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Posted Mar 08, 2018 by Tony O'Riordan

Slums and Skyscrapers - Impressions of Nairobi

Estimated read time: 5 Minutes

I took an instant liking to Nairobi. It is a city of bussle and movement, a city of colour and a city of contrasts. 

On my first day in Nairobi I joined the outreach worker of the Jesuit Refugee Service on home vistis. I do not like the word Slum, but it is hard to think of another word to describe the areas where so many people live and exist. These rough and ready neighbourhoods like Kangemi ( where Pope Francis visted in 2015) have no tar roads and pavements. What passes for streets is a clay track, often filled with lagoons of water after the showers that are frequent these days. I found it impossible to walk too far without having to make a choice of either walking through a large and deep puddle of water or to skirt around the puddle and walk in mud. So much for the polish on my nice leather shoes. 

The 'houses' I visited were small. By small I mean - tiny. I sat in sitting rooms that were about the size of an average bathroom at home. I am not very big, but I sat on a couch and could touch the opposite wall of the room without fully stretching my arm. I didnt get to see bedrooms, but all the houses I viisted had only one bedroom shared by parents and children alike. These constructions are simple, a basic frame encased in corrigated iron. Some had a fabric draped on the inside to make it look cosy and homely. Cooking and meals seemed to be prepared outdoors in a commual area with the nieghbours who lived in simalr structures. Some had a basic elecricity supply to power lighting others had no source of electric power.   

One couple I viisted had benefited from a small loan scheme operated by the Jesuit Refugee Service to enable people to start a business. They had used this to buy fabrics wholesale and then to sell it on. It sounded like hard work, getting the fabric from the other side of Nairobi and then walking for miles seeking people who would buy it and could afford it. But they were proud of their efforts. I found this alot in the people I met - they are cheerful amid their struggles. What they were most proud of was their four children who are all in school. Proudly they showed me art work by one and craft work by another. One wants to be a doctor, another an actor. Normal dreams, normal parents wanting the best for their children. I may have been in a simple house, but I realised I was in a fantastic home. 

The character of these people is formed in hardship and challenge.  I found it hard being in one house as the father told me they had not eaten yet that day and he was unsure where he, his wife and five children would get food that day. This is typical of lives where the prime daily task is survial. When I asked the outreach worker what was likely to happen he told me that there is s strong practice of sharing and soidarity in such areas and that is how many families survie. They share when they have - they borrow when the do not.


Survival is a daily reality


However there is more to Nairobi. There is plenty of evidence of a growing middle class and imposing buidlings and skyscrapers in the downtown area makes me think there is a lot of wealth in this city too. I visited one of the many European style shopping centres - the Yaya Shopping Centre. It has a supermarket with a wide variety of gobalised brands. It was like a supermarket in Ireland, with many of the same products and many of the same prces! And they were not short of customers. The other shops in the centre too are well stocked with electrical goods, clothes and luxury goods. 

Lady Gregory once remarked that there are two kinds of Irish - those who use tooth brushes and those who don't. I might venture to say that there are two type of Keynan, those who can shop in the likes of Yaya Shoping Centre and those who have to shop from the stalls and kabins that lines the streets of the slums. The challenge is to narrow the gap.

It has been good to have had some days to explore Nairobi and to observe the hard working, good humoured and wlecoming people who live here. Now that I have my visa to travel to South Sudan I will now travel onward to Juba the Capital of South Sudan. I plan to spend a few days there getting to know my colleague in the JRS Country Office before the final leg of my journey from Juba to Maban. 



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