3. Kibera Slum – Entrepreneurship on an epic scale


I wasn’t at all sure what to expect at Kibera slum, where I was headed to meet Johnstone, the WASH (Water And Sanitation Hygiene) Programme Coordinator for the project called Shining Hope for Communities, SHOFCO. The Uber from my B&B to the Kibera Town Centre cost 440KSh (£3.40) and took over half an hour because of the horrendous traffic across the city. It’s cloudy and cool today with very little breeze, so the pollution is noticeably high.

I had agreed to meet Johnstone in Kibera Town Centre and hoped that it was an easy place to find.

As usual, my Uber driver needed me to direct but we made it to Kibera Town Centre (KTC), which is actually the name written on a large building just outside a main entrance to the slum itself.

As I was waiting for Johnstone to meet me, a taxi pulled up and an English woman leant out and asked if I was Catherine, I guessed we might have both been speaking to Catherine at SHOFCO and when Johnstone arrived, he confirmed that we were both going to be shown around together. Amazingly, Amy is from Bath, the closest city to Bristol where I live in the UK!

Before we even left the square with KTC, we could see a SHOFCO water tower high above the nearest section of the slum.

A SHOFCO water tower visible over an area of the Kibera Slum

On our way into Kibera, Johnstone took us to a viewpoint overlooking some of the vastness of Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and also the largest urban slum in Africa. The population is probably well over 1 million but estimates are sometimes as low as 170,000 people (which is laughably low). The poverty here is extreme, with most of the population surviving on less than $1 per day. Kibera is made up of 13 villages, and we spent the majority of our time at the SHOFCO facilities in Gatwekera, the largest community.

A view over part of Kibera slum from one of the main walkways into the slum

Johnstone introduced us to John, who runs the computer lab at the main community centre, Golda Chanoff. The computers are ancient but the value of the training programme they offer there can’t be overstressed. John made it clear that computer literacy is essential for most employment and for life in modern Kenya. The children are taught to write and format CVs and covering letters, then they move onto spreadsheets, databases and PowerPoint presentations. They are even taught to use Microsoft Publisher to help with any marketing they may need for a small business they could create. Lastly they are taught about internet searches and cloud document storage – the staff are acutely aware of the issue Kibera has with fire, and the cost of starting again. Interestingly, cloud storage offers some people in the slum a mark in the sand to start again even if everything else is lost. There are 6 two-hour classes per day of 25 students, with courses lasting three months. Each student pays 500Ksh for the course (£3.85). Through the efforts of some really dedicated individuals, SHOFCO are attempting to upskill as many young people as possible to give them a chance to create a better life for themselves. I was glad to hear that some newer machines have been donated to the Computer Lab so that children can learn on newer Operating Systems.

The library at one of the Community Centres at Kibera Slum

The Library at the community centre above the computer room

We visited different parts of the WASH Programme throughout the day, but I’m going to focus on that on the SHOFCO page.

We were shown each element of the SHOFCO work, and two other ones particularly stood out for me.

Caroline, the Gender Programme Director told us about the amazing work her team are doing to tackle Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the slums. She has 25 case workers in four slums across Nairobi who work to rescue women and children in need and conduct sensitisation training to raise awareness of GBV and the law. There is a 24-hour hotline and drop-boxes where people can report GBV issues if they are unable to reach the office in Gatwekera. There are also safe houses and the women and children are given access to lawyers, treatment for injuries, advice and counselling. The walls were plastered with the statistics of all of the cases in each year since 2016. The cases across all different types of GBV have been increasing across the 13 different villages of Kibera, but it is almost certainly through an increase in the reporting of such incidents rather than an increase in the crime. Some fairly landmark court cases recently have seen the perpetrators sent to prison for life. It is hoped that with a combination of increased reporting, increased awareness of GBV issues and a crack down in the law, a decrease in cases will be seen in the next few years. I wish them all the best, as the stats are fairly horrifying, and life in the slum is hard enough without added fear.

Kibera School for Girls

I’m blown away and more than a little emotional about my experience at Kibera School for Girls. After a lovely meeting with the Head Mistress we were shown around the school. There are 334 girls and 35 teachers from pre-kindergarten up to Grade 8, when they sit the National Exams. In each of the stairwells there is a beautiful mural of a truck with inspirational bumper stickers (much like the religious ones seen on all of the buses in Nairobi).

Artwork in the stairwell of the Kibera School for Girls

We first visited the STEM Lab, which has such inspirational messages all over the walls. I was really impacted when I saw this section in particular. And it still makes me well up with emotion when I look at the image. It’s the reason I am here and it’s something I passionately believe. An engineer is someone like you. That’s The Wandering Engineer in a nutshell. And I saw it on the wall of a classroom, in a slum in Kenya.

An Engineer is Someone Like You collage on a wall

The women were all touched by how much seeing the STEM lab affected me and it was nice to be able to share my thoughts with them.

Collage posters on the wall of the STEM Lab at Kibera School for Girls

We were then taken into a 7th Grade class and the girls were given a short break in their lessons to talk to us. Amy and I introduced ourselves and why we were both here and then the girls were given the chance to ask us questions. We asked the girls who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up and got the most inspirational, powerful and thoughtful responses I’ve ever heard. The girls have ambition to do all kinds of things, but their motivations are all rooted in improving the lives of people in Kibera. Daisy didn’t just want to be an architect; she wants to become an architect so that she can design clever structures that can safely house people in Kibera. Celene wants to become a doctor so that she can improve women’s healthcare. One girl wanted to be a lawyer so she can advocate for women’s rights in Kibera. It’s inspirational for me to see that these girls want to tackle the issues around them rather than use their education to move away.

Me and Amy having a selfie with the 7th Graders at Kibera School for Girls

Outside the school, we visited part of the SHOFCO programme that supports entrepreneurs. It’s right next to the school kitchen and Catherine explained that the only form of payment the parents of the schoolgirls make is to work in the kitchen or as a cleaner for three weeks per years. The programme that the girls go through is like nothing I’ve ever heard of before and it’s a really amazing way for the parents to support the initiative.

Parents of schoolchildren preparing lunch for the pupils

The medical centre tour was interesting but I liked the lab, where we got to see the single-use Malaria test kits that are really saving lives. The technology in this area is coming on well, and a cheap method of getting a pretty good idea if the patient has malaria is invaluable. Tests cost less than $2 and the device is extremely simple – it requires a drop of blood to be placed on an indicator strip and a buffer solution to be added in a different spot to enable the blood to flow across the strip. After 15 minutes the result is visible as a red line next to the appropriate indicator (to show which strain of malaria is detected, if any). There are more accurate methods which can then be used to monitor response to treatment and ensure all traces of malaria are gone from the patient’s blood.

A malaria test kit

My time at Kibera Slum was really powerful and I hope you’ll also read about my introduction to the SHOFCO Water and Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) Programme and about Johnstone, who is a really inspiring entrepreneur who is mentoring youths in Kibera to develop entrepreneurial ideas of their own. Catherine was a really great host and we had a good laugh at the end when a local photobombed our shot.

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