SEATTLE, Washington — There are many healthcare and gender inequality issues that make living in the slums of Africa difficult. In particular, Kibera, a neighborhood just outside Nairobi, Kenya that has been dubbed “the largest urban slum in Africa” struggles to maintain the livelihood of over 200,000 people.
Life in Kibera
While Kenya’s average life expectancy is about 66 years, Kibera’s is less than half of that. The average is brought down by a high child mortality rate and various illnesses that affect the young, like malaria or severe Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) from shared toilets. Over 38% of the population is below the age of 15. Also, much of the water and electricity is illegally tapped from Nairobi, making it very dangerous and unsanitary.
Maureen Koli is a 27-year-old Kenyan who has known the slums of Africa her whole life. Although still living in Kibera, she is getting her education in electronic media studies at Daystar University with the help of a sponsor. Koli’s father died when she was 17, after which she was expected to “step up.” Balancing her responsibilities and education, Koli studies at night and works during the day to support her family.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Koli offers insight into life in Kibera.
“You are forced to mature at a very young age,” Koli said. “Growing up as a girl in the slums [of Africa]is twice as hard.”
Teenage mothers are common in Kibera. Young women become pregnant for various reasons but the most common is survival. Some women will prostitute themselves for 50 shillings, said Koli. The money would be used for food and water, without much left over for a sanitary napkin or a condom. Koli indicated that in the slums of Africa a woman’s menstruation period is nothing but a hassle. For some, it is easier to just get pregnant.
“A few of my friends gave birth at the age of 15,” said Koli.
Gender Restrictions in the Slums of Africa
In the slums of Africa, it is not practical for a girl to get a washable sanitary napkin as washing it alone would use up all of the family’s water for the day. Yet, for slum dwellers, disposable pads and tampons are far too expensive. For this reason, girls typically forego school to stay at home during their period. On an average school day, only 40% of students show up.
At school, a male teacher will never talk about sex education. According to Koli, sex and a woman’s reproductive cycle are deemed as taboo topics. Her parents as well never talked to her about sex. She learned everything she knows from reading books as a child and from an open female teacher who taught her about basic sex education.
When a girl gets pregnant in the slums she often gets kicked out of the house. These girls may move in with the child’s father or continue the cycle of prostitution to make ends meet.
“If he is a good person, he will take you in,” Koli said, referring to the child’s father, “and taking you in is like getting married.”
Improving Conditions for Girls in Kibera
“Someone else held my hand,” Koli said, “that means I have to mentor someone else and also hold their hand.”
Koli works for a nonprofit organization called Spur Afrika that collaborates with the rest of Kenya and Australia to provide health, education and life skills for those impoverished in Kibera. They also aid in sanitation needs by giving away toothbrushes, toothpaste and sanitary pads.
Koli mentors women and girls every other week, providing them with sex education and knowledge of how to improve their lives. At the age of 27, Koli continues to follow her aspirations and determines to finish her education so when she finally has children, she can provide for them.
When sponsors find out their student is pregnant, they often pull back from their arrangement. Determined to finish her studies in mainstream media and obtain a job that is “typically for men,” Koli hopes that women would follow her path in securing a profession with education.
“I love operating cameras,” said Koli. “I want to be in the screens.”
While working toward her aspirations Koli is practicing her skills in Spur Afrika and hopes to continue contributing to the organization. “Right now, I want to stay around and help other girls.”
Hope for Kibera
Map Kibera, a non-profit organization that started in 2009, is a grassroots organization that quite literally put Kibera on the map. The organization started with a few painted murals and is now a fully digitized platform that helps people navigate the roads of the slum.
Another organization that is helping build safe community spaces in Kibera is the Kounkuey Design Initiative with its “Kibera Public Space Projects.” The organization is currently working on sanitation and safety issues by building stone roads to improve Kibera’s deep and muddy streets.
For women in domestic abuse situations or in prostitution circles, Freely in Hope works to provide them with resources.
As for healthcare, Kiberians are dependent on free health clinics. According to Koli, it is unlikely anyone in Kibera can see a licensed doctor or a gynecologist. Only those with money can afford quality healthcare services provided in hospitals and buy condoms or other contraception methods.
Many Kiberians are self-starters. They start businesses out of their homes to sell common goods. The average man works odd jobs, and women wash clothes, work as maids or do housework. There are small business vendors in Kibera, and Mama Mboga Grocery offers women jobs in the small-scale selling of vegetables.
Building community, increasing education access and sanitary healthcare are critical to improving life in Kibera.
– Annie Kate Raglow