The area known today as Kibera was once a wooded hillside outside the city of Nairobi, allocated by the British colonial rule to the Nubian (Sudanese) soldiers who had served for the British Army during the first and second World Wars. The Nubians named the land Kibra, which means ‘land of forest’.


After Kenya declared independence in 1963, the national government refused to recognise the Nubians land tenure rights for their allotments and assumed ownership of the land. Flooded for decades with hundreds of thousands of rural migrants moving away from the poverty stricken countryside in search of job opportunities in Nairobi, Kibra slowly turned into Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, and was gradually encircled by the sprawling capital. Until recently, Kibera was also believed to be Africa’s second largest slum, with an estimated population of 1 million people, but the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census showed that Kibera is much smaller than what was originally thought, and it is actually home to 170,070 people.


Kibera is officially classified as an informal urban settlement and consequently its inhabitants are all considered squatters by the Kenyan Government, which does not provide for any essential public services or basic infrastructures, such as sanitation, education, electricity, health-care, etc. The lack of a sewage system, extreme poverty, endemic violence and the very limited access to education and affordable health services account for Kibera’s major humanitarian needs. HIV, Tuberculosis and several other sexually transmittable or hygiene related diseases are widespread among the slum dwellers. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders – one of the many international NGOs working in Kibera – offers free comprehensive and integrated health care services in the slum, treating thousands of cases every week and offering counselling to victims of sexual and gender based violence.


Unfortunately Kibera is also a living paradox when it comes to international cooperation and humanitarian aid. Even though it rises a short distance from the United Nations’ agency for human settlements’ headquarters (UN-Habitat) and hundreds of NGO’s run their projects in the slum, no significant improvement has been achieved in the absence of state involvement. The slum landlords have been left free to rule Kibera as they please, with the connivance of local authorities.


In 2009 an attempt to improve Kibera’s living conditions was undertaken by the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP), a US $1.2 billion project financed by the World Bank, UN-Habitat and the Kenyan Government, aimed at eradicating Nairobi’s slums by relocating their residents into new districts built on the site of the former shantytowns. Soon after it started in 2009 the project was legally challenged by more than 80 Kibera landlords and has now reached a standstill.


In July, another World Bank bankrolled project aimed at improving the living standards of the Kenyan slum dwellers was launched. The US $165 million Kenya Informal Settlements Improvement Programme (KISIP) will seek to provide basic services such as water, sanitation and other infrastructures to the slum residents, over a 5 year time period. It is too early to anticipate the outcome of this latest project, but it is sure that it will provide evidence of what proportion of the international funding is used effectively and how much of it is used to fuel local corruption.


Text © Valentina Tordoni


Kibera: the permanent squatters, Nairobi: is part of the ongoing project “Urban Survivors“.


Kibera, Kenya. 6 July 2011A woman covers her head with a shawl.