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.