Thursday, May 27, 2010

What is your Definition of a Slum

I have to admit it. Growing up in the rural countryside of northern Wisconsin, I haven’t spent much time in a really big city. And when I have been in places such as Detroit or Chicago or Denver, it was mostly in nice neighborhoods. I have over the years driven through some rather questionable areas though. They look basically the same as any other neighborhood, but much more rundown, dreary and kind of scary.

In Africa, and probably a lot of other places in the third world, the word slum has a whole different meaning. It’s not a place that was once a part of the city and was just neglected. The slums in Nairobi are just big bad places where the poor and destitute were allowed to settle so that the city at large would not have to deal with them.

Kibera slum, south west of the center of Nairobi, is thought to be one of the largest slums in the world. If you do a search for it on Google Earth, you can see this huge area, about the size of New York City’s Central Park, filled with structures made of scraps of corrugated metal and pieces of plywood. Even from the grainy satellite shot, you can see, even sense, the desolation. Population estimates run as high as 1.5 million people, depending on the time of year.

Mathare slum, on the north east side of Nairobi, isn’t much better. The population averages around a half million and encompasses several areas, but the view is all pretty much the same. No trees, no roads, just a sea of pitiful buildings, if you can call them buildings. In between those buildings, crammed together as they are, are mounds of garbage, human waste, live chickens and goats, and dead ones. Inside those buildings, entire extended families live in rooms that aren’t more than ten foot square, with no indoor plumbing and only occasionally electricity.

And this is where we went our second day in Kenya on my first trip there in 2006.

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