Kibera: the largest slum in Nairobi, the biggest in Africa and the third largest in the world. Between 500,000 and 1 million people live here. But, as an informal settlement, it’s hard to keep track of the numbers. Most notorious for its high crime rates, poor sanitation and heaps of garbage, to see it is still not to understand it.
As we walked through the slum, the differences between those who have and those who don’t became visually apparent. In the nicer parts there were paved roads almost void of trash with small shops ready for business. But not even a kilometer away, the smell of feces filled the air and water the color of charcoal flowed through vertical ditches where the poorest residents had set up their shacks.
It’s hard for me to really put into words what being in this slum meant. Was it sad? Sure. It’s hard to see your fellow human beings living in conditions that are clearly unhealthy and will eventually kill them. Was I afraid for my safety? Not really. While being different makes you stand out, I felt comfortable with our local guides. Is there any hope for a place like this? Absolutely!
While most Kiberaites may not know a life with running water and legal electricity, the power of their community has the potential to mitigate some of these larger systematic health and safety issues. Many outside organizations are trying to find solutions for Kibera, but the ones that ask the people what they want frequently succeed. Mary Nejenga, a Ph.D student at the University of Nairobi, noticed this as she began to develop new cooking materials. Many residents had food but no easy way to cook it due to the expense of charcoal. That led to them buying more expensive cooked food, depleting their already meager incomes, or to making things that took less time and heat to cook but were generally less healthy.
Mary is in process of developing briquettes which use charcoal dust, soil and water to more efficiently and cheaply cook. Mary’s goal is to find the best method for making these briquettes with whatever waste materials a community has. As she says, nearly 70% of households in Kibera are currently using her briquettes. They sell at only 3 Kenyan shillings (about 3 cents) and last just as long as charcoal which sells at roughly 300 shillings (about $3.45) a bag. In a country where the average income is about $820 a year, that $3.45 means a lot.
Even though Mary is continuing to develop her product, her relationship with the community of Kibera will be the reason she can help feed the planet.