Our driver isn’t at all happy about this. We are headed to Kibera, the notorious slum in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and Mary Njenga, our guide for the visit, has just suggested that maybe it would be a good idea for the men to stay behind in the car. People in Kibera can be pretty desperate, and you never know when one of them might pull a knife or a gun on you. “If it’s just the women,” Njenga says, “they’ll know we’ve come to see the farmers.”
We pull into an open area on the outskirts of the shantytown and, while stripping ourselves of watches and cell phones, make a plan to reconvene here in a couple of hours. (Antonio, the photographer, isn’t about to hang back, but Peter, our driver, is visibly frantic about getting himself and his treasured Toyota out of here as fast as he can.) Njenga leads us down the wide dirt road that serves as the main drag of the “informal settlement,” as these places are euphemistically known, and onto a narrow path that snakes among shacks fashioned out of mud, tin, and scraps of wood and cardboard. Children poke their heads out of makeshift doorways to call “How are you?” or “Mzungu!” (Swahili for white person), as we step gingerly over shallow gullies of sewage and under drying laundry and low-hanging electric wires. The place reeks of human shit.
Njenga knows this territory well. An environmental scientist and outspoken advocate for women (and with her shaved head and vow never to marry, the most outspoken Kenyan woman I’ve met), the 40-year-old has been coming here regularly for the past decade, helping the locals figure out sustainable strategies for feeding themselves and their families. Estimates vary as to how many people live in Kibera — some say half a million; others, a fraction of that — but either way, at just under one square mile, the slum is among the most densely populated places on earth. And the people here are hungry. In a recent study of Kibera’s residents, more than 95 percent of those surveyed reported worrying at some point in the past 12 months that they would run out of food before finding the money to buy more. (Nearly 20 percent said they’d gone a whole day and night without eating.) Unlike those who live in the country and have land for farming, city dwellers generally have to pay for their food, sometimes spending as much as 80 percent of their incomes to do so.
But as Njenga is happy to show me, they’re finding new ways to cope.