A Dispatch From The Toughest Slums on Earth
They tell you ‘peace’, but you know you are living in a warzone. You know it from the start; you’ve sensed it ever since you were a very little boy or a girl. You wake up every morning, not certain whether you will witness another dusk, whether you will experience another sunrise.
A bullet can hit you at any moment while you are walking down the road. If you are a woman, you can be ambushed and dragged into a dark back alley or filthy shack along the way, then raped.
The police are very hard to find, and are hopelessly corrupt. You prefer not to seek their ‘assistance’. You are really on your own: you own no gun, you don’t belong to a gang, and you are extremely poor.
You are exposed.
Around where you live, there are bullets flying and fires burning. Once in a while a gasoline truck explodes, or an entire gangway of some miserable hovels bursts into flames. Loud salvos of sub-machine guns often penetrate the night.
But they tell you ‘peace’. Europeans and North Americans, all those people that are making great incomes running their countless workshops in your dilapidated villages and towns… They are talking about ‘teaching you’ and your fellow slum-dwellers. They are talking about educating you, so that you can continue ‘living in peace’.
The companies and Governments of these ‘noble men and women’, those that are teaching you about peace, are all over your bleeding country. They even use it as a base to invade neighboring lands. They are actually doing many things, while you are eating shit. Well, maybe not literally, but stuff that you aliment yourself on is not really much better.
You have no access to clean water. You stink. If you are a man, you stink. If you are a woman, you are dying from shame, but there is no escape: you stink as well. Chances are you are functionally illiterate. Maybe you can read a few separate words, but the meaning mostly escapes you.
You vote for those who are offering you more ‘bob’, and then you feel proud when you are told, again and again, that you live in a flourishing democracy.
You scream at night. Not every night, of course, but most nights you scream. You are considering ending it all, you often wish you could die, to depart from this world, but you do not dare to kill yourself.
The more desperate you get, the more you are being told that you live in a ‘peaceful’ country. While everyone actually knows that you live in one of the biggest slums on earth.
You don’t resist. Foreign governments and companies hail you. You are their favorite subject. You are patient and submissive, as almost all people around you are. They kill each other instead of those who drag them into misery: foreign colonialists as well as local elites.
You are constantly publicized as a good example to others, all over the world, especially to those who are opting to fight for justice, dignity and a better society.
Kariobangi is a shantytown, near an enormous slum called Mathare, in the middle of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Through the narrow gangways and filthy roads with open sewage, I am being led to a meeting with “Fire”, a fearless gang member who has spent ten out of his thirty years, in various notorious Kenyan jails.
“Fire” is robust, pensive and humble. He left the high-security prison just recently. He wants to start from the scratch, once again, as he did so many times before.
We sit down on a concrete block. Soon there is a crowd of onlookers, mainly children.
“Do you think people here live in peace?” I ask.
“No”, answers “Fire”. “Here people die every day. All my friends are already dead. Men here die before they turn seventeen; most of them die when they are sixteen.”
“How does it feel?” I ask him. “How does it feel to be alive; to be the only one who managed to survive?”
“I am scared!” He looks at me. I know what he means. I have heard similar stories in Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, and Uganda, in so many other places. He knows that I know and that is why he speaks. He is not afraid of bullets hitting him, of daggers cutting him to pieces, of police torturing him; he is not afraid of dying. But he is scared of staying alive. Alone.
He is not a coward; he is brave. He is bright. He may be a gangster, but he has plenty of dignity. His fear is not animalistic; it is existential.
“How does it all begin here, in Mathare?”
“Here we start very young; slowly. We start by stealing at home, little by little. Then it gets big. Snatching phones and necklaces, buying guns. Eventually we get caught because we are young and have no experience. We go to prison and prison is both the hell and the university of crime. You enter, you know nothing about crime; you leave and you know everything. You encounter people of all races and trades: bank robbers and serial killers. They tell you: it is better to die robbing a bank than snatching a wrist watch.”
“How bad is the prison, Fire?”
“They rape you. There are no women, so if you are a young boy, you have no chance. Young kids get sodomized. To survive, they have to prostitute themselves. In prison, men rape men. Some marry each other. You get beaten and humiliated; by inmates and by police who are extremely brutal and sadistic. You learn how to get tough. If you survive, you are ready…”
I see a knife, sharp like a razor, shining in the sunlight.
I point at it: “Tell me about this.”
“Bila”, he says. “It comes from Somalia. They are made for killing. The way they are shaped, look; you lose so much blood and you die. Here we call them wambe, which in Swahili means razorblade. But no matter how sharp it is; it is still a knife.
“What about guns?” I ask.
“All over the place. They are very cheap. Guns come with the refugees, and the refugees arrive from Somalia and Ethiopia.”
“How do women survive here?”
“It is tough for them. Some are forced into prostitution; many join criminal gangs. Their boyfriends force them. Many women are submissive to ‘their men’. They do what they are told. They are told to have sex and they succumb; they get into prostitution, and they even join the gangs. Whatever ‘their men’ order them to do. Women here are scared of losing their men.”
At some point, “Fire” gets quiet. His eyes are fixed at some point in the distance.
“Talk to me” I say. “What is it?”
He looks somewhere else, but eventually he continues speaking. “My generation… I told you… All my friends are dead. All of them… All died… I feel a chill. But I can’t leave the slum… It needs me… I need it… I can’t run away from it, as I can’t run from myself. The slum is the microcosm… it is…”
“Your Kenya?” I suggest.
“Yes”, he nods. “I tell stories… I tell how I survived until this advanced age of thirty. I always tell stories, even to the government people. I tell them how lucky I am to be here… to be alive… I want to be good, but sometimes you can’t sleep three nights on an empty stomach.”
“We both tell stories”, I say.
He does not hear me, anymore. “I wasted so many years… so many years”, he repeats.
Those men of the slums, those boys! They play with guns, and they kill and rob. Like in the battlefields, their faces are resolute, serious. Even as they are doing the most insane things, even as they are ravishing and plundering, they look purposeful, as if their actions would have some deep meaning. Here and in wars, the acts of pillage have an almost religious connotation.
Living in slums is like living in a war zone: day after day, year after year, until one is hit, stabbed, burned; until one falls.
But what about the women of the slums, what happens to them? They become mothers at thirteen, prostitutes at fourteen; they get raped before their first period. Some go through an abortion at fifteen; others are dying of AIDS at the age of sixteen. Some throw their unwanted babies into the gutters, out of sheer thorough desperation.
Are the women of Mathare, are the women of Kibera, really living in peace? Are the women in the slums of Jakarta and Mumbai living in peace? Are the women in Haitian slums living in peace?
Ms. Jitne Watere has her ‘boutique’, in the middle of Kariobangi. It is just a small tent, next to a busy road, with some neat white clothes exhibited inside. I don’t ask about her age; such questions are rude. I don’t want to know any details; the most painful ones.
All I want to know: “Is this a war for you? Or is it peace?”
She avoids a direct answer. She looks at me straight in the eyes.
“If you are forced to become a prostitute at the age of twelve… If you get infected with HIV… if you are forced to… Can you call it peace?”
She is younger than I, but she looks at me as if I were a child. I have seen a lot in this life and she was told that I had. But I sense that she has seen much more, and I lower my eyes instinctively, as she speaks.
“By the standards of the slum, I became a prostitute at quite a late age – I was sixteen. I lost many friends. One girl after another was falling, dying from AIDS, from ‘bush abortions’, from being beaten to death, even from poisoning. Others had fallen because of overdose.”
We are standing inside her ‘boutique’. This is one of those moments when a writer sometimes cracks and just drops the notepad into the bag, waves his arm in desperation and says: “Let’s go and get some beer… Let’s get drunk… It is all damn screwed up!” But I get hold of myself; I don’t want to hear her stories through some unnatural filter.
And so we keep standing, facing each other.
“Rape”, she says. “It is often not even called rape here… And do you know what a bush abortion is?”
I nod. I know perfectly well what it is. But I don’t want to hear the details. I know I would not be able to put them into the pages of this brave publication. I stop her. I stop her.
“Fine”, she says. “But one thing you have to know about the bush abortion… It’s that sometimes… very often… mostly… it don’t succeed… If it fails, a woman dies. Or she doesn’t die, but she wishes she did. Because if she doesn’t, what comes is…”
Two of my acquaintances, one a local gangster and one a local ambulance worker, both very strong men, are beginning to look away, in shock. My driver is waiting outside.
“The babies are thrown into the garbage”, she says. “Some alive, some dead. They don’t tell you this in the newspapers… You are not supposed to talk about it… It is common here…”
‘In Indonesia, too’, I think. ‘And in Central America.’ I say nothing.
I ask no further questions. There is no point in asking anything else. She said all there is to say, intuitively, and in summary.
But I was wrong: she had not finished, yet. She drills me with her eyes. I came here, I risked my life to come here, and I did more than what she expected: I listened to her. Now she was going to give me her conclusion, her bottom line:
“Do you know why all this? Do you really… really… want to know?”
I know. She knows. I wrote it thousands of times. It is now her turn to say it:
“Because we are all poor! Because we have nothing! We do not matter. That’s why we die young. That’s why our children die…”
Then, in the car, Douglas who now works for St. John’s Ambulance Service, begins telling me his story:
“There is nothing local people can count on… They are unprotected, totally on their own. Women suffer the most. 90% of women here are single mothers; there is nothing like marriage or loyalty in the slums. The family system was broken. You go from door to door, you ask; you would be shocked.”
Our car is passing by Mathare. Almost all the children here suffer from malnutrition. Many have been working since an early age; pushing heavy carts, carrying loads, selling things by the curb.
“What is the typical story here?” I ask Douglas.
“Fourteen year old girl gets abused… or forced into prostitution… Mostly they become prostitutes for food. They go for about one dollar, out of desperation. She gets pregnant at the age of thirteen or fourteen, at most fifteen. Then her man leaves her. She is left with nothing; no education and no skills. These are girls who leave their children on the street… Others get abortion…
You were just told… many of them die.”
“Very few men get married”, chips in the driver, Gilbert. “Very few take care of their children and their women. Everything collapsed here. The entire structure is gone.”
“I will tell you a story and then you tell me whether this place is a peace area or a war zone”, continues Douglas. “One night I was forced to help my neighbor to give birth… It happened not far from where we are passing now. I was washing a car… My friend ran to me at 1AM, screaming that a woman who was living on our plot had entered labor. We managed to get her to the car. It was three of us in the vehicle – two boys and one woman with labor pains. The child began coming out. I opened the window and began screaming: “Help!” I was begging for some woman to open a door and come out, to help us, because my friend and I had no idea what to do. Nobody came out; they were all scared. My friend ran away. In the end I dashed into the local store and bought a razor blade… I cut her umbilical cord. Then I drove her home. Her son was born. They both survived, miraculously. Like in a war.”
“Like in a war”, I said, recalling a very similar situation, when an indigenous woman entered labor and gave birth in my car, in the Peruvian Andes, in 1992.
In Mathare 4A, the garbage is burning and child-scavengers are performing acrobatic somersaults. The ground is soft, swampy. The entire area consists of metal-sheet shacks, filthy stalls and a fast-moving polluted river. It is not as dirty and hopeless as those slums in Port-Au-Prince or in Jakarta, but it is still filthy to a great extent.
“I grew up here”, says Douglas.“I used to be like those kids. I used to play in the garbage; I used to swim in this river.”
He waves at the kids. They wave back.
“Fortunately, I got some education. Now I do first aid and fire fighting.”
“Douglas, so what are you facing here?” I ask. “What casualties do they bring to the medical posts at night?”
“Victims of all sort of violence”, he replies. “Machete wounds, gunshots… You know, police shoots gangsters and innocent by-standards, while gangsters shoot victims, sometimes police.
Everyday something terrible happens: people are shot, stabbed, and raped.”
I am taking all of this in, then taking notes and photographing somersaulting children.
“We have to go”, says Douglas, abruptly. “They will soon begin closing on us”.
“Wait”, I say. He speaks better here than in the car. It is all flowing well, coming out effortlessly.
“Ok”, he says. “I know what you are trying to prove. And I agree with you a hundred percent. It is a war zone, ok? It is a battleground. But now please listen to me: To me, to us here, it is normal. Totally normal, get it? Violence is normal… I know, I sense it is not good, but it is normal… I buried many friends here. Every day, several people get assaulted, killed, shot. Nothing surprises me, anymore! It is normal! Many of my friends have died… many of “Fire’s” friends died. My cousin was recently killed… He was shot dead, at sixteen! Women… they get raped, brutalized, molested, insulted… At night… almost all of them here experienced some violence, even at home… And at night, only those ‘hardcore’ ones dare to open the door… Men die because they fight back… You know, those gangsters who are assaulting people, they are not as brave as they try to look…Deep inside they are human, scared little kids, boys… They know they can die while stealing, and so they kill, because they are frightened… Despite everything, they want to live… They want to live desperately… and so they kill.”
He said enough. He breathes heavily.
“Normal! All this is normal…” He repeats.
“So why are you crying?” I ask.
He does not reply. He looks around.
“We go!” He shouts at me. “Fast! They are watching us; they are coming. Here they can do anything they want to you… They can take anything…”
“Let’s go”, I agree. “We have photos inside this camera. No matter what, they can’t take this one.”
“We fight?” He asks. “If they come, we fight or we let it go?”
Gilbert, the driver, evaluates the situation. He steps on it, and drives the car towards us through the grass. Our feet are caught in unstable, swampy ground. There are strange movements all around us, several people closing on us. The river is on the left. I am considering my options. The river seems to be one possibility.
“We will fight”, I say at the end.
The car is faster than the gang members. We dive in. Gilbert drives towards the road.
When we are inside, Douglas grunts: “You are tough”.
That’s all that matters here. My color of skin becomes irrelevant and so is my work. The only thing that has value in the slum is whether one has guts.
Constable Bobby Ogola is based at Buruburu Police Station. Buruburu is one tough place and Constable is a tough guy who does not seem to like anybody, especially not the gangsters and Somali refugees. Anywhere else his attitude would be questionable, called racist. But it is again normal here, in the war zone called the slum:
“There are too many firearms in the hands of young people aged between sixteen and thirty. Most of the firearms come from Somalia. We have constant cases of car-jacking here, of violent robberies, of rapes and murder. There are also abductions in Eastlands.”
The doctor at the dispensary in the middle of Kiriobangi, calculates that on average, around ten people die a violent death during a weekend, in this slum alone.
The majority of the people in Nairobi live in slums.
As we leave, Gilbert the driver concludes: “You write about these places for years… It is absolutely clear that the people here live in a combat zone. You see their children go hungry everyday. There is no running water, no jobs, and no toilets. But there are bullets and knifes.And there is fear and violent death everywhere.”
“You die if you get sick here”, says “Fire”. “Life is so cheap. Of course people die from cancer and other ‘complicated’ illnesses, because there is no way they would be treated for free. But they also die of easily preventable diseases like malaria. All we can get here are pain killers, sometimes.”
Is the system to blame? Everybody thinks so, but there is also that dogged belief that ‘nothing can be done” and “nothing can be changed”.
The elites are too powerful, and they are backed by several Western powers. Corruption is endemic, but corruption is not homegrown; it came from outside, it was imported, and like elsewhere, it entered the ‘culture’ as local elites were encouraged to collaborate with colonial powers.
While the local MPs are enjoying some of the highest government salaries anywhere in the world, almost no funds are allocated for the improvement of life in the slums.
“We have a program here, we formed an organization”, says Ms. Jitne Watere. “We are trying to help abused women. But very few funds from above are allocated. And that little that there is, disappears in corruption. Women meet, they talk and then they ask: ‘What next?’ But there is nothing we can do.”
While Venezuela, Bolivia, China, Vietnam and other socialist countries have managed to lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty, those close allies or virtual colonies of the West, including Kenya, Uganda, Indonesia, the Philippines and India, to name just a few, developed and then perfected total spite for most of their own people.
In Kenya, they hold elections, but no major political party represents the interests of the impoverished majority. Extreme capitalism serves only a very small minority of the immoral rulers. Statistics are manipulated and twisted, while the media is subservient to local and foreign regimes.
Nairobi, Kampala, Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai, Guatemala City – the same pattern of urban violence. Shopping malls and five star hotels surrounded by barbed wires and war zones.
Now there are organized tours, to the slums. Some Europeans like to see, to feel the thrill. One week in the national parks of Kenya and Tanzania, then few hours in Kibera, watching people starving and dying. It is a complete experience, something to show neighbors at home or spread through social media. I saw this while writing about the Yugoslav War. I saw this recently on several Syrian borders. War tourism…
Some time ago, I was filming Kibera from the railway tracks; those that pass through this biggest slum on earth. I put my professional camera on a tripod and began working.
An old man approached me. He was drunk, or he was high on miraa.
“I want your camera”, he said. “I can kill you now, and I don’t give a damn what will happen to me after. I am HIV positive; I have nothing, I am dying.”
But he could not kill me. He was weak, and he could hardly stand on his feet. My friends rushed to my rescue, but I didn’t need any help. The man disappeared under the hill. He was destroyed, shaking, and alone.
After that, it was all totally peaceful. It was peaceful for me, for the Kenyan elites and for the global regime.
But soon, as the sun began setting down, below there, in the middle of the slum, the first fires started burning and the first gunshots began resonating. Another battle was beginning, the battle between the victims and the other victims.
The poor have been obediently dying, as the Global regime has been consolidating its control over the planet.
All photos by Andre Vltchek.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His critically acclaimed political revolutionary novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). He just completed feature documentary “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.