Kibera’s not as big as we thought

Kibera is not as heavily populated as many (most?) people have been saying. This is old news (last year), but it’s gotten some recent attention  at Humanitarian info (for some reason, I can’t see the actual post; I only see the comments). See also Africa Research Institute’s Urban Africa by Numbers.

Daily Nation: By MUCHIRI KARANJA pmuchiri@ke.nationmedia.com
Posted  Friday, September 3  2010 at  22:30

It has been billed as Africa’s biggest slum and even by some accounts, the world’s largest. Some say it is home to two million people, others a million.

But the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census results released this week make everything you have heard about the size of Kibera improbable. Numbers do not lie, and figures from the 2009 census indicate that Kibera barely makes it to Nairobi’s largest slum.

According to the census figures, the eight locations that form Kibera slums combined host a paltry 170,070. These include Lindi, the largest, with 35,158 people; Kianda (29,356); Laini Saba (28,182); Makina (25,242); Gatwikira (24.991); Siranga (17,363); and Kibera (9,786)…

…Another major city slum, Mukuru Kwa Njenga, in Nairobi West with 130,402 people is slowly edging towards the largest slum in Kenya status. Throw in Mathare slum in Nairobi North with 87,097 people and you begin to understand why Kibera has never been Africa’s largest slum.

For a long time Kibera has been touted as Africa’s largest slum, with various ‘experts’ putting its population at anything between one and two million. But the slum does not hold a candle to India’s Pharavi with one million. Brazil’s Rocinha Farela with a quarter million is probably the closest rival…

…As for thousands of foreign visitors who trooped in to see the “Biggest-Slum-in-Africa:” You swallowed one big lie, hook and bait!

Read the whole article.

Brian Ekdale responded to the Daily Nation article with What’s in (a Name and a Number?) He offers a history of Kibara and just defended his dissertation on the subject (congratulations!): “Creativity and Constraint in Self-Representational Media: A Production Ethnography of Visual Storytelling in a Nairobi Slum.”:

First, I argue that the dominant discourse about Kibera that is constructed and circulated by authors, journalists, NGOs, and unawares is hyperbolic and simplistic. I explore this discourse by speaking with Kibera residents about the disconnect they see between their lived experiences and the representations of their community offered by non-residents and the media….[abstract]

So how did we get the million figure?

“In the absence of actual data (such as an official census), NGO staff make a back-of-envelope estimate in order to plan their projects; a postgraduate visiting the NGO staff tweaks that estimate for his thesis research; a journalist interviews the researcher and includes the estimate in a newspaper article; a UN officer reads the article and copies the estimate into her report; a television station picks up the report and the estimate becomes the headline; NGO staff see the television report and update their original estimate accordingly.” (source: www.humanitarian.info via Map Kibera see also Kibera’s Census)

Although I’ve been into Kibera a number of times for various reasons (including my day in Kibera court), the population “figure” mostly comes to mind when I’m driving a foreign visitor down a stretch of Langata Road, near Wilson Airport, where you get a good, panoramic view of all the roofs. I’ve commented more than once that this is “supposedly the largest slum in Africa…they say about a million people live there.”

I guess now I know better now.

Update (17 Aug. 2012): 

See now Martin Robins, “The missing millions of Kibera” (The Guardian, Aug. 1)

…A quick search on Google finds page after page of estimates in or around the same ball-park. The White House reckon it’s “just about 1.5 million”, while the BBC claim 700,000. Jambo Volunteers say “more than one million.” The rather sickly-sounding Global Angels reckon “around 1 million.” The Kibera Tours website describes “a population estimated at one million.” The Kibera Law Centre gives “almost 1 million.”Shining Hope for Communities reckon that Kibera “houses 1.5 million people.” The Kibera Foundation talk about “a population of almost a million people,” as do Kibera UK and about a hundred other sites you can find through your friendly neighbourhood search engine.

…Kibera consists of around two square miles of densely-clustered, single story shacks. For the White House’s estimate to be accurate, Kibera’s cluttered streets and labyrinthine alleyways would have to support a population density thirty times higher than the towering skyscrapers of New York…

He too cites the above studies:

Hence the shock when a census by the Kenyan government found only 170,000 residents, a count probably not much higher than the number of NGOs that have swarmed into the area. It isn’t easy counting the transient population of an informal settlement, and of course the government don’t have a fantastic record on Kibera – if they did, it wouldn’t exist – but their figures fit reasonably well with those produced by others. The Map Kibera Project used sampling to produce an estimate of 235,000-270,000, while KeyObs deployed the cold, hard gaze of a satellite to produce an estimate of around 200,000. These more accurate figures have suffered the fate that tends to befall most inconvenient truths; they have been widely ignored.

Poverty Tourism (Kibera; NYTimes)

Kennedy Odede (NYTimes, Op-Ed 9 Aug. 2010): Slumdog Tourism

SLUM tourism has a long history — during the late 1800s, lines of wealthy New Yorkers snaked along the Bowery and through the Lower East Side to see “how the other half lives.”

But with urban populations in the developing world expanding rapidly, the opportunity and demand to observe poverty firsthand have never been greater. The hot spots are Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai — thanks to “Slumdog Millionaire,” the film that started a thousand tours — and my home, Kibera, a Nairobi slum that is perhaps the largest in Africa.

Slum tourism has its advocates, who say it promotes social awareness. And it’s good money, which helps the local economy.

But it’s not worth it. Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really “seen” something — and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was….

…Other Kibera residents have taken a different path…

…To be fair, many foreigners come to the slums wanting to understand poverty, and they leave with what they believe is a better grasp of our desperately poor conditions. The expectation, among the visitors and the tour organizers, is that the experience may lead the tourists to action once they get home.But it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough.

Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.

Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions to our problems — but they won’t come about through tours.

Kennedy Odede, the executive director of Shining Hope for Communities, a social services organization, is a junior at Wesleyan University.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on August 10, 2010, on page A25 of the New York edition.