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“This is not a lesser life”

Elsie Ayoo, 16, a young passionate ballet dancer, trains along a busy street corner in Kibera slum located in Nairobi, Kenya. Ballet dancing is being taught at schools in Kibera through an arts program run by charities Anno’s Africa and One Fine Day, providing alternative Arts and education to children in Kenya. This photo was taken while shooting a documentary about Elsie and her passion for ballet dancing on July 15th, 2018. Photo by Bryan Jaybee


Teenage ballet dancer Elsie Ayoo trains at a busy street corner in Kibera, believed to be Africa’s largest urban slum

“Kibera is full of life – but nobody can quite agree on how full,” says Brian Otieno, a photojournalist born in the sprawling, 2.5km-square settlement dubbed “Africa’s largest slum”. “The government puts the population at 180,000, but nobody here believes that number is anywhere near high enough. Some NGOs say there are two million living here, but I think that’s too high. The fact is nobody really knows.”

Whatever the number, there are plans afoot to decrease it. On 24th January the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) launched an ambitious $647 million project to create affordable and sustainable homes in Kenya. The plan is to move people out of the sort of mud-brick houses that dominate Kibera into more permanent housing.

Otieno has his doubts about whether the scheme will work. “We’ve seen the start of so many projects like this, but so many of them end up stalling,” he says. “There was a government scheme recently to move people from near the railway tracks that run through Kibera into housing blocks. Some of the people who were relocated lasted just a few weeks before renting out their new houses and moving back to the slum. They are used to slum life.”

Otieno has been documenting the realities of this “slum life” since 2014, after becoming frustrated with seeing the neighbourhood he was raised in only ever being portrayed as squalid and chaotic. The reality, he says, is very different. “I was tired of seeing my home depicted as an urban jungle with no potential,” he says. “People here are trying to make something good with what they have. They have jobs, they run their own businesses. Poverty is a problem, crime is a problem – as it is everywhere. But this is not a lesser life.”

Nairobi was founded in 1899 as a railway depot and by 1905 it had grown to replace Mombasa as the capital of British colonial Kenya. As it expanded, migrant African labourers were forced to live in the surrounding forest, far from the city centre, which was reserved for white settlers. The largest of the migrant camps was Kibera, which mostly sits on government land that can be reclaimed at any time – and tensions between Kiberans and the government remain high.

In 2018, 2,000 families were forcibly evicted to make room for a new road. “The people don’t feel supported by the government at all,” says Otieno. “It evicted people to make this road, demolished their houses and never gave compensation. They were just expected to move on and start again.” Not only that, but, given that very few Kiberans own cars, the road is of little use to them.

Otieno believes that the government’s priority should be improving the area’s crumbling infrastructure. Electricity mostly comes from improvised hookups – in which the main power lines are illegally tapped – which are dangerous and lead to frequent blackouts. The lack of sanitation means there is an average
of one toilet to every 500 people. This picture of disadvantage is set against a backdrop of a booming Kenyan economy. Between 2000 and 2017 the country’s GDP quadrupled to $75 billion, but in that same period the number of people in severe poverty increased by ten percent.

The frustration at the widening gap between rich and poor is compounded by the fact that new developments often don’t result in new jobs for locals. “A lot of these projects are created with the Chinese government, which is investing heavily in Kenya,” says Otieno. “As a result the manual labourers tend to be Chinese, not Kenyans.”

The employment rate in Kibera is estimated to be around 50 percent, with most workers taking the daily commuter train into Nairobi, 20 minutes away, where they work in low-paid jobs in the industrial area. “The train is the lifeline in many ways,” says Otieno. “But it only runs twice a day, once into Nairobi in the morning and then back in the evening. From 7am the platform is full of people.”

Men peer out from the daily commuter train which passes through Kibera carrying passengers to and from Nairobi city centre

While Kibera’s poverty is frequently reported, Otieno believes that this is only part of the story. Vibrant creative and sporting communities have emerged from Kibera’s young population – and it is towards this talent that he wants to turn his lens. “I interact with a lot of artists, musicians, people who are trying to do something to make their lives better,” says Otieno. “I’ve photographed filmmakers, fashion designers, boxers, footballers and poets in Kibera. Incredibly talented people looking for their break.”

One of those opportunities comes in the form of the annual Mr and Miss Kibera competition. The annual event started as a beauty pageant, but has developed to celebrate sport and art and to develop leadership skills among young Kiberans. “It’s difficult to explain how much of a big deal the competition is,” says Otieno. “If you are selected as Mr or Miss Kibera you will get a lot of opportunities. You become a role model and get invited to things within the community. Sometimes they get employed by NGOs; it opens a lot of doors.”

Filmmaker, designer, photographer and model Stephen Okoth, 25, walks through Kibera

Contenders and crowds at the annual Kentrack boxing tournament in Kibera, 29th July 2018

Actors from Kibera promote a music video directed by Stephen Okoth (pictured opposite), who also created the costumes

Contestants in the annual Mr and Miss Kibera pageant, 5th December 2017

One of Otieno’s favourite subjects to shoot is Elsie Ayoo (see p33). “She is a 17-year-old girl who’s determined to become a professional ballet dancer,” he says. “She is betting everything on making it. She has performed in theatres in Nairobi as a prima ballerina and her goal is to use dance
to improve her life. I think she is on the right track.”

“For most people, education is the most likely route out of extreme poverty,” says Otieno. “You have to get educated, but all the public schools are overcrowded.” Olympic Primary, one of Kibera’s largest schools, has over 4,000 students. It once ranked among the top schools in Kenya, but an increasing intake over the past decade has seen its performance slide.

As children reach secondary-school age there has traditionally been pressure to drop out of education and start earning, but things are changing. “Most children in Kibera now receive a secondary education, but only thanks to NGOs and charities,” says Otieno. “The school fees, while subsidised by the government, are too high for most people living in the area to pay without help. Secondary school is the final stop for most people – university is very expensive – but a secondary education means you can train to be an electrician, a mechanic, a sales agent or a secretary. It opens up new careers for people.”

Children walk to school along the railway line in Kibera – according to the World Bank, Kenya has the third-highest literacy level in Africa

Pupils playing at Toi Primary, one of Kibera’s many schools and educational centres

At the heart of Kibera is Toi Market, home to over 5,000 traders who deal in everything the locals need. Disaster struck on 12th March 2019 when a fire destroyed the entire market. “So many people lost everything,” says Otieno. “People didn’t have time to salvage their stock. The fire started at night, and by the morning everything was gone. But the people of Kibera are so resilient. A day later they started building the market up again. If you don’t come to your space every day, you’ll find somebody else has taken it. So you’d find guys that were selling clothes before the fire were now selling groceries. Then, when they’d made enough to buy clothes again, you’d see those reappearing. By May the market was up and running as if nothing had happened. This is Kibera – we find a way to carry on.”

The remains of Toi Market after a devastating fire, March 2019

One of Toi Market’s 5,000-plus traders surveys the damage


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