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Story Publication logo March 13, 2012

Kibera: Kenya's Settlement of the Stateless

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From the slums of Nairobi to the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic to the far reaches of...

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A poster in the Nubian section of Kibera. Image by Stephanie Hanes. Kenya, 2012.

When I first started reporting about the Nubians and statelessness, I expected this group's situation would be similar to that of the Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic. There, people were trapped between two countries—the Dominican government said they were Haitian, the Haitian government said they were Dominican. It was, according to international rights groups, a pretty straight-forward case of statelessness.

Here, it's turned out to be a lot more complex. The issue isn't so much that Nubians believe they are stateless, but that they feel like a sub-citizen group, unable to access the same sorts of rights granted to other Kenyans. And this concern seems to be most acute when it comes to land.

Pretty famous land, actually. Kibera has long been known as the biggest slum in Africa and one of the most populated places on earth. (Although the size claim to fame has been challenged in recent years with some new population surveys.)

Nubian soldiers and their families who worked for the British colonial army were, around a century ago, the original settlers of Kibera. (At the time it was called "Kibra," the Nubian word for forest.) But they never actually owned the land in any formal way, and today the government still refuses to grant Nubians title deeds for plots they have lived on for generations. Over the past few years a wave of other Kenyans has moved into Kibera, so Nubians make up only a small percentage of the population, and they still don't have a formal "homeland"—something closely linked to citizenship across Africa.

Now this is a brief sweep through a rich history and complicated debate. But since we'll be writing about Kibera again in the context of the Nubians' struggle, I thought I'd pause for a moment to offer some bits of info about this world-famous slum:

• The population estimates for Kibera go from about 100,000 to 2 million. This is a crazy range, of course. Part of the discrepancy comes because Kibera is what is known as an "informal settlement;" most of the houses are, by law, temporary, and the population is in flux. In these situations, census taking tends to give low estimates, while estimates by non-governmental organizations tend to be on the high side. (A great population means a greater need for the NGO.)

• Along those lines, it's hard to get an accurate count of how many NGOs operate in Kibera. The number is high—situated right in Nairobi, and a short drive from the city's well-heeled areas, Kibera has been a popular spot for aid work.

• The slum itself is about the same size as New York's Central Park. It used to be much bigger, but the government has taken different parts of it for development and higher grade housing. (Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi lives next door.)

• Although there is a high unemployment rate in Kibera—some estimates put it at about 50 percent—many residents are educated professionals. Go to the slum any day of the week and you'll see men and women in suits walking to work. There's a ton of commerce there, too, with little shops and businesses offering about any goods and services you can imagine. This is the informal economy—a huge part of Nairobi's overall financial infrastructure.

• There is no sewage system in Kibera. The Kenyan government has allowed slum dwellers to build latrines (remember that other permanent home structures are not allowed), but there is still raw sewage that runs constantly through ditches on the side of the maze-like streets. A lot of NGOs will say that there's no running water in Kibera, either, but this is a bit misleading—there is water, just not government-maintained personal plumbing. Many residents get their water from public taps, or from private groups or individuals who have dug their own wells.

• The government and international organizations have been pushing a program of "slum upgrading," where people living in Kibera will be relocated to "better" apartments in Nairobi. The Nubians, who often own more solid houses and have an ancestral connection to the land, have pledged to fight this effort.

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