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Land of No Opportunity

“I can’t brag that I have something that I’m proud of. But I’m alive. And I thank God for that.” (Africa pt. 6)
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Like any good traveler I’d left exactly zero minutes of buffer between one activity and the next so when I got in this little fender bender on my way from Kajiado to Kibera I had no time to spare. My new Uber driver wouldn’t cross the border so he dropped me at the edge of the sprawling, muddy encampment where I was able to track down Michael, a social entrepreneur that I’d connected with ahead of time to help me plan the day.  

Kibera is the largest slum in Africa and the third largest in the world, a dense 2.5 square kilometers in Southwest Nairobi, 6.6 kilometers from city center. Nora calls it an informal settlement but I think that’s just a term for the academics. Everybody I met in Kibera called it a slum, or ‘the ghetto,’ or even ‘the jungle.’1 The British set it up in 1899 to house colonizers while they built the Uganda Railways. The railway still runs through it. Passenger trains pass by every morning and every evening. Originally Kibera was meant for just whites but some time later the Brits let the Nubian military forces who supported their interests stay there. 

When Kenya won its independence in 1963, the government labeled Kibera an unauthorized settlement which meant something like–Okay look you can live here, but you have no rights to the land or the homes and also we don’t owe you anything so you can figure out sewage and clean water and infrastructure and all that stuff on your own. Good luck and please don’t call. This seemed to be the general attitude of Jomo Kenyatta’s new Kenyan government which was more interested in compromising with the British than recompensing the people for all that had been taken from them. Like their land, for example. A ‘slum upgrading project’ launched by the government in 2009 has apparently gone nowhere. People laugh when you ask them about it.

The stats on Kibera are mind boggling. It’s home to somewhere between 170 thousand and 1.2 million people depending on where you mark its borders. 19% don’t live past the age of five. Diarrhea from waterborne diseases is a leading cause of death. The average lifespan is 30, a number dragged down by high rates of infant mortality and childhood death. 12% of the population has HIV. 40% of children attend school, and 50% of the city’s adult residents are unemployed.

The plan was to host two writing workshops—one with adults, one with teens. Michael rushed me to the office building we’d rented for the first one. He’d told me ahead of time that in order to get anybody to show up I’d have to compensate them. This is the expectation around here. Time is money. Everybody is out hustling and trying to survive, so even if they are ‘getting something’ out of an event, they’ll need to get something material as well for it to be worth their time. Fair enough. I told him I was okay with this so long as he was able to get people who actually wanted to write. He said this wouldn’t be a problem, Kibera was full of creatives. And he delivered. Thirty people showed up for the first event. And they all wanted to write.

The workshop was fairly straightforward. I gave a series of writing prompts, and for each one, I layered on a new technique to work in. Each technique was really a component of ‘show, don’t tell’—use action instead of adjectives, dialogue to build characters, sensory language to describe the setting. Blah blah blah. After each prompt, anybody who wanted to share with the group could do so. Nearly everybody did. That is rare.

A guy my age recounted a standoff in a cloud of tear gas between a lone protester and a swarm of angry police. A young dancer imagined being discovered on TikTok. An older man illuminated alcoholism’s devastating toll on Kibera through the story of a deadly bar fight. A twenty-something woman relived her intervention in a brutal scene of mob justice. A dreamer described driving to work every morning in his Lamborghini.

Scene from the workshop.
Heads down writing.

We wrote for 90 minutes. As people walked out Michael handed each of them some cash. I didn’t want it to come from me so I’d given it to him ahead of time. Even so, it was awkward. And it didn’t feel right. The fact that I paid for the experience implied that it was for me. On some level, it was.

Here is Nora, as ever, cutting me to my core: “It starts with a New Yorker who is bored and wants to write. So he goes to Africa. He wants to visit a slum because he is curious. To make it more sustainable and have a reason to go, he organizes workshops. So that people show up, he pays them. For him it’s probably peanuts. For them it’s probably a week’s salary to play with words. They smile. He smiles. He has something to write about. It’s a win win.”

Okay, Nora, maybe. But the compensation was necessary to deal with the reality on the ground. Without it, the workshop wouldn’t have happened. And it was a great workshop—a ‘win win,’ as you say. So who exactly is the loser here?

We went back and forth on this question. Her argument came down to this: I almost certainly could have diverted my resources and found a more qualified Kenyan person to host this workshop. (I guess?) I chose to do it myself because I wanted to be part of it—I wanted the experience for myself, and I wanted to write about it. (Guilty on all counts.) In all likelihood, I gained more than any of the participants. (Maybe. Probably.) In doing this, I have supported the oppressive, extractive system that ensures these communities will never become self-sufficient. (If you say so.)

This gets into some sticky territory that I’ll attempt to wrestle with in my next (and final) piece—how much of my experience in Africa have I over-intellectualized to the extent that I’m unable to take people at their word? Somebody tells me the workshop had a positive impact on them, but I know better, because I, unlike them, understand the system. More or less the Marxist notion of ‘false consciousness.’ I’m not disregarding it wholesale—undeniably, oppressive systems have a tendency to conceal their oppressive natures from the oppressed—but it was a much easier theory to apply from my living room than it has been on the ground. Increasingly, I give myself headaches trying to navigate these questions.

Anyway, a group of guys my age stuck around to talk. Luke, Victor, Ali, Denzel and Ricky. They had more stories to tell. I suggested dinner later. I told them I was buying. They were down.

Victor sharing.
Ali sharing.

Michael whisked me away. We were headed to a local K-12 school for my next workshop. Luke came along. I was excited for this one. I like working with high schoolers. They’re creative and angsty and have a lot to say. And they love to dream.

Outside the school, street vendors sold ancient American textbooks. I recognized a biology book. I thought of mitochondria for the first time in twenty years. The powerhouse of the cell. A partially demolished playground was blocked off by yellow tape. The school wasn’t in great shape either. It was made of old bricks. There was scaffolding hanging off of it. A tall ladder leaned up against it and a construction worker hammered nails into the roof. Inside it was very dark. I was led up a stone staircase and down a long hall. I could hear the echoes of stern teachers and eager students. We got to my classroom. The first thing I noticed before entering was a poster on the wall. A for apple, B for boy, C for cat. You know the rest. I walked inside. Okay. There was a mixup. They must have taken me to the wrong room. I was staring down at two dozen small children. Maybe nine years old. They sat in tightly-packed rows at long, colorful plywood tables. Each had a sheet of looseleaf and a pencil in front of them. They looked absolutely terrified of me. I must have looked like Frankenstein. It was 4pm and I’d eaten a muffin for the day. Plus the car crash.

I think I started laughing. I’ve never worked with kids this age before. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know what they know and what they don’t know. Can they read? Can they write? 

It was not the wrong room. The teacher summoned me in. I can’t say she seemed thrilled for me to be there. I think I interrupted a lesson on the ‘sh’ sound. She introduced me. The children greeted me together: “Welcome teacher.” Okay, they were very sweet. I’d improvise. I asked if anybody liked stories. They all did. I asked if anybody could name a character from a story. 24 hands shot up. The Wooden Camel. Ogilo and the Hippo. Paddington Bear. Mama Miti. We all started to loosen up. I asked if anybody could name a place. School. Village. Orphanage. Kibera. Forest. It went on like this. I did objects, actions and emotions, and then we pieced a story together on the blackboard. Look I’ve never taught kids this age and I have no idea if what I did was smart, or if they learned anything, but boy was it fruitful. Look at this story. Imagine a room full of small children reciting it in unison:

Tom the hungry rat is at the farm eating from the vegetable garden. Ginger the nervous cat comes out of the farmer’s house and sees Tom the rat. Ginger says, “Stop that.” Tom says, “Please join me in eating this delicious food.” Ginger says, “I won’t eat the farmer’s food because the farmer is my friend and I am his cat.” Tom puts together a plate of watermelon, bananas, lettuce, carrots, fish, beef, apples, chicken, broccoli, soup, pumpkin, chocolate, cake, cookies, pie, berries, sweet cream, peas, bread, butter, cheese, rice, sugar and corn and offers it to Ginger. Ginger says, “Thank you for this. Please come inside and be the farmer’s chef.” Ginger says, “Okay.” He follows Tom into the farmer’s house and becomes his chef.

You think I could come up with that story on my own? You think I’d have the cojones to go on and on with the food items like that? To have the cat invite the rat inside? No. That’s the handiwork of a room full of young writers who don’t give a damn about the rules. They wrote a prequel to Ratatouille without even knowing it. We should all be so lucky to have minds like this.

But the craziest part was how well they could read. The teacher would say, “Read!” and the entire class would read what I’d written on the board out loud. They didn’t even stutter. And the teacher. She was incredible. I don’t know how she managed to be so firm and warm at the same time. Every time she spoke I was nine years old again. I’d do anything she asked of me.

Kids these days.
Do kids in America have this level of focus?

It was nearly 5pm and the kids didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Neither did the teacher. I said goodbye and left with Luke and Michael for a tour of Kibera.2

Kibera’s commercial district is full of hustlers and entrepreneurs. People make and sell metal things, wood things, rubber things, cloth things, all sorts of things. Bunk beds are popular. So are tires. Impromptu factories are set up. Auto body shops. Beauty salons. Toy stores. Snack stands. Everybody’s out to make a buck. The residential areas are made up of row after row of tiny houses. More like huts. The huts are built from mud and held together with wood poles. The roofs are sheets of corrugated tin. Each one is maybe 12 feet by 12 feet. Whole families live in them. The teacher must live in one of them. Hard to imagine. There is no home security. Between the rows of houses are narrow mud walking paths. Everything is the exact same shade of brown. You’d recognize it. The color of infield dirt. Some paths are actually roads. The cars go very fast and so do the piki pikis (motor bikes). The pedestrians walk alongside. Traffic accidents are common. The railway runs along the edge of town and then cuts right through it. The train shakes the village. The occasional rusty spigot sticks out of the ground. I don’t know which water supply they connect to, but it’s nowhere good. People who take their chances with this water often die of typhoid or cholera. Sometimes they have no choice. They’re thirsty and broke. It’s hot out here. The only clean water is sold in large jugs. Rain should be a blessing but it’s more like hell. Entire homes are swept away. Children drown. Schools disappear overnight. Stagnant pools of water serve as breeding grounds for mosquitos. Climate change doesn’t help. Malaria is back on the rise after decades of decline. The washrooms are every couple of blocks. Each one is shared by dozens of families. Unclear where the sewage goes but it’s not very far. An endless stream of dirty water followed us everywhere we went. The dogs drink from the stream and I’m sure they die too. It’s full of parasites. Tapeworm. Roundworm. The UN runs a deworming program which has saved many lives, though the unschooled kids remain completely exposed. There are sky high piles of trash. People and dogs rummage through them. Some are on fire. Drug rates are high. Depression. Suicide. Gender-based violence. Disease is everywhere. Black market antibiotics create drug-resistant infections. Local cartels illegally siphon electricity from the city’s main supply and sell it to residents. A house can typically charge a phone and turn on a light. Sometimes people are electrocuted. Children have been fried by live wires. Everybody is out of their house during the day. Cleaning, cooking, making things, playing cards, roaming, hustling, gossiping. The kids are playing of course. Everywhere you look. Drawing in the mud with sticks and hopscotching and kicking the crap out of beat up soccer balls. Michael took us into his home. His wife did not seem thrilled. It’s split in half by a beige curtain. Michael and his wife sleep on one side. The other side—we’re talking six feet by six feet here—is the kitchen, living room, dining room, office, and bedroom for their three kids. The kids must witness everything. They sleep on pads which are rolled up during the day. It’s dark inside at all hours. The air is heavy. Kenya owns the land and slumlords own the homes.3 The people I met in Kibera had very white teeth. The sky is blue.

Typical Kibera homes.
The old railway.

My driver from earlier in the day called me. Davu, the one whose car was wrecked. His friend was driving him around and they could pick me up if I needed a lift. I said sure. They met me in Kibera and drove me to my Airbnb so I could rest for an hour before dinner. Beautiful place. Strange place. Very colonial. I think it’s the same staff from 1962. I couldn’t quite figure out who lived there. If I had more time I would have investigated.

I don’t care how handsome the colonizers are, this is a strange picture to have on the wall of an Airbnb.

Davu and his friend came back to pick me up for dinner. I invited them to join us. On the way into the city we got stuck in rush hour traffic. We weren’t moving. The car was in park for 20 minutes when we were half a kilometer away. I said I was going to hop out and run the rest of the way to the restaurant and Davu advised me not to but I did it anyway. I got lost. I was stuck on an island in the middle of a busy street but the island was surrounded by a fence and I couldn’t find a way to get through the fence to cross the street. I paced back and forth and then realized there was a man lying on the ground laughing at me. Actually he was laughing his ass off. It was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. I said “Okay if you’re going to laugh can you at least tell me how to get out of here?” and he did. Turned out you had to walk around.

The guys were waiting outside the restaurant. Denzel was flirting with the hostess. He had a broken arm but was on his game. She seated us at the best table in the house. We ordered a round of milkshakes. This is a thing in Kenya, drinking milkshakes as an appetizer.

Apparently the writing workshop had stirred something in a few of them. That was nice to hear. They asked if we could continue sharing stories with one another after I left. Of course we could. And they really liked one of the stories I’d told. The one about haggling with a doctor in a foreign land who was extorting me over the treatment for my girlfriend’s stomach virus. She was very sick but he wanted to charge $2,000 to give her an IV and some meds. I don’t think so buddy. What do you think this is, America? I ended up getting the price down to something still unreasonable and she got her treatment but when we broke up a few months later she accused me of putting a price on her life. That really hurt. But what a fucked up thing to say. Only one of us shit the bed here and it definitely wasn’t me.

I had a lot of questions about Kibera and they were more than happy to answer them.

“Why do you all have such good teeth?”

“We brush them twice a day.”

“How do you contact each other?”

“We text.”

“How do you get by?”

They work odd jobs. Manual labor. Event security. Data entry. Service work. Victor studied physiotherapy at a medical college but nobody has money to spend on that. People are in pain though so he often works for free. Luke has been trying to get a tourism business off the ground. There’s no stability, they take what they can find. They make stuff and sell it. Art, jewelry, trinkets. Ali buys ore from miners and turns it into gold. They live hand to mouth. They hustle to survive. They put their minds together and pull each other into jobs.

“But there’s two things we don’t do,” Ali said. “We don’t beg, and we don’t steal.”

“Never,” Luke said.

“We make sure everybody’s eating,” Ali said. “One day Victor is hungry. Maybe I’ve got some money in my pocket so we both eat. The next time it might be in reverse.”

“We’re family,” Luke said.

We finished our milkshakes and ordered entrees. The menu had dishes from all over the world. Pad thai. Enchiladas. Fish and chips. This was also a thing in Kenya. We all wanted something fried. Davu and his friend arrived just in time to order. They listened to us gab for five minutes and then moved to another table.

They were all born in Kibera. Three of the five had gone to university elsewhere in Kenya. They all regretted it.

“You ask the average college graduate in Kenya if they’d do it over again,” said Victor. “They’ll all say no.”

“Only thing that matters here is who you know,” Luke said. “And there’s not even enough jobs for the people with connections. So there’s nothing left for us.” I heard the same thing from Joseph my safari guide three days later.

I pointed to a department store across the street. “How about a place like that? What if you walk in there and try to get a job?”

“If a single job opened up in there,” Luke said. “500 people would apply the next day.”

“Jasper,” Ali said. He took my hand and looked me in the eyes. “There’s no opportunity here. None.”

“So what do you dream of?” I asked.

“We dream of getting out,” Luke said. “We just can’t see the path.”

The food came. Denzel asked to borrow my iPhone so he could film the conversation.

These are great shots, thanks Denzel you freaking goofball!

“Many of those children you taught today were hungry,” Ali said. “Many are orphans. You can’t imagine what they were hiding behind their smiles.”

His own mother had passed away from tuberculosis when he was six.

“It [wasn’t] easy for me growing up as a kid in the ghetto. I can’t brag that I have something that I’m proud of. But I’m alive. And I thank God for that.”

“Do you ever go into the Nairobi nightlife scene?” I asked.

“When we were teenagers we used to go to the clubs,” Victor said. “Sometimes we’d brawl with kids from other slums.”

“Victor was the champ,” Ali said. Not a big guy but I could see the fire in him.

“How about dating?” I asked. “Do you date?”

Ricky laughed.

“The pretty girls all get pulled out of Kibera. Some rich guy from the city spots her and we never see her again.”

“No hard feelings towards them,” Denzel said. “You make it out however you can.”

I realized that I was nearly done with my meal before several of them had taken their first bites. Not uncommon but quite a time for that old stunt.

They wanted to know about my life in New York.

“It feels weird to talk about my life,” I said. “After spending the day with you and hearing about what you face.”

“Why?” Ricky asked.

“Because it’s not fair.”

“Life’s not fair,” he said. “But I can’t be mad at you for being born into a better situation.”

“You’re not bitter at all?” I asked.

“Why would I be bitter? Here we are eating together, talking. Now tell us about your life.”

So I did. I told them about my career. My apartment. My neighborhood. My friends. I heard myself describing the chronic boredom that creeps up on me when I’m in New York for too long.

“That must have sounded obnoxious,” I said.

“Not at all,” Ricky said. “Makes perfect sense to me.”

I told them that very few people I knew in New York felt satisfied with their lives. That we take a lot for granted. They thought this was funny, but it didn’t bother them.

“How do you feel when you see white people like me being taken on tours of Kibera?” I asked.

“I feel fine about it,” Ricky said. “I’m not ashamed of how I live. I’m glad you want to see it.”

I told them about the psychic baggage I’d brought to Africa: the white savior complex, story extraction, treating the continent as a place to cure my boredom.

“It seems like you think about this stuff a lot more than we do,” Ricky said.

“I think you’re right,” I said.

“Just don’t come here and talk down to us,” Luke said. “Treat us like your peers, and we’ve got no problem with you.”

“What about the Brits who still live here? The leftover colonizers?”

“What about them?” Luke said. “Some of them are doing positive things here. Some aren’t. Same rule applies.”

“I really can’t get you to make a sweeping statement,” I said.

“We’re just trying to survive out here,” Luke said. “And to make the most of every day we have. We don’t have time to be mad at someone for what their grandfather did.”

They all agreed.

“There is one thing though,” Ricky said. “I do think about those billionaires who could write a check and end poverty. And I wonder if they sleep well at night.”

The server showed up and asked if we wanted dessert. I said yes. Everyone else was full.

I had to ask for their thoughts on LGBT+ people. I was afraid to, but I did. Big surprise, they weren’t fans. It comes down to religion. And the culture they grew up in. It’s just considered wrong, plain and simple. Plus they believe the conspiracy about the evil gay institution. I’m not going to detail the conversation here because I did so at length in my last piece—this is the dinner crew—and I have nothing new to add. I’m sure their homophobia casts a shadow over everything else, but I’ll just say this: I’m quite certain that my new queer friends in Nairobi would have confronted these views with patience and empathy, and I think the Kibera guys might take a similar approach if they had the opportunity to spend ten minutes with a queer person. But I’m not holding my breath. I don’t see that meeting happening anytime soon. The conversation bummed me out, though I am not without hope. They all had open minds.

I asked how they felt about the anti-government protests. I’d just published a piece on them. The latest round had happened days earlier. Several people in Kibera had been shot dead by the police. They’d all been there.

“Our political leader, Raila Amolo Odinga, he tells us on Wednesday to come out and do a peaceful protest,” Ali said. “We come out in large numbers, and we agree on one thing: we’ll do a peaceful protest. The police are the ones who make it messy. They come around with guns. Live guns. And they shoot them at us. We take the stones and we return them back. We have to defend ourselves. […] The reason we demonstrate, it’s not that we love it, we are fighting for our rights. […] The economy of the country right now is very [bad]. A normal man cannot sustain [himself]. We need someone to support us. And we feel that [Raila’s] the one who talks for us. Because this country is about the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.”

I asked how things turned violent.

“We were just walking,” Ricky said. He mimed marching and chanting. “Suddenly, a lorry in front. A lorry [behind]. We’re in the middle. We started being tear gassed. And they were shooting live bullets. There was even a boy who was gunned in the arm. I saw it happen.”

The police had kettled them and beaten them with sticks.

“If they catch you, they hit you bad,” Ali said. “You won’t be able to walk tomorrow.”

“Since that day, I don’t come to town,” Ricky said. “I do the protest back at home.”

The group laughed.

They were sure that the order to use force had come straight from President Ruto. Their dislike for him was clear. But I was very curious about their support for Raila, the opposition leader who had called for the protests. I’d heard from numerous people that he was a power hungry politician who exploited his supporters’ economic pain. But these guys believed he was sincere.

“Of course he’s hungry for power,” Ricky said. “You can’t do anything here without power. That doesn’t mean he’s not fighting for us.”

Previously I’d written that my attempt at a class-based analysis was cut short when I began to uncover the central role played by tribal loyalties. Raila is Luo, as is much of Kibera where he has enormous support (and which he also represented in Parliament for many years).

So I asked about it and they took a hatchet to whatever was left of the shoddy framework I’d been using to make sense of their world. Only three of them were Luo, but all five supported Raila. And they each had their own thoroughly scrutinized reasons for doing so. Tribe, class, style. Long histories of empty political promises by the ruling party. They all factored in. What they really needed was hope, and they found that in Raila. Luke invoked Bernie Sanders. I figured we could end on that.

It was late. Davu and his friend were long gone so I called a Uber. There were some seedy characters around, so the guys waited with me until my car arrived.

One thing had become very clear to me over the course of the day. These guys were every bit as smart, thoughtful, and disciplined as the average member of New York’s professional–managerial class that I interact with on a regular basis. Plus they had something else.

I was thinking about all of the things I had to do before going to sleep, my silly little nighttime routine, and trying to figure out how one does such things with barely any light.

“One final question,” I said. “What do you do at night when you have things to do but it’s too dark to do them?”

Ali shrugged. “Wait till morning.”


I went on safari. You may have heard, it was a romp. When I returned to Nairobi four days later I had a few hours to burn before flying to the coast. I met up with Luke, Ali and Victor for drinks. We were on a rooftop overlooking Nairobi National Park. There was a herd of impalas in the distance. What a city. Here a skyscraper, there a wild animal. We traded stories. I told them about my animal adventures. They had their own. Victor had been chased by giant green snakes on two separate occasions. A hilarious image if I’m being honest. Ali knew a pair of brothers who’d lost an arm and a leg fighting a croc. We talked about our families. I showed them a video of my niece Zoey singing “Under the Sea.” She got the Sebastian solo. Naturally they were impressed.

Ali had been thinking about the sudden death of his father a year earlier and was ready to start talking about it. The day he became an orphan. He described it in vivid detail. An asthma attack. His inhaler had run out of albuterol. His phone was dead. Truly heart wrenching. He said it was the first time he’d shared it with anyone. There wasn’t a dry eye. I’d include the story here but he’s writing it on his own.

I had to run, but first, they had a gift. Ali had made me some jewelry. Necklaces. Bracelets. My name spelled out in beads. I began to adorn myself, and a bracelet snapped as I tried to squeeze it over my hand.

“Don’t worry,” Ali said. “Don’t worry.”

He collected the tiny Kenyan flag-colored beads that had spilled across the table.

“I shouldn’t have tried to force it,” I said.

“It’s not a problem,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll have it fixed by the time you’re back.”

Luke, me, Ali, Victor. Ricky and Denzel there in spirit.
1

Kibera means Forest or Jungle in Kinubi.

2

Sticking with the theme of self-flagellation, here is Dipo Faloyin, the author of Africa Is Not a Country, on white people posting photos of African children on the internet. He describes white saviorism as “[reinforcing] the view that Africans can never be the solution, that they are helpless without any agency of their own, and that sunshine and hope only comes when cradled in the warm, bright embrace of whiteness.”

I’ll have more to say about this in my next piece. But in the meantime, I’ll just reenforce that between the teacher, the two teaching assistants, and myself, I was clearly the most expendable person in the classroom that day. 

3

There is of course much more to the story around land and home ownership in Kibera. The Nubians, who consider Kibera to be their homeland, have acquired land rights from the Kenyan government in recent years, and serve as landlords to many other residents.

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Infinite Jaz
Infinite Jaz