the night there. I need a phone, preferably, before the bus leaves me alone here. I’m drawn to the one I see in the bus driver’s hand.

“Excuse me?” I say. He doesn’t hear me.

 “Excuse me?” I say, louder this time.

 The driver and his assistant busily close up the luggage compartments.

 “Excuse me?”

 The driver finally looks in my direction.

 “My ride isn’t here, and I don’t have a phone. Can I please call my friend on your phone?”

 The driver looks annoyed. He waits a few seconds, and then speaks.

 “OK, OK,” he says quickly.  “Just wait in the hotel,” pointing to the decrepit building nearby.  “I come find you.”

 I wait on a bench near a stairwell in the lobby, watching the locals go upstairs to their rooms, then back out again, too tired to suspect what’s likely really happening here — drug trades. I’m also just now realizing that I can ask the hotel staff to call for me, if it comes to that. I wonder if the bus driver has forgotten my request, and I wonder too if I’ll ever make it to the Holy Cross seminary near Kibera Slum. Like the priests that live here, I want to be near this dirty, crowded place, where so many are afraid to go. The priests go inside to listen, to pray, and to offer help. Perhaps it is this initial act of courage, to face the ugliest of realities and offer help, which defines faith-in-action best. I want to see that, to capture that. And so I sit and wait, taking a leap of faith.

Part 2 of this story will be posted next week.



Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

4 responses to “Going Inside: My journey to Kenya’s infamous Kibera Slum

  1. I take my hat off to you Colleen it seems extremely brave of you to have set out on this endeavour in the first instance. Solo men probably do not always realise the difficulties women have when they travel alone. I enjoyed reading your thoughts throughout your periods of doubt on this journey.

  2. My mother grew up on Nairobi for a period of time. Her memory of it remains full of geographical beauty and simple, kind souls. That was a long time ago. Your story is intriguing and I look forward to reading the rest of it soon!

  3. Gritty . . . courageous. i do find myself wondering, since the priest is pivotal to your story and journey: what is your relationship to Catholicism? And are you a single person altogether, as well as being alone on this particular good journey?

    Thanks for the paragraph breaks . . . much easier for my eyes! 🙂

  4. Thank you Iain, Keyuri, and Alison for the comments! Part 2 (of 3) is now posted, and the things you mention (more periods of doubt, kind souls everywhere, and my relationship to Catholicism) will be revealed as the story unfolds.
    Thanks for reading!

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