Erica Hagen, Map Kibera
Erica Hagen, Project Lead, Map Kibera
Just the other day, I was trying to explain to a newcomer in Nairobi what I like about working in Kibera. I found myself saying that in the whole of Nairobi, the slums are the only place I have found what I could call a healthy society. In spite of all the problems there — violence fueled by poverty and corruption, lack of basic health care or any sort of reliable security — in my 10 months working in Kibera I’ve found it to be defined by a strong, even fierce sense of pride. Whereas the formal parts of Nairobi seem stricken by a misguided sense of modernity, epitomized by barricaded housing complexes behind electric razor wire where people regard each other suspiciously through the windows of their Land Rovers, in Kibera there is, strangely enough, a sense of freedom. It’s not a romantic place, but visitors invariably leave with a healthy respect for what people have created with their own hands out of the muck — a thriving community, something that has been destroyed elsewhere in Nairobi over the years.
This sense of community is what I think residents like Silva Adhiambo, who is featured in the film, and those who participate in our project, Map Kibera, are seeking to defend. They are in a constant uphill battle against the much stronger forces of the government, the powerful and the wealthy to defend their tiny pieces of earth — and why? Because it is intrinsically dehumanizing to face a large development scheme like that of the Kenyan Slum Upgrading Project.
We started Map Kibera not to change all this, but with a simple goal: to help residents of this “invisible” community become visible on their own terms — both to themselves and to outsiders. We started by training 13 youths to create the first free and open digital map of their community, and we have evolved to include Voice of Kibera, a website that maps stories by local media and allows residents to report via SMS, as well as employing an online video news team. We support residents making use of the powerful knowledge they already hold for policy advocacy and planning or just to change the image of Kibera seen on national TV — one that highlights despair and violence.
If there is one thing that has been thoroughly destroyed over the years in Kibera, it is trust. Trust of anyone who is an outsider, bearing gifts that turn out to be poison apples. In the film, Sara Candiracci, program manager for the UN-HABITAT slum upgrading project, says, “So many institutions… go in there and do these small projects, but in the end, the impact is very low. I mean you need to go there with a big project, working together with the community to have a big impact.” I think that she has it exactly backwards. It is only the small projects that can make real, lasting change in a place like Kibera, because trust has to be built slowly and carefully. Candiracci’s statement illustrates a widespread obsession, borrowed from corporate strategy and American-style industrial development, with scaling up development projects. Have such projects in the public sector ever succeeded in the United States? The housing projects of Chicago? Kenyans are all too accustomed to seeing grandiosity from Big Man politicians who pocket profits with impunity. Candiracci also says, “The hard work is dealing with the people.” I would argue that the work is the people. They are not a secondary nuisance in the path of their own progress. This is the attitude that ruins international development on a global scale. As this movie points out so beautifully, the attitude of “we know best what’s best for you” is just a modern version of the colonial approach that “corrected” people’s behavior for their own good. It is perhaps the most insidious level of disrespect, and in the United States it would be considered anti-democratic. Is development intended to save people from themselves, or is it meant to empower them to achieve the goals they themselves most value?
But the most important response is that of the young Kiberans. Map Kibera recently started a local video news effort called Kibera News Network, supporting a team of youth to tell stories and report news in their community from their own point of view. And they watched the film with unwavering attention. When they saw Kibera burning, not a few of them had tears in their eyes. When Silva spoke bluntly about distrust of authorities, they laughed in solidarity. I asked them if they agreed that the upgrading was not a positive thing for Kibera. They were silent; most come from the other side and have not yet been affected. But they said, “This is the truth. This is what it is like to live in Kibera. This is the kind of thing that happens to us. Someone comes by and marks our house with a red X, or cuts our power line, or tells us a new scheme has just been passed and it’s time for us to fall in line.” It’s clear that they were moved by seeing a character so beautifully portrayed who represented their side of the Kibera story. The students also made their own video expressing their opinions about the slum upgrading project.
To me, what matters is that increasingly these are the stories that are told. The slum upgrading project is not a favorite of mine; I think it could destroy the social fabric and networks of relations that make Kibera function, much as similar projects have in my hometown of Chicago. I think that UN-HABITAT was on a better track with a previous project that would take current features and formalize them: A sewage ditch is poured with concrete; an informal dump is encircled by brick walls to prevent disease. The fact is, this is a place thousands of people have literally built with their bare hands. To say that it shouldn’t exist is correct. The corruption and bad policy that created it should never have existed, and the current economy, in which the rich depend on the artificially cheap labor of slum dwellers, should not exist either. But perhaps there is simply no way to perform the wholesale removal of chunks of people to the unknown humanely. Perhaps the moral wound that Kibera represents can only be healed though projects small enough to support humbly the most inspiring residents to do their work better and to make their voices heard.
Erica Hagen founded Map Kibera with partner Mikel Maron in October of 2009, and established GroundTruth Initiative, LLC in March 2010. She received a Master’s of International Affairs from Columbia University in New York, where she focused on journalism and international development. She has worked in four countries on development communication and evaluation, and in the United States on refugee and immigrant issues. She holds a B.A. in Religion from Reed College.