Kenyan Slums

Kawangware or “Ungwaro”

Esau “Jim” Okumu


By Esau “Jim” Okumu, 7 September, 2007

I am rudely awakened as the minibus (commonly referred to as a “Matatu” in the local slang) screeches to a halt to carry more passengers. “Beba, beba, beba,” the tout shouts at the top of his natural groggy voice all the while beckoning at potential travellers. The music inside the Matatu is deafeningly loud and holding a conversation is a real headache. The Matatu is now approaching the estate, or is it a village?

I cannot make up my mind where I reside. As we ease from the affluent lavish bungalows into Kawangware or “Ungwaro” as the residents call it. The contrast of the two can only be best described by the word brutal. It's a perfect comparison between the ones who have and those who lack. From the peace and quiet, nicely mowed green lawns, tall trees swaying gently to the evening breeze, few people walking around on the smooth tarmac pavements with no traffic with loud noises from hooting vehicles, dilapidated roads, half-naked malnutrition children screaming, hawkers calling for customer attention, masses of people walking around aimlessly with nothing to do, youths idling around in groups probably arguing about who is hotter between 50 cent and Tupac Shakur. Also we have animals (mostly pigs, goats and dogs) roaming around trying to nibble at any eatables around. This is a simple description of Kawangare. I think you get the picture.

Kawangware is located to the west of Nairobi city, approximately 15 kilometres from the city centre with the plush Lavington estate to its east and Dagoretti on its west border. It has several sections such as Gatina, Stage Woria, Muslim, 46 Mwisho, 56 Mwisho, Box or Sokoni, Congo, Msalaba and Coast.

The name itself has several rumoured sources. No one is definite about any of them. It's said the entire area belonged to an elderly woman known as Wangare and hence “Kwa Wangare.” Others say the formerly water logged swamp was home to a flock of guinea fowls known as “Ngware” in the native Kikuyu language hence the name evolved over time.

According to the national census taken every two decades, the area is home to some five hundred thousand inhabitants with half of this population consisting of children and youth below the legal age of 18.

Most of the landowners are Kikuyu's famed for their business wits, as they're the original owners of the land this slum sits on. The tenants are mostly job hunters who have moved from their rural homes in search of greener pastures in the “Big City,” and in dire need of cheap housing which cost as low as 300 Kenyan shillings (about four U.S. dollars a month). Most tenants are Luhya and Luo tribes with a few others from other ethnic communities. The houses cum shacks are constructed mainly from rusty iron sheets or mud. You may see a few stone houses and flats inhabited mainly by the landowners themselves. As they are out of reach for most residents considering many are low income labourers, menial workers or house servants living from hand to mouth, earning less than one U.S. dollar a day.

I can write a whole book based on the day-to-day problems slum dwellers face here. Kawangware has the highest number of rape cases among the Kenyan slums. That alone tells you a lot. About 60% of the youths below 21 years are illiterate or semiliterate, most having only a primary education. The mother of all problems is probably the lack of jobs. With little to do, the youth have turned to alcoholism, drug abuse (mostly Cannabis Sativa a.k.a Holy Herb, Bangi, Ganja, Ndom, Yaga) and crime. Out of every 10 youths, 9 have had an experience with drugs. The availability of illicit brews with the knowledge of the local administration, which is very cheap, has helped turn strong fathers and mothers into frustrated alcoholics. Rich b “Untouchable” businessmen and women own most of these dens.

Unemployment has also contributed to insecurity with muggings along the dark alleys is a common occurrence. If you happen to be walking around after 8:00 p.m., and think meeting a uniformed Policeman is a guarantee of safety, then you are in for the surprise of your life. Police are masters of extortion. After a thorough search of your pockets (mainly your money purse) you will be required to part with a certain amount of your cash referred to as “Kitu Kidogo” to buy your freedom, or face the alternative of spending your night in a Police cell. Come morning you can be charged with any offence the arresting officer will see fit. They mostly go for drunk and disorderly. The insecurity has given birth to vigilante groups, where by boys take turns to watch their neighbourhoods often ending in mob-justice when a suspect is caught.

With so much free time on their hands the youths have also turned to dangerous sexual behaviours. Virgins are like water in the Sahara. Virginity has been turned to a myth with children as young as 7 years old engaging in sex. Most of the jobless girls and women have turned to prostitution in order to earn their daily bread. No wonder nearly 80% of the slum population is either infected or affected by the AIDS scourge. The government has tried its best to educate its citizens of the epidemic, but it's obvious the trickle effect is very minimal at the grassroots and many more will succumb to the killer disease. The poor infrastructure here is no secret and can be summed up in a few lines. One public hospital, one public secondary school, one public primary school, two tarmac stretches of road and a few dusty murram ones. Since the current government made primary education free, the public schools are overpopulated and understaffed thus giving rise to numerous private institutions, most of which are too expensive.

The sewerage system cannot even compare to ancient Mesopotamia. If you take a walk around my hood, you cannot believe it's a part of the same green Kenya seen in movies, commercials and tourist brochures. Open trenches carry dirty stagnant water, raw human waste and garbage. With a ratio of 1 toilet to every 200 persons, many have no choice but to use “flying toilets” where you help yourself in a plastic bag within the confines of your home, as soon as darkness creeps in, you spin and throw the bag as far away as possible regardless of where or whom the waste will land on. It's pretty sick but what can one do? The communal toilets are charged at about five shillings per session but who wants to part with money that can be used to buy food with? Clean water is also scarce. One has to purchase untreated water from wells. Electricity is no good either as the landlord's resell the power to their tenants at higher prices even though they switch the power off during the daytime. Others deal with stolen electricity with the wires not insulated, hanging dangerously or buried in shallow trenches, when the rains come, the lives that are lost are uncountable.

In Kawangware, 45% of the people live in extreme poverty. It just reflects what people face in other slums in Kenya and Africa as whole, problems that are too many to be highlighted in a few paragraphs. The gap between the poor and the rich is steadily widening. The politicians who control almost everything in these African countries continue playing mind games with the poor who make up 90% of the voters. They continue giving empty promises while they pass bills to award themselves with hefty allowances. Is there really a light at the end of the tunnel or is it a highway to the epicentre of poverty?

Next time you're on holiday, take a little time from your schedule, away from the Game Parks, famous landmarks and beautiful beaches and visit the real Africa. See who is at the bottom of the food chain.

My grumbling stomach keeps me awake for some time. Obviously the food I ate wasn't enough. I lay there thinking, wondering, pondering...what will I have tomorrow for breakfast?


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