Tag Archives: slum

Going Inside Kibera Slum (Part 3)

The conclusion to my 3-part story of  inside Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera, and travels into other slum areas around Nairobi:

After listening to these courageous HIV-positive women, I buy about a dozen of the blue, green, yellow and red beaded pins the women make and sell to raise money for their public education campaigns. They put some of the money in a fund for medical expenses when one of them develops full-blown AIDS. They smile, grateful for the donation, and I thank them for letting me into their inner circle.

Once outside and in the light, Brother Cleo and I are surrounded by children. It’s as if smoke signals announcing the arrival of a priest and an American woman had gone out while we had sat indoors for a little while. Like the women I just met, the children all stare at my camera; the easiest way to end any awkwardness, I think, is to offer an impromptu photo session. Indeed, the laughing begins as the camera lens clicks. Only a few (more self-conscious, teen girls) walk away, camera-shy.

The laughter of children. It’s the same joyful sound no matter where you are.


Brother Cleo and I leave to go higher up the hill to visit with one of the families Brother Cleo has been ministering to. The parents and their young children live in a lean-to, made of plywood and scraps of tin. A pot of water boils on tabletop gas burner.

According to The Slum Project, water mains cross underneath the 1 million people living in Kibera Slum to carry water to surrounding golf courses and estates, yet the utility companies do not provide access directly. Instead, Kiberans must either purchase water by the liter from water brokers, at prices that can be upwards of 20 times the price paid for metered water in the city. Many who can’t afford that walk to locations outside Kibera with cheaper water and haul it back to their living quarters.

A pile of lettuce sits on a table. The family offers us lunch. Brother Cleo whispers to me, “We’ll eat later, back at McCauley House.”

Taking Brother Cleo’s cue, we smile and politely decline, saying we have plans later for lunch.

With visitors, sharing what you have — however little that may be — is part of the Kenyan culture here. But in Kibera there is very little food to go around. According to The Slum Project, Oxfam, Concern Worldwide, and other aid agencies, Kibera is in a state of prolonged food crisis.

Spotting my camera, the family is eager for me to take their picture, and ask to send it back to them after it’s developed. They have never had a family portrait before. They stand proudly outside the back of their home, near a kiln that backs up to other shacks.

After the photo shoot, I thank them for inviting me into their home. Brother Cleo and I keep going up – into the commercial center of Kibera. Even after being here a few hours, I find myself, still, unprepared for the rivulets of sewage that flow down crevices in the hillside. Again, I clutch my trousers at my hips to save the bottoms from soaking up the wetness.  Just a half-mile away, where I’m staying inside the Holly Cross seminary, restrooms with clean, flushing toilets work perfectly. So much could be done to extend the city water and sewer lines here, but it doesn’t happen.

Instead, malaria and cholera and typhoid spread through the community. Diseases that don’t have to exist.

We step into the courtyard of one of the schools the late Mother Teresa set up decades ago, then walk along the railway at the “top” of the slum, where we see the farm animals, the garbage heaps, and the makeshift shops with boom-box music drowning out other shops’ boom-box music. They sell car parts and underwear and everything else in between.

After snapping at least a hundred photos, I’m officially overwhelmed.


Before we leave Kibera, we stop and visit a family who has received seed money from the McCauley House priests to start and run their own businesses. They live at the bottom of the massive Kibera hill, where the open sewers drain into the field and form a kind of moat around Kibera. This family tells me that their small snack cart near downtown Nairobi, purchased with the grant money, is doing well. They introduce me to their 20-year-old son, who has just begun studying at Nairobi University. His parents beam with pride as he talks about college.

Much of his success – and his parents’ newfound success as well – can be traced back to a teen center that the McCauley brothers run near the seminary. This is where young people from Kibera can just be teens; some, in time, end up introducing their  families to the priests. The teen center is our last stop for the day. It’s a plain building painted yellow on the outside and containing big open hall inside where teens can play music, dance and support each other. A priest is always nearby to talk. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one.

When we arrive, we’re greeted by a few young men hanging out in front.

“Brother Cleo!”

They offer hugs, high-fives. This young priest is a trusted friend.

“Hey there!,” Brother Cleo answers, smiling.

Brother Cleo pats them on the back, asks how they’re doing. The priest on duty at the center comes out and waves, then goes back inside. A few girls watch me peek through the open doorway, giggle, and return to getting the space ready for a dance party they’ve scheduled for later that evening.


Over the coming days, we would travel all over Nairobi to visit more projects run or supported by the priests. I got the sense that Brother Cleo walked with me as if he were trying to see this place with fresh eyes, like mine. We visit a boarding school for impoverished girls and spoke with the headmaster and a few students; we go inside a health clinic crammed with patients who would be seen regardless of their ability to pay.

All of these places receive money that the priests raise, and everyone asks if I would kindly tell my friends back home to donate, too. Brother Cleo never pressured me to give any money, or make any promises to anyone here. He just wanted me to see it from the inside. With Brother Cleo gently leading me forward, I could scratch off the ugly surfaces of the slums. And in doing so — in facing the hard realities — find a greater sense that, yes, something could be done in the slums.

This would not be my last experience in a slum. It was only the beginning.


1 Comment

Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

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

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