Kibera, Kenya


 I am a very fortunate individual. I have had an equal dose of reward and tragedy, enough to push my boundaries and give me the mental strength and agility to stay ahead of the curve ball of life. However, my two weeks on the African continent changed me more than my previous forty-eight years combined.

It was difficult writing this and that is why it took me two years to complete. I made several attempts and failed. I know well-written words show instead of tell, but mental growth is hard to capture in phrases.  I will do my best to pass on memories with the same depth of emotion that I felt during my trip — hopefully in an entertaining way. This first part is a bit heart-wrenching but I assure you the next instalments are glorious.  Thanks for reading.- Kelly MacKay

HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES: The breadth of the class spectrum from the top. First, I inherited this trip from my best friend. Her intended traveling partner couldn’t go and a series of unfortunate events within her family had crossed them off as potential companions. I was at least fourth or fifth on the list and I won the lottery. I only had to come up with a passport, a flight to Toronto, travel cash, inoculations and personal items. The safari trip was gifted to me.

Business class. I have always flown standard cattle economy — those flights are expensive enough — believing I was aligned with the majority of my Canadian peers at middle class. I instantly feel like I have been had. I want to see this scale. I think I may be on the lower end.

Air Canada lounge
Air Canada lounge in Toronto, enjoying a beer and tomato juice.

The revelation starts at the Air Canada lounge with its comfortable chairs, a free buffet and drinks. This is incredible. I didn’t even know this existed.  Life is definitely better for those who can afford not just luxury cars and clothing, but upgrades on frivolous items like flights.

The Plane I have my own pod; a walled off recliner with a flat screen television.  Hot towel service, a menu of gourmet meals, unlimited alcoholic drinks. I don’t have to ask four people on my left to shift so I can squeeze past knees and feet to get to the aisle to find the toilet. I don’t have to wait for the drink cart, for a pack of Peek Freans cookies. Are you kidding me? How is this possible?

HOW THE MIDDLE HALF LIVE. A viewing up from half way. We stay at a five star hotel in Nairobi.  It is decorated with heavy wood furnishings and delicate fixtures polished to a shine.  The staff are dressed in tailor-fitted uniforms. There are separate rooms off the main foyer that conjure up images of cigar smoke and brandy snifters. This type of palatial surroundings comes with an expectation of wealth, as we discovered when the concierge presented us with a recommended cab driver to take us “where ever you wish to go.”

We want to go to the National Museum of Kenya  and the slum of Kibera. We haggle back and forth but his inflated price has us exiting the cab.

“But you are staying at the Sarova Stanley!” he says with his hands in the air.  “We won the trip,” I tell him.

As his potential fare walks away, he yells out a more affordable price.  We agree and climb back in the cab.


We arrived at a walled area sheltered from the village. Our first encounter is with a machine-gun-toting, camouflage-wearing security guard.  I am suddenly scared. We exit the cab and stand around with our hands at our sides feeling uncomfortable. It is noisy here. An endless hum of generators and Swahili jabber.

I smell wood smoke, food cooking, diesel fumes, and a stink of sewer.  Our driver has informed us we will have to hire one of the guards to take us on a tour. It should cost about $5000 Kenyan shillings — approximately $60 Canadian dollars. He went to arrange it but upon returning, quotes us $50,000 shillings. The guide insists it is costly to insure the safe passage of two white women through the slum. We declined the $600 tour.

Our cab driver says it was a shame we had come this far to not see it. He has relatives that live in the slum.  He knows the area. He will give us a drive-through tour, but he will not stop within the slum.

Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya.

Heaps of garbage are strewn about the ground. I wrinkle up my nose in disgust. Gulls and other scavenging birds dive down and pluck bits of food from the refuse. Many of the shanties are conjoined while others have mere feet between then. Most are smaller than what I would consider a shed. The are built of scrap wood, the gaps plugged with mud and bits of material, topped with corrugated metal sheets.  I am glad we are in a vehicle and not walking through the filth.

We pass what appears to be a market. The road is so narrow, I could reach out and grab a sweet potato. We slow down to let a person cross in front of the vehicle. The driver toots the horn to hurry the guy along. Blankets are laid out with melons, squash, various fruits and vegetables. Makeshift tables display clothing, shoes. A few bright-coloured items seem new, but most of it looks second-hand. Radios, old electronic components, tires, some bicycle parts. Everything a person needs, and some things they don’t, looks available for purchase. I see a man stretched out on the ground. Asleep? Who knows?

Our driver tells us there is no running water or electricity to individual homes. The city of Nairobi owns the land, but most of the shanties are built by illegal landlords and squatters.

Monique and I have brought pencils and pens for the orphanage but they seem so insufficient that I want to stuff them down the back of the seat. The road is rough and dusty and we jolt about in the back seat. I search the endless line of shacks, and endless piles of garbage, but I see no schools. How would I recognize it? What would a school look like here? Every shack is same. There are people everywhere jostling for space. It is very crowded.

We roll by a building with a sign painted with the words BAR on a post. Someone has  created a business at their home from two barrels and a wooden board laid across them. Paired with a few mismatched chairs. “A Tusker beer would be great about now,”  I say to break the tense silence we have been stricken with. Our driver says they mostly drink Changa here. He explains it is a cheap distilled alcoholic poison.

A women lugs a plastic container. I assume it is water. Several lean dogs sniffing the ground one has enlarged teats — she must have pups somewhere. Several very young women are in the same condition, with babies straddling their hips.

I see a child, maybe three years old, walking on a garbage-strewn path. He or she wears some sort of cloth diaper on but no shirt or shoes. A little further we pass a few older boys rolling a tire back and forth between them. They are barefoot and ankle-deep in trash, but they are laughing.

The views blur by. I see a public pay toilet sign. I give that a moment’s ponder before the next cruelty rattles me. A hair salon, with a promotion on manicures, pedicures and hair extensions. These extravagances would be the least of my needs If I lived here. And yet … Who am I to judge?

Looking  back at Kibera from the road outside the slum.

“There are a lot of young children here,”  I say aloud. Our driver says there is a very high incidence of drug addiction. HIV and AIDS is still rampant, many people die leaving children as orphans. Most girls won’t reach 13 without being raped, then burdened with unwanted pregnancies. Many subsequently turn to prostitution. There is no hiding here. No safe place. I wonder to myself, How do you keep rapists and pedophiles out with a curtain covering your doorway?

I take no pictures, I am too ashamed, the guilt of having so much. I become very aware of my Asics runners, New Balance shirt, prescription sunglasses. Theses items may be very ordinary at home,  but they might be worth killing for out there. How dare I complain about my station in life?

 THE LOOK OUT. A different view from the top Our driver speaks fast and his English is mixed with a Swahili accent. I can’t catch everything he says.  He states: “We  have completed our tour of Kibera.” We exit the defined mess with a bit of relief.  Our driver speaks again but I wasn’t listening, I was too traumatized. “You see it all,” is the part I caught.

We drive a long way out of town  on a decent paved surface.  A suburban setting, there  are small shops and mini plazas surrounded by fields and farms. Lots of potted plants displayed in front of what looks to be landscaping businesses. We enjoy the more pleasant view as I try to reset my emotional compass.

I notice a riding club and a golf course. Quite posh, I think to myself. Our taxi veers at the last minute off onto a narrow dirt road. The buildings and cars fade from view in the cloud of dust behind us. The car rattles along on this ever narrowing trail.  We swerve occasionally to miss a pothole. Thick stands of trees lean in, creating cover over the path with a jungle like view now on each side. We continue driving into the belly of isolation.

A nagging though creeps into my mind followed by a constriction in my chest. Have we made a mistake?  Monique and I look at one another drawing the same dire thought. Are we in trouble here? the worst scenarios form in my mind, extortion, abduction, rape, left for dead. The vehicle accelerates down the path. My stress increases.

I speak up in my best dominant outdoor voice. “WHERE ARE WE GOING?”

He says, “I take you to the look out, to see all of Kibera.”

I retort with, “Well this road is freaking me out a bit.”

He laughs, “Oh you think you’re in danger.” He laughs out loud again, a little heartier this time.

“No, no, you will see this is the road to the lookout.”

He was true to his word, thank frig, because I’d nearly soiled my pants .  We stop on the bluff of a hill.  The expanse of shacks is numbing.

“How many people live here? I ask.

He says the UN estimates one million but the census says fewer than 200,000.

It felt like 300,000, easy, to me. Everyone is outside moving around in a confined space.  I tell him, “In Canada, you don’t see that many people outside.” Even in cities like Toronto or Montreal with large populations, we have more space than people, here it seems reversed.

Kibera Largest slum in Africa
Kibera, the largest slum in Africa.

Our driver says they are putting up new low-income housing, He points to one new complex on the horizon on the outskirts of the slum. “The government is trying to get rid of Kibera.” He shakes his head and tells us that people get an apartment but, if they can’t get a job to pay for it they will sublet the apartments and move back to Kibera.

New apartment complex at back left of photo.

First day reflection.

We lay out on the lounge chairs around the heated pool at the Sarova Stanley Hotel and ordered Tusker beers and kept them coming.  Silence prevailed as we absorbed what we had experienced. A horrible lifestyle had played out in front of us, and we were the lucky ones, to see it and not live it. A roll of the dice or if you prefer, but for the grace of god, there go I.

places we visited in Nairobi


A Culture of Poverty.

I  was shaken by the living conditions in Kibera. Their lifestyle is a culture, as much a culture as Cape Breton is too me.  My first impression is there is no fixing this.  This isn’t living; it is survival, and everyone within the slum lives the same way, which normalizes it.

 My mind rolled with the big question; How would a person get out of here and break the cycle?  How can they possibly understand there is a better life?  I didn’t even know how luxurious business-class travel was and I live in the First World.

Forgive me for saying it, but this is not a culture you want to preserve. God bless them all.

Join me for  What Kenya Did to Me: Samburu Part 2

Happy travels from Maritime Mac

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87 thoughts on “Kibera, Kenya

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  1. Seeing how people manage to survive in such poverty really makes me appreciate what I have. At the moment we are living in a tiny old house we are renovating, without a proper electricity supply. Which means no fridge, washing machine or dryer, but it’s by choice and to save money. I feel like we live a palace after reading your post. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is an incredibly moving post. Sometimes I wonder by what grace I was born into a situation where I’ve always had everything I need. Sure, we all have our struggles. But even in my worst of times I’ve had clothes, food, and a roof. So many people in this world can’t say the same and it’s heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve been having a debate with an old friend today about poverty etc.
    Long story short, I’ve come to think that economic struggle can leave one with a kind of PTSD. Some people react differently to the triggers. Some dig in and fight. Some just give up. Most fight in wrong wrong way or at the wrong time. Either way, it’s a broken spirit that must be healed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes, hard to leave your beginnings behind, Know matter what level they are. Thank you for your comment. I didn’t expect everyone to understand this post. It is so out of their realm they will never understand, I don’t know how to fix it, but I can write about it and bring awareness maybe understanding to some. cheers

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kelly, I’m very interested to read your experience. I lived in Kenya for 12 years, and have not the slightest doubt that it has changed me, and I am grateful for that change. I have been back in the UK for many years now, but I don’t think I have ever fully fitted back in. Adrian

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I know I don’t fit in so well. every ones worlds seems very small to me and I can’t talk to them with out dumbing everything down. I don’t get upset about little things any more and my empathy for those that have less has increased and my suspicion of those that have most has increased.


    2. Kelly, I have to say that I echo the words and thoughts you have used here almost exactly, its quite eerie really – and especially the dumbing down thing. And I congratulate you on not becoming upset about little things any more – way to go, way to go! Adrian 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kelly, a remarkable story. You have a knack for writing in such a way, the reader feels as if they are with you on the plane, in the taxi (complete with sinking feeling in stomach as car veered off road) and in the slum. I can appreciate the feeling you must have had that evening. Even now, 20 years later, i can remember the smells mainly, and of course the sites, of the ‘far’ market in Mexico. (not really good smells either) Brings me back to that time and seeing kids not in school, playing in black mud and dust under their parents stalls.
    I am very much looking forward to your next installment Kelly. this was brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Agness, It was unforgettable. I am completing the series and will publish several more post over the coming weeks. perhaps you can share your experience with me some day. cheers travel safe


    1. Thank you for reading. I wanted to go because I knew my tour would shield us from anything unpleasant. I don’t like delusions of grandeur.
      I wanted to see some of real Kenya.
      I am very glad I went made my more appreciative of the rest of the trip


  6. Going into slums in any country scares me. It is always interesting to see, but then also very emotional as you see in what poverty people live and you feel so helpless knowing there is nothing you can do to change it. It does make you apreciate what you have and you often walk away understanding what poor people go through a little bit better than before.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Kelly. I served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa way back when. The poverty can be gut-wrenching. Given the wealth of the world, it is also inexcusable. But you are ever so right; the cycle is incredibly hard to break. In 1967 I flew into Nairobi, rented a VW bug and drove a couple of thousand miles through the parks of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. It was an incredible experience. I am looking forward to your adventures. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hey – I held off writing for a bit to collect my thoughts. I’ve done a bit of work in rural Africa (both east and west), and yeah, it definitely changes you forever. All those things that you can’t unsee, telling you about the staggering privilege we have, and the millions of people – real, thinking, loving, hating, hoping and suffering people just like us except for their circumstances, who live their entire lives without it (or much of anything else). Yeah, it sticks with you.

    What gets me through that disturbing sonder is the realization of how many of these people still find love, joy, beauty and purpose in their world, in spite of the poverty and deprivation they face.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kenya is my country and I love every bit of it. You didn’t focus on the potential of Kibera people though you only focussed on the negative side which isn’t bad. We have great people that have survived in that place from musicians, designers, entrepreneurs and politicians. The sky is never the limit for Kibera people.
    Welcome to Mombasa next time.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You were so brave to even go into the slumps! I visited a friend of mine in Nairobi and he wouldn’t even allow me to go to the shops unaccompanied! A bit drastic I know. And you lived to tell the tale, albeit traumatic but very well written!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. When we stayed at the hotel, the security guards walked us across the street to the ATM machines and back even though, it was just across the street.
      A person must use keen wisdom when making decision, but trust that most humans are good natured.
      Most Kenyans I meet where outstanding people of good character.thanks for your comments cheers Rachel.


    1. I am glad it touched you. It has haunted me, and now that I put it in words and shared it. I feel I have done something, even though it has just been to bring awareness thank you for reading


    1. It was hard to witness. and hard to write. trying to present it in a way people would get my emotion, took a lot of writing and rewriting. I am happy with the piece but the place still weights heavy on my heart. Glad you enjoyed it Michael.


  11. I so appreciate you posting this…I feel so humbled and appreciative. I remember slums like this as a kid in Mexico. I felt humbled then, but all of that has receded into distant memories and I truly think a reminder of the blessings we have is something we should all keep in the forefront of our minds. Thank You!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kirt, I am glad that my story touched you and evoked the appreciation for your own life. It is a horrible place to have been born, I myself don’t know how a person plans or dreams there. I too have driven through slums in Mexico, they too humbled me. Kibera is the worst I have eve seen. Thanks for stopping by. I looked at your website it is very nice. I will flow your blog. Thanks please stop by again.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I think culture shock is precisely why I continue to travel. It keeps my mind open and stay humble. It is too easy to live in a consumptive society of the West and turn a blind eye to the problems of the world.


    1. Yes, Agreed. my tour was eye opening and I am a better person for it, I am so happy you liked my post and I will be sure to stop by your site too. Best regards Cheers friend


  13. Thanks for this, it took me back a decade or more when I was working in Nairobi and visited a health clinic in Kibera. It should be shocking that nothing has changed much, but sadly not. I met some smart and ambitious young people when I was there, and thing that I found most distressing is the lack of opportunity for them to improve their lives. No easy solutions unfortunately.


    1. I know, no matter how ambitious a person is, everyone needs a hand to be successful. When you don’t have contacts and connection outside kibera, hard to get out.
      It was a lesson in humbleness for sure. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. We witnessed some pretty sad living conditions on a trip to Guatemala. I’m not sure if it was as bad as this…..the sheer number of people seems to intensify the situation.


  15. Am a kenyan though I’ve never visited kibera slums, I dwells at coastal region. Yea ! Kibera slums mmh ooh…


  16. I went to Kenya last year and worked in a mission School in Limuru. I always talk to everyone I meet about my experience. Similar to your experience, it was life changing! Thanks for sharing your experience.


    1. Thanks Katie, for reading my post. I only had a glimpse of Kibera, working at a mission school must have given you an even wider scope of the lifestyle in the slum. Part of me wishes I could go back and work there to help, another part of me is too scared. Fear wins.


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