A Quest for Empathy in Kenya: Wisdom in Africa’s Biggest Slum

By Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]N[/dropcap]airobi has two faces. On the one hand, it is a symbol of East Africa’s modernization, industrialization, and internationalization — wide roads, large shopping malls, numerous construction sites, luxurious hotels. On the other hand, the city embodies the negative side effects of Kenya’s rapid growth.

After only a five minute car ride from my hotel, I arrived at Kibera Slum, the biggest slum in Africa. Some estimate that there are more than a million residents in the slum. Although settlement in Kibera was made illegal after Kenya’s independence, some residents have been living in Kibera for decades. The lives of Kibera residents are far from stable; however, they are never without hope and agency. During my stay in Kenya, Kibera residents taught me that economic difficulties do not have to be obstacles to leading a satisfactory life.

Visiting Kibera had been one of my dreams since I was a high school student. When I was in third grade, Ms. Chiaki Hayakawa, who is a manager of Magoso School, a primary school in Kibera, came to Kobe, Japan, to give a talk near my high school. During her talk, Ms. Hayakawa emphasized how energetic, resilient, and cheerful Kibera residents are, despite economic hardships. Hoping to know how people in Kibera seem to find happiness in such a demanding life, I contacted Ms. Hayakawa and organized a personal trip to Kenya. During my stay last August, I was able to ask local residents about their wisdom of life in person. Ms. Hayakawa showed me around Kibera and helped my interview by translating Swahili into Japanese.

“With regard to the persons I know,” Ms. Hayakawa said, “you may take pictures and ask anything you want.” I was astonished: when I’ve done interviews in Japanese slums, taking pictures is seldom allowed and there are strict restrictions on interviewing. However, in Kibera, people were incredibly open to talk about their personal matters. Some of them even invited me to their homes.

Most of the adults I interviewed were not born in Kibera. They were born and brought up in rural areas and moved to Nairobi later in life. Since its independence in 1964, Kenya’s development has taken place in a centralized manner, and the gap between Nairobi and rural villages in terms of jobs, salaries, and prospects has increased consistently. However, opportunities in the city are not plentiful enough, and many of the migrant workers choose to run small businesses in Kibera. A stallholder shared his story with me. After graduating from high school, he moved to Nairobi. As he had no place to live, he hid his baggage in the bathroom of a bus terminal, looked for a job during the daytime, and slept in an overnight bus, pretending to be a passenger. He eventually got a job at a soap factory and built a house in Kibera. The factory, however, went out of business, and he could not find a job during the following ten years due to the intensifying job competition in the city. His wife sustained a household by selling samosas, and he finally opened a French fries store. He concluded his story by saying, “The most important thing is your effort. Keep doing something new, and a good day will come.”

The local businesses include vegetable stores, food stands, pharmacies, M-Pesa (phone-based money transfer) kiosks, babysitting services, and so on. Nonetheless, most of local business owners earn only a few dollars a day. Residents also live in fear of demolition. Kibera is located just next to the centre of Nairobi City. Hence, since 2009, the Kenyan government has regularly demolished dwellings in Kibera in order to construct railway and roads to improve urban transportation. The stallholder I mentioned above recalled the latest demolition. “It was like a joke. It began at 3 a.m. and lasted until 3 p.m. More than a thousand were displaced and everything, including churches and schools, was destroyed.”

Although people’s lives in Kibera are far from stable, residents always have some means to survive. Even after the demolition, there were few homeless people: those who had lost their houses managed to find people who could share their housing with them. I sensed that Kibera has a force that sustains people’s lives, which the developed world has lost due to its harsh economic competitions. This force is empathy.

In Kibera, most economic activity is founded on the principle of empathy and mutual cooperation. The population of Kibera is increasing despite repeated demolitions, since residents can survive demolitions by finding someone to turn to. A scrap trader said he could get painting jobs apart from his ordinary job since his friends share such opportunities. Although there seemed to be excess M-Pesa kiosks, this does not result in common ruin.

The most significant example of empathy in Kibera is the chama system, which is a local cooperative consisting of around twenty shopkeepers. An old woman who runs a vegetable store and serves as an accountant of chama taught me how the system functions. The most serious issue for the shopkeepers is the lack of capital. Since they earn only a small amount of money a day, it is hard for them to have an adequate amount of money to start and maintain their businesses. Chama begins to alleviate this problem. Each chama member contributes a determined amount of money which the accountant pools and distributes to one designated member. The receiving member changes every day. With this system, shopkeepers can regularly get a sufficient amount of money to buy commodities and ingredients at the market. This system also saves shopkeepers the necessity to stock cash on their own. If someone has a problem, members become aware immediately since they meet every day. Therefore, chama is an indispensable part of Kibera residents’ lives.

Without empathy, chama would be far from feasible. The accountant herself is living in extreme poverty. She lives in a mud-walled hut she built almost forty years ago. Although the hut’s roof is leaking, she cannot afford to repair it. Her illness prevents her from looking for more stable jobs. However, she is trusted as an accountant for her calculative ability. There are no skeptics who would say that she might embezzle the money she has collected. Unfortunately, today’s population expansion is threatening chama’s efficacy. I interviewed a woman who lost her babysitting job when she moved from her initial house whose rain leaking caused her and her children’s malaria and pneumonia. She said she could no longer join chama since she hadn’t found a new job due to the harsh competition and therefore could not afford its daily contribution. Chama is not social welfare, so it’s not accessible to jobless residents like her. However, residents still have mutual empathy and trust which are the foundation of the chama system.

Kibera residents’ empathy is not confined to the slum. They care about the development of their nation as a whole, which has ignored Kibera residents throughout its modernisation process. They even accept demolitions. The stallholder said to me that he tolerated demolitions since they led to natural growth, providing people with better infrastructure and transportation. Most of the victimised residents did not even receive compensation, but they somehow accepted their hardship. In the minds of Kibera residents, individual interests are naturally linked to the collective, public interest.

What makes this empathy possible? Moderation, pride, and curiosity play a factor. Firstly, most of the residents have learned how to be happy with what they have. Kibera’s economy is multilayered, based on the principle of compartmentalization. For instance, scrap trading involves scrap collectors, scrap buyers, artisans who produce utensils out of scraps, and pedlars. Business owners have their own field and personal connection and never transgress each other’s threshold. This is why the chama system can be sustained even among workers of the same job without producing inequalities or distrust.

Secondly, people are proud of their identity as Kibera residents. No one I interviewed implied that they felt ashamed of living in Kibera or they were stigmatized since they live there. Even migrant workers who were not born in Kibera said Kibera is their home. Their children inherit this attitude. Even those students who were brought up in Kibera and managed to go to national university said that they would like to return to Kibera after graduation to serve their hometown.

Finally, residents of Kibera are curious about the world. They have desire to know about neighbors, markets, constructions, and national policies. Since they know how their hardship contributes to national development, they can tolerate and take advantage of even the worst situation, instead of competing with each other. For instance, once demolition takes place, people collect useful materials to sell to scrap traders. Out of curiosity and knowledge about outside situations, people grow resilience.

Today, many Kibera residents are aware that education is the key to sustaining their community and willingly sending their children to school. The aforementioned stallholder, whose children go to Magoso School, said “The worst thing is ignorance, living in fear of the unknown.” Ms. Lilian Wangala, founder of Magoso School, said that life in Kibera requires two things: academic knowledge and wisdom to survive. Academic knowledge based on general education is essential now that most jobs require at least a secondary education diploma. However, besides academic knowledge, children, especially those who cannot continue general education, must acquire vocational skills, such as cloth-making or cooking. For Ms. Wangala, school is a place to give children the tools for survival.

Indeed, I should not romanticize Kibera. Sexual assaults, domestic violence, and child abuse are serious issues. Ms. Wangala sometimes has to separate children from their families and send them to an orphanage in Miritini, a village close to Mombasa, called Jumba la Watoto (Children’s House in Swahili), which I also visited. During my visit it appeared to me that these children too had a great capacity for empathy, grounded in moderation, pride, and curiosity. Although I did not ask about their lives in Kibera before coming to Miritini, the children recounted their memories of Magoso and their excitement about their annual return to Nairobi in December.

The empathy of Kibera can teach many lessons to people living in more competitive, capitalist societies. Although we are living in “developed” countries, do we really lead happier lives? Many of us know little about our neighbours. We are in constant competition. We always wait for something to solve our hardships, instead of trying to tackle them by ourselves. We fall into egoistic indifference to the outside world. Witnessing Kibera residents’ profound empathy towards each other, I felt I lacked some essential elements of humanity that they have. We can no longer call ourselves “developed.” It’s time for us to develop our empathy.


Keigo Nishio is a sophomore in Branford College. You can contact him at keigo.nishio@yale.edu.