Going Inside Kenya’s Kibera Slum: Part 2

Part 2 (of 3)  from my journeys in Kenya’s Kibera Slum:

While photographing the Holy Cross priests’ primary projects in the slum is my main “job” here, I’ve got other, more personal reasons why I’m here. I’ve started to lead volunteer vacations abroad in the last few years, and it’s time to test the limits of my comfort zone, and more importantly, see potentially what I and a group of volunteers could realistically do to help in a slum full of people in need. I’m not so naïve as to think that all slum cultures are the same, but I know I want to try and understand the needs of this one.

(Three years later, married and no longer traveling solo, I’d lead a 14-member volunteer team to build houses in a slum in India.)

For someone who was raised Catholic but has never practiced it as an adult, it was a minor miracle that I had lined up an insider-tour with the Holy Cross priests. As a general rule, single women are not allowed to sleep overnight in a Catholic seminary, nor are they (especially if they’re white) advised to walk into Kibera Slum alone. But my timing is good on both fronts. Nearly every one of the seminary brothers are away at a conference in Uganda, and Brother Cleo has offered guide me inside Kibera.


The harried bus driver appears, as promised. I thank him profusely and give him a slip of paper with the number of Brother Cleo. They speak, and then he hands the mobile phone to me. The voice on the other end sounds like soft, cool rain. He was simply waiting for me to call.

“Oh yes, the buses are always late from Tanzania” he says nonchalantly. “How was your journey?”

“Good, long,” I say, just happy to hear his voice. “I’m so sorry we’re here so late.”

“No problem, we’re not far away. Maybe fifteen minutes.”

Brother Cleo tells me to stay put, and assures me he will find me here.

The bus pulls away and I am alone, watching hotel guests appear and disappear. This is a popular stairwell. I do my best to ignore this drug den hotel that I’ve found myself in and instead focus on pressing my fingers into my swollen foot. It has grown in size all day, and I’m worried I might have to go to the hospital if it doesn’t get better soon. Twenty minutes later I’m greeted by Brother David, a young seminarian. Brother Cleo is waiting outside, he tells me, in the car. It’s not safe to leave the car parked at night in Nairobi; idling is better, with the doors locked.

“Colleen! It is so great to finally meet you after all the e-mails!” Brother Cleo says as I get into the car, turning his head around in the driver’s seat to look me in the eye. His eyes are warm, his cheeks round and full.

I smile, and tell him I completely agree.

Once we’re on our way, both priests want to know about my trip, my climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, my swollen foot. I am just grateful to be in the car, grateful that they care, grateful that these kind men are the people I get to spend the next two days with.

After winding up and out of the city, we reach McCauley House. The big metal gate in front locks only from the inside, so of the brothers comes out to let us in. Tall brick walls, topped by razor wire, enclose several buildings that surround a grassy inner courtyard. The whole place sits on a rise overlooking Kibera, which is on its own big hill, less than a quarter-mile away.

Before we pull the car all the way in, Brother Cleo rolls down the window and points to a few lights in the distance. It’s as if Kibera has a protective edging stretched around one side: a long, narrow field a mile long, but less than a quarter-mile wide.  Cross the field the short way, and Kibera is closer than one might think.

“That’s Kibera,” he says simply, with the calm, even voice I will become accustomed to in the coming days. He knows this place – this famously awful place — is what I’ve come to see.

“We’ll go tomorrow,” he says.

From here, I listen to Kibera rumble. The whole place murmurs and creaks, like a giant old computer running too many software programs all at once. It’s like the sound right before the computer locks up completely. But so far, Kibera hasn’t died. It’s been churning like this for years, components maxed out, struggling keep everything and everyone going within. What is striking, at night, about Sub Saharan Africa’s biggest slum is not what you see (there are few lights), but this organism you hear.

It is nearly 10 pm, but the seminary kitchen is still open, most likely because of me. One of the brothers, as cook-for-the-night, feeds me a mildly spiced African soup and a side of vegetables and rice. After dinner, Brother Cleo then leads me to my room, at the end of a long, dark hallway in an empty dormitory wing on the far side of the grassy inner courtyard. It feels miles away from everyone else. I have a hunch I’ve been put out in the “back 40” for a reason, but that’s just fine by me. The quiet is heavenly.


After breakfast the next morning, Brother Cleo and I cross the no-man’s land – the border field. My foot, as if miraculously healed by my presence in a holy seminary, is no longer swollen. And so Brother Cleo and I walk, side by side, the first of many walks we will take, crossing a footbridge over a dirty, garbage-strewn moat, then up into Kibera, its own city on a hill. I expected to go “down” into a slum, not up.

From a distance, Kibera is a sea of rusty shack roofs atop a giant pile of dirt and a garbage dump. From close-up, it is much more: a living city, more densely populated than New York,  a city that belches smoke from thousands of cooking fires and reeks of farm animals and garbage. All of this is mixed with the aroma of butchered raw meat, and steaming vegetables cooking at alley-side stands, and a thousand other smells I can’t indentify.

Perhaps more than anything else, Kibera reeks of wet, wan waste. Everywhere, goats and cows and dogs rummage through the garbage. Most of us in the developed world don’t have to live with the stuff that we tuck away, or bury, or sanitize, or burn. We cast away all those moist, mushy things that smell bad: the dead things, the rotting things, the bloody things, the stained things, the cast-off things. In Kibera, though, life happens in tandem with the inevitable waste of life.

The first thing that shocks me, after the smell, are the open sewer trenches everywhere, hundreds of them. Some are only partially dug. These gullies are full of garbage and plastic bags that create unnatural and dangerously mobile dams for the sewage. Overflows are common. I’ve made the mistake of wearing sandals and linen slacks, and I grab my pant legs at the hips to hike them up out of the way as I step over overflowing sections.

According to the Kibera Slum Foundation, Kibera residents who can afford it pay for shared toilets that may get used by many as 500-1,000 people; about two-thirds employ the “flying toilet,” which involves defecating in a plastic bag and tossing it into the air during the night. It’s no surprise that disease – especially stomach and intestinal illnesses –  runs rampant here.

As diseases go, HIV gets the most media attention, with as many as one in nine Kibera residents infected. Still, few receive proper treatment for it. Brother Cleo and I make our way to visit a women’s HIV support group.  Ten women are gathered in one of the member’s homes for a regular meeting. The home is made of corrugated tin, and inside sits one table with a plain, threadbare cloth and one couch with a ripped slipcover. It’s eerily dark inside, despite the late morning glare outside. The women, sitting in the dark corners of the room, shyly introduce themselves one by one.  All tell me how many children they have. Children are a big part of one’s identity in this part of Africa.

Some have as many as eight children to care for, but today they are here to brainstorm ideas on how educate other Kiberans about HIV in an effort to save their neighbors. A few cough. Most look tired. So far, one woman in the group has died of the disease. The women stare at me as I cradle my camera with its big telephoto lens in my lap. I wrap my arms around it, instinctively trying to make it look smaller than it is. The sale of this camera could buy medicine for all of them, at least for a little while. I feel guilty carrying something so expensive in this place, and their eyes are piercing. I know they don’t mean to make me feel bad, but I do.

Brother Cleo talks to them about a door-to-door campaign where they will be talking to Kiberans on how to prevent HIV. The women will be passing out flyers about safe sex practices.  This is a first for me: Catholic involvement in a safe-sex campaign. I’m excited about this, to know this “secret” that is undoubtedly saving lives here.

Part 3 will conclude this story next week.



Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

2 responses to “Going Inside Kenya’s Kibera Slum: Part 2

  1. Diane

    Fascinating story. I found Part 2 first and had to go back and find the beginning. Are your photos displayed on a site somewhere? Would love to see them. Thank you for sharing your very unusual experiences, while the rest of us vicariously tag along.

  2. Anita McCracken

    I am amazed and look forward to the next part of the story.

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