Matt Kinsella's Final Blog from Kenya

November 13, 2015

I am leaving Kenya shortly and moving on to the Renewable World Office in Kathmandu, after a short stopover in Dubai.  While I am excited to see Nepal, I will miss Kenya, and the people I have met here.  I hope to return.  But before I leave, there were two final visits I wanted to make, and this week I managed to fit them both in.

The United Nations

Firstly, I joined a tour of the United Nations African Headquarters here in Nairobi.  As well as providing an administrative headquarters for the UN’s work across Africa, the site also serves as the global head office for two large agencies, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).  I enter the UN compound through extensive security, walking along an approach drive lined with 193 flags of the UN member states, past a car park full of 4x4s and diplomatic vehicles, to the visitor’s centre.  The compound itself is very pleasant, with modern office buildings arranged in acres of beautiful parkland, surrounded by trees and water features.  The architecture and landscaping reminded me of a modern European university campus.  The tour itself was quite interesting, though perhaps a little superficial.  We are shown the brand new environmentally-friendly UNEP office block; we sit through a short powerpoint presentation on the organisation’s structure, history and goals; we are invited to pose on the podium where just a few months ago, Barack Obama was addressing a conference during his visit to Kenya; we nod our heads sagely at several bland and forgettable artworks donated by member countries; and we are shown a circle of fifteen trees planted by members of the Security Council to commemorate their meeting here in 2011, to recognise South Sudan as an independent state.

The visit did little to change my existing views about the United Nations.  I am not one of the hard-line sceptics, the UN-bashers, who dwell on the many failures in the organisation’s seventy years.  Such failings are not hard to find: a Security Council regularly paralysed by the undemocratic political manoeuvres of its five permanent members; allegations of UN peacekeeping troops being involved in sexual exploitation, corruption, child abuse and torture, with relative impunity; an administrative apparatus which is often portrayed as bureaucratic, slow and unresponsive.  But, nor am I one of those who would place the United Nations, bloated and teetering, on a high pedestal.  Our tour guide was keen to do exactly this, describing the grand ideals of the UN and claiming that the organisation had been instrumental in preventing World War 3.  I wondered if the other members of our group were buying into this marketing waffle, until the guest next to me asked our guide what she thought were the UN’s biggest failures.  The question was deflected, not so skilfully, but the awkward pause spoke volumes.  A critical appraisal of the UN’s work would have to place the truth somewhere between these two extreme views.  Indeed, the UN is simultaneously hugely inadequate to its task, and a very impressive accomplishment.  Underneath the idealism, it is a real human organisation, embedded in a world of hard-nosed international politics.  Working in this difficult context, focussing on the most challenging global issues, it is not surprising that the UN falls short of its own transparent spin, and regularly disappoints the idealists.  Both its successes and its failures are very real.  But it is the only organisation of its kind, and a very necessary one.

As I left the UN compound, I passed the restaurant, hearing a champagne cork pop, as someone enjoyed a presumably expensive meal.  The sound rang in my ears as I headed to my next destination: Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum.


On the other side of town from the UN, Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and in Kenya.  Estimates of size and population seem to vary, but it is almost certainly the largest informal settlement in East Africa, probably among the top two or three largest on the African continent and very likely, one of the largest globally.  It is also one of the most famous slums in the world, and its reputation precedes it: indeed, my taxi driver, normally fearless in the Nairobi traffic, is initially wary about driving into the heart of the neighbourhood.  Though security has improved in recent years, Kibera is a maze of narrow winding streets and alleys, and it would not be difficult for the uninitiated to find themselves in trouble here.  It is still not a good idea for a foreigner to wander around here, without a guide and some sensible precautions.  One way to visit safely is to join a tour group with one of the companies who take tourists around Kibera for a fee.  Though these companies claim to benefit the community, I personally find ‘poverty tourism’ distasteful:  Kibera is not a safari park, and its residents are not there to be gawped at and photographed.  Besides, my interest in the neighbourhood goes beyond tourism:  I wanted to meet organisations working on social issues in the area, to understand their challenges and successes, and to come away with some greater insight into life here.  So, our Regional Programmes Manager Geoffrey kindly arranged for me to meet his contact Saada, who works for a community based organisation in the heart of the neighbourhood.  We are accompanied by a security escort, Mohammed: a towering man-mountain, dressed like an extra from the movie ‘Boyz n the Hood’.  Both my companions for the afternoon are Kibera residents, and I can see that both have clearly earned their street smarts here.  I am in safe hands.

Saada asks me what I have heard about Kibera: good news, or bad.  I tell her I have heard a little of both, but that I know overall things are improving.  She smiles, perhaps pleased that I have heard something positive about her neighbourhood.  Indeed, slums like Kibera are often written off as areas languishing in misery, but a visit quickly shows how inadequate that perception is.  Kibera is buzzing with activity: small shops, kiosks and traders line the larger streets; down back alleys people in workshops are hammering, welding and making all kinds of products; people everywhere seem to be busy doing what they can to earn a living.  The problems are also immediately visible.  Space is at a premium and everything is packed in close together; buildings are self-built from wooden poles and mud, or corrugated tin; sanitation is very poor with open sewers visible in places and most residents relying on basic communal toilet blocks; rubbish and pollution are widespread.

Our visit begins at Haki, where I learn about one issue which is not immediately visible from walking the streets: AIDS and HIV.  Infection rates are very high in Kibera, caused by poverty, lack of education, and lack of sexual health services.  The CEO of Haki, Charles, a counsellor by training, also suggests another reason: simple unhappiness leading people into risky sexual behaviour. Charles is instantly likeable: warm, humble and evidently deeply caring, he exudes a natural empathy for the people he works with.  He talks me through their four areas of work: home and community care for people with HIV and AIDS; care and education for AIDS orphans and vulnerable children; economic empowerment for care givers; and improving rights and justice for affected people.  We also talk about funding – he has ambitions to build another storey onto his building, to expand their library, and to provide internet facilities.

Next we take a short taxi ride to the Kibera Youth Reform Self-Help Project.  This group was once a gang of petty thieves, car jackers and muggers, who decided to go straight, after too many of their number were killed by rival gangs or in extra-judicial police killings.  They are still evidently tough, streetwise young men, but their warm welcome quickly defuses any initial intimidation I might have felt.  Now the group, with two hundred members aged 18 to 35, generates an income by selling agricultural produce, sanitation and other community services.  They show me their greenhouse, the only one in Kibera, and explain how they turned a patch of contaminated ground into a smallholding, producing crops for sale at local markets.  They own and manage a toilet block, where local residents can take a shower, use a decent toilet, or buy a jerry can of clean water, for a few shillings.  And they also offer various other products which are in demand in Kibera: selling wooden poles for construction; hiring plastic chairs and tents for special events; renting out their meeting room as a community centre.  Before I left, I was proudly told about the coverage the group have received in the Guardian newspaper (the article is available online here:

Saada and Mohammed also took me to a secondary school for girls – the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy.  Secondary education is not free in Kenya, so many girls from poor backgrounds cannot afford to attend.  From its origins as a soccer club, the organisation has evolved into a well-managed school providing free education, meals and social support to 135 girls.  They rely heavily on volunteer teachers, and as we discussed a typical school day, it became evident to me that these volunteers were working very long hours.  “You must be doing twelve hour days?” I calculated.  “More like fourteen” was the response, “six days a week.  Plus, activities most Sundays, for maybe half a day.”  This extraordinary dedication seems to be paying off – the school is gradually improving its buildings and facilities, has fed and educated hundreds of local girls, and has managed to get several students into university.

It is by now getting late in the day.  Saada still has more she wants to show me, so we arrange to meet the next day, at the Youth Reform Project at 2pm.

My second visit to Kibera begins with a short drive to the Freepals Community Maternity Nursing Home, a community-run hospital offering a range of medical services to local people, particularly antenatal care and midwifery.  They also have a small emergency room, which was more often used in the days when Kibera was more violent than it is today – treating trauma, knife and gunshot wounds.  The hospital director tells me about some of the challenges faced in the slums: mothers giving birth in the streets because they cannot reach a public hospital in time, high infant mortality rates, babies being abandoned by desperate mothers who flee the hospital wards after giving birth.  It is clear that Freepals funding situation is precarious, and their facilities, though scrupulously clean and well looked after, are basic.  They are struggling to do the best they can with very limited resources.

Next, we visit the offices of KISEP, the Kibera Slum Education Programme – the organisation Saada works for and my hosts for this visit.  A coalition of four Kibera-based community organisations, their programmes cover education, human rights, capacity building, lobbying and advocacy, home based care, environmental issues and support for people with disabilities.  They have over four thousand beneficiaries across the neighbourhood, and their eighteen Community Health Workers cover some substantial distances serving them all.  It is a struggle to meet demand and maintain adequate funding streams for this critical work.  (KISEP were also featured in The Guardian, briefly, in 2006:

Afterwards, we take a walk through the neighbourhood, passing down winding narrow alleys, stepping over sewers and litter, to reach Kisug Primary School.  Another community-run school, Kisug provides education to 277 children from ages three to eighteen. Most of their pupils are orphans, or vulnerable children from families who cannot otherwise afford school fees.  They offer a feeding programme, ensuring that the children are offered at least one square meal – though they tell me they often struggle to find the thirty-five dollars it costs to do this each day, with staff and committee members often chipping in with their own money to buy food.  The Head Teacher shows me the condition of the classrooms, which are small, poorly lit, with inadequate furniture.  As we enter each classroom, the children stand smartly to attention.  The Head Teacher points out the books the children are working from: there are three or four books for each class of thirty children, and they are in tatters, barely held together with tape.  He shows me the school library – it comprises a few shelves of battered text books, most of which are out of date.  Some have been provided by foreign donors, including one he shows me bearing the branding of the UK’s Department for International Development.  While they are grateful to receive any books, he explains, many of these donated books are of limited value, since they bear little relation to the Kenyan national curriculum, putting the children at a disadvantage at exam time.

Finally, we visit one of KISEP’s beneficiaries, Heather, at home.  Stepping into her house, it is dark and small – smaller than most standard single garages.  In this one small room, Heather lives, cooks, eats and sleeps.  I had been told about her failing eyesight, and as my own eyes adjust to the darkness, it is clear she cannot see me at all as I enter her home.  I sit next to her and say hello, taking her hand in greeting so she knows where I am.  She squeezes it warmly and offers a word of welcome.  I am told that Heather is fifty years old, that none of her seven children are in work and how, since going blind, she has been unable to provide for them.  She lost her eyesight because the family could not pay the nine hundred dollars needed for an operation.  It is probably now too late.  Her family now live a hand-to-mouth existence, relying largely on the support of organisations such as KISEP, and whatever other meagre income they can generate.  As a token of my gratitude for the family’s hospitality, I leave them some money – equivalent to about twenty US dollars.  Enough to pay their rent for a month and keep them in food for a week or so.

There is no doubt that Kibera is a tough and unforgiving place.  It is also improving – new roads, clinics and sanitation blocks are helping to improve life for the residents, slowly.  But the scale of the problem is enormous.  Kibera alone is large – walking around the neighbourhood, we cover some significant distances, and by the end of the afternoon, my legs are beginning to tire.  And Kibera is just one of several slums in Nairobi.  By some estimates, two thirds of the city’s residents live in slums like this.  Indeed, one in seven people across the world, about one billion people in total, live in these kinds of informal settlements, and face the same economic, social and environmental challenges.  So, Kibera, and its poverty, are not exceptional – in fact, they are all too common.

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