Don said he would be waiting by the bank. It shouldn’t be hard to spot, given it was one of the few buildings set in stone. I also shouldn’t be hard to spot, given I was the only mzungo in sight. He greeted me with a big smile and a firm shake of hands. He wore glasses with a thick black frame. Don’s mother was able to send him to school. He studied design and marketing and worked for a local store making billboards, but his true love lied in photography. A self-taught photographer, he mostly focused on capturing the natural landscape. He often accompanied tourist groups on their expeditions to Nairobi National Park. He was well-liked and respected for his work, and so, whenever someone expressed an interest in visiting Kibera, tour guides intuitively referred them to Don. That was how we met too.

Don had moved to Upper Kibera over a year ago, but he often wandered down the hill to the deeper parts of the valley. His mother, sister, and her two children still lived down in Lower Kibera. He told me he knew the neighborhood like the palm of his own hand – the neighborhood of Kianda, that is. Kibera is made up of 13 villages spread out in a valley over 1.5 square miles, so it is impossible to know it all.

Kibera is the largest shanty town in Kenya and the third largest in East Africa. Its origins date back to colonial times. In the early 1900s, under British rule, living in Nairobi was reserved to Europeans, but special permits were issued to a few non-Europeans who were allowed in specifically designated areas. That was the case of the returning African soldiers, who were given plots of native land in the outskirts of the city in recognition of their services defending the interests of the British Army. The settlement became known as Kibera and grew quickly and informally under the British administration. When Kenya gained its independence in 1963, the government deemed it an unauthorized settlement. This meant tenants no longer had legal claim to their land and that the government was not accountable for its development, nor was it responsible for providing basic infrastructure or sanitation. With the recently built Uganda Railway line that crossed through Nairobi, commerce and industry intensified, and with them came the exodus of migrant workers who left their rural homes in search of work and a better life. The unpaved roads multiplied, and the shacks piled on. The slum town became an appealing solution to those who could not afford legal housing in the city. It also became an appealing solution to those with the entrepreneurial spirit looking to build their own business. While many of Kibera’s tenants commuted into Nairobi every morning for their jobs, many built their livelihood there as well as their homes.

We ventured down the valley together through one of its busiest paths. The streets were bustling. To one side, booths sold dried fish and USB cables. To the other, were shoe stores and beauty salons. Carts wheeled up and down. Chants echoed from a church in the distance. Sellers yelled out their pitch. Don waved to friends and neighbors. He pointed out water spigots diverged illegally from city pipes, where potable water was dispensed at a price fixed by the groups that had taken over. Electricity was diverged and sold in a similar fashion. A little ways ahead was Carolina for Kibera, one of what Don estimated to be over 500 NGOs working in Kibera. He wasn’t sure of the exact number, just like no one is sure exactly how many people live in it.

We would take the next right, then head up the hill – he had been meaning to pay a visit to his mom.

Don’s mother had always been a good cook. Mandazi might be a widespread national favorite, but her unique take on the triangular-shaped fried bread had earned her a loyal clientele. When she first moved to Kianda from her village in rural Kenya, she was able to find a place for herself and her two children. The room was about 8ft by 3ft, with concrete floors covered in carpet, and two steps at the entrance that offered some protection from the occasional floods. A curtain divided it into a sleeping area and a living space where she fried mandazi over a small gas cylinder. She installed a Dutch door and sold them as breakfast to the neighbors that rushed by in the morning. Soon she had earned enough to rent out a second property – a 3ft by 3ft shop built of corrugated iron along a line of other businesses on one of the busiest streets of Kianda. Though she still cooked the mandazi at home, the new location was prime for selling them. A sign over the door read “Hotel”, as similar eateries were called. Business had prospered. She was able to send Don for public high school in Nairobi and saved enough for his first semester of college. When her daughter Mary got pregnant with her first baby and decided to move into her own space, she was able to help pay her rent for the first three months.

Don’s mother had worked long and hard for her business. She now hoped to expand it by adding tables and chairs, but not until the landlord agreed to buy a sturdier front door that would prevent their theft. She had been trying to persuade him for quite some time. Don tells me landlords in Kibera can be relentless – many use their profits to move to upper parts of the valley, others to rent out new places they can in turn lease to new tenants, but few are committed to the betterment of their existing properties. As he reminisced about the never-ending cycle of renting in Kibera, he concluded he had never met anyone who owned their own property – he’s not sure anyone does.

Stories like that of Don and his mother are not unique. Kibera is full of self-made men and women who find themselves living under a system that stunts their economic growth. Because occupation in Kibera is not legally recognized, its people are considered temporary inhabitants and have no legal claim to their property or businesses. Without this formal status, slum dwellers often see themselves excluded from financing options with the banks and from meaningful legal representation with the courts. Despite this, Kibera is vibrant.

Shanty towns exist in some shape or form all across the globe with similar tales of entrepreneurship and perseverance. And although throughout most countries they are known by some variation of words conveying the notion of poverty and squalor, the name they receive in Peru is probably the one that best reflects their simmering dynamic – pueblos jovenes or young towns. Outside of Lima, a few young towns have taken it upon themselves to organize and have evolved into urbanized districts with their own sewage system and supply of water and electricity, becoming an integral part of the city. Perhaps not so different is the story of Dutch Hill, the New York City shanty town that once housed many of the city’s Irish and German immigrants in the 19th century, and which evolved to what is today known as the Upper East Side.

In describing a day in the young town, The Economist suggests that “Kibera may be the most entrepreneurial place on earth”.[1] Like many others, Kibera is made up of the men and women who dared to leave their villages for the urban promise of a better life, and so, almost by default, it is bustling with inventors, innovators, and risk takers. It is also riddled with challenges. What it never is, however, is stagnant.


[1] Boomtown slum. The Economist Group Limited, London 2012.

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