Visiting Mathare, Nairobi Slum

On the 1st of July 2012, Global Voices teamed up with Map Kibera, a citizen media project which maps some of Africa’s largest slums in Nairobi, Kenya. This story is about Mathare, one of Nairobi’s shanty towns, which used to be a rock mine.

24-year-old Ronald “Roy” Odhiambo introduces himself as a mapper as he walks through piles of rubbish and human waste, past flimsy, make-shift shelters made of plywood and corrugated metal that comprise his neighbourhood; Mathare.

Like many of Mathare’s slum dwellers, Roy displays remarkable resilience. His father abandoned him, when he was just a small child. He lives in a tiny shack from which he risks eviction at any point. But he says, he would not want to see these squalid and crowded settlements demolished. Instead he calls for the government’s recognition and assistance.

The city lacks decent and affordable housing. Squatters or slum lords put up shacks on land that no one else wants to develop, like the abandoned quarry which Mathare is constructed on. Mathare was a blank spot on the map until December 2010, when Roy and a group of young people created the first digital map of their own community.

Mathare is a self-contained city with little official recognition

Mathare is bustling with butcher shops, shoe stores, pharmacies and restaurants, yet it operates with little official recognition or assistance. The roads are riddled with potholes and there is a lack of basic government services such as:

  • Waste management
  • Water supply network
  • Electricity

Roy is not a legal occupant of his home, although he pays rent – money that most likely end up in the pockets of corrupt politicians, who enjoy a good profit from a minimal investment.

There is a key difference between slums in Kenya and slums in Europe. In Denmark, people use the word “slum” to refer to deteriorating inner city tenements or abandoned rural district villages. But in Kenya and in other developing countries, “slums” are more often crowded, illegal settlements.

Children are everywhere in Mathare

Most slum dwellers are young like Roy. They are being socialized in this very hostile environment and some of them become very angry, so slums are also breeding grounds for anti-social behavior.

Roy keeps himself busy with projects like “Map Mathare” that aim to improve life in the community by providing credible and useful information. An example is the mapping and blogging about the need for sanitation systems. Roy documents how human waste spills into the water people drink and contaminates the food they eat.

Mathare is surrounded by rich people
Nairobi’s rich people hire slum dwellers as maids, security guards and drivers.
Not far away, workers pound, file and solder metal into furniture. Elsewhere, young men with cracked, dirt-caked hands sort garbage for recycling.

Slums in Nairobi are booming for reasons that many countries share, like poverty and war, which push people from the countryside into the cities. If nations don’t ensure affordable urban housing and deal with urban poverty, social unrest will increase worldwide.



New media and new technology in East Africa

Access to mobile phones is booming in East Africa. This has seen a growth in social networking fueled by the transition from the PC to the mobile. Online communication is becoming the new trend, but does everyone benefit from this?  

Photo Credit: Pernille Bærendtsen, Nairobi-Klubben

The mobile phone revolution

The developing world’s share of mobile phone subscriptions increased 20% in 2010. In comparison, subscriptions increased by 1.6% in the developed world. According to the Tanzanian daily, The Citizen, 75% of the 42 million population will have access to a mobile phone within the next four years.

The development of access to the internet in Tanzania as well as other East African countries has gone and is going fast, partly due to the access via mobile. Growth in social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook has been fueled by the transition from the PC to the mobile.

For example, access to Facebook via mobile phone in Kenya is relatively cheap (8 Kenyan shilling for 10 MB – ‘which is a little for lot’). Statistics show that mobile users in Kenya spend on average 3.1 hours per week on social networking sites compared to just 2.2 hours on email.

What about the minority, who don’t have mobile phones?

The impact of the access of the mobile phone has little effect, if we are talking:

  • rural areas
  • women
  • people with little or no education.

The articles: ‘Is the ‘mobile phone revolution’ in Africa really for everybody?’ and ‘Mobile phones and the new ‘digital divide’’ couple the positive development with concerns.

In a paper published by Audience Scapes, Gayatri Murthi acknowledges the unprecedented rapid increase of mobile phones in the developing world – but she goes on to show that gender and income disparities mean that by no means everybody is able to reap the benefits.

Men are much more likely to have access to mobile phones than women. In East Africa, a woman is 23% less likely to own a mobile phone than a man. Unequal educational opportunities present another divide.

For example, 93% of Kenyans with formal education had access to a mobile phone, as opposed to 50% of those without. Since a higher proportion of men than women have access to formal education, this reinforces the gender imbalance.

Will new media and new technology liberate the people?

The fact is that people in rural areas, women and the uneducated are less likely to receive information via mobile phone, relying more in interpersonal communication. This challenges assumptions that new technologies are in and of themselves, going to democratize the information environment.

The advantages of new media lie in the ability to not only access information, where ever you might be, but also the ability to contribute with content. But the challenge remains though, that control over technique and access does not necessarily make good content.

On the other hand, online communication facilitates the establishment of online communities. Political activism and civil journalism can be used to voice opinions that might otherwise be silenced if expressed off-line. The strongest case of this might be the role of Facebook to organize demonstrations in the Middle East.

Profiles: International coverage of Somalia

Kenya and Canada can boast of some of the best coverage of Somalia told by young and courageous journalists bent on investigative and independent reporting from one of the most dangerous places on earth. 

Fatuma Noor, 24, Kenyan-Somali journalist

Noor won the “2011 CNN African Journalist of the Year” award for her investigative three-part series on the Al-Shabaab in Star newspaper. The articles tell the story of the young men who give up their freedom abroad to return and fight for the Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Noor is a renowned journalist, who has won many awards in a young age. She currently works for The Observer as part of a David Astor Journalism Programme, which works to promote independent journalism in Africa.

As a Somali woman writing investigative stories, Noor faces regular threats and her own family oppose her profession. According to Noor, in Somali culture, it is wrong to speak and raise an opinion in front of men. Even travelling for work unaccompanied by a relative is not permitted.

Jay Bahadur, 27, author of “The Pirates of Somalia”

The Toronto-based freelance journalist recently published the book “The Pirates of Somalia”, which is based on three months of research in Puntland – an autonomous region of Somalia and the heart of the pirates’ tribal homeland.

For a foreigner, his access to the region was truly unique. Bahadur brilliantly juggles background stories, gossip, family ties, backroom political dealings and daily impressions of life in Somalia.

Recently, Bahadur landed the job as the Managing Editor at SomaliaReport – a Nairobi-based website with an extensive network of local journalists, which aims to be Somalia’s premiere source for non-partisan and clan-neutral news coverage.

Bashir Yusuf Osman, Somali Hotel owner

Situated in the heart of Mogadishu, the Peace Hotel serves as the accommodation of choice for most foreign journalists visiting the capital. BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. They all come here. The hotel is like a white flag in city torn by battles between different militias.

The owner, Bashir Yusuf Osman arranges professional security teams for every journalist. The importance of having a good security team cannot be overstated in this lawless city. Several journalists have been targeted or killed in or around other Mogadishu hotels in the past.

Osman is also able to fix meetings with anyone and everyone, from the militant Shabaab fighters to local businessmen to the parliament members of the transitional government. Ironically perhaps, it is the civil war that may be the key to the success of Bashir’s business.

Profiles: Danish coverage of Somalia

The subject of Somali pirates is particularly popular among Danish media professionals. Meet three storytellers who provide first-hand witness accounts from Somalia.  

Rasmus Krath, 35, Documentarian

The documentary “A Journey into Piracy – meeting the Somali Pirates” premiered on the Danish Broadcasting Network (DR) in early 2010. Since then it has been released in Belgium, Russia, Japan and 15 other countries.

World-traveller Rasmus Krath documents his efforts in tracking down pirates on Somali soil. He is equally fascinated and terrified by these mythical creatures who supposedly guard the sea off the Somali coast.

Rasmus Krath poses with an AK-47, preferred by Somali pirates.

The story is profound in the sense that Rasmus Krath slowly but surely develops a rapport with the people, he encounters on his journey. From the pack of security guards that watch his every move to the few pirates, he manages to interview.



Laura Marie Sørensen, 28, Investigative Journalist

The book “Piratjagt – Kampen om menneskeliv og millioner”, which is currently only available in Danish, is the result of 10 month’s heavy research on Somali piracy conducted by journalists Laura Marie Sørensen and Camilla Stampe.

Laura Marie Sørensen

The authors provide a vivid and moving account of the many fates entangled in the Somali pirate industry:

  • the people who profit from piracy
  • the prostitutes
  • the khat dealers
  • the pirates
  • the widows that have lost their spouses to piracy

This extraordinary web of interest and intrigue is a fascinating read. Evidently, the authors have set out to debunk the common belief that Somali piracy is a small-scale operation restricted to the waters. Instead, we learn that pirates are foot soldiers in a crime syndicate that streches beyond the African continent.

Nasib Farah, 30, documentarian and journalist

The Danish-produced film “My Cousin, the Pirate” documents the story of Nasib Farah and his cousin, Abdi, who wants to become a pirate. Farah has spent most of his adult life in Denmark – far away from his native country, Somalia.

The region in which Farah grew up is now the very centre of the large-scale Somali piracy, and some of the toughest pirates are from his own clan and family. So when Nasib learns that his cousin, Abdi plans to join the pirates as well, he decides to go home to make him change his mind.

Nasib Farah (to the left) and his cousin, Abdi. Copyright: The Danish Film Institute

The film gives a gripping insight to the plight of the Somali people. The story of those, who fled their homeland in search of a better future as well as the story of those, who were left behind to face an uncertain future.