So based on the title, you may be wondering how my life here can be anything but REAL. There are definitely differences from living in the US, but my real life is NOT the way most Kenyans live. So this blog will contrast my life in Nairobi, with the way most Kenyans live. If any of my Kenyan friends are reading this, please make comments or additions in the comment section at the bottom.
Nairobi is a modern city, in a developing third world country. It has skyscrapers, public transport, modern housing, international hotels and an international airport that is now the busiest hub in Africa (not that you would know that by looking at it). It has modern supermarkets (similar to Walmart), shopping malls, and lots of international restaurants (but no Mexican 😦 ) . It has electricity, but we also have rolling blackouts and right now our blackouts tend to be on Tuesdays from about 9:00 am to about the time it gets dark, although sometimes it is on Sunday’s.
We also have running water, although it only comes once a week. So large water storage tanks are a necessity (see pic to the right). A borehole well is the best because you don’t have to depend on the city water, but that only helps if it works (ours hasn’t worked since December).
But Nairobi also has slums with millions living in EXTREME poverty and everything else in between the wealthy and the poor. Some with electricity and access to water and some not. But once you leave the big cities, life becomes very different.
So what is my life like???
Well I live in a modern apartment building in a gated compound with a gate guard. While there is nothing fancy about my apartment, it is very nice with tile floors, nice kitchen cabinets with granite countertops, built in wardrobes with vanity in the bedrooms, nice bathroom with a walk in shower, sink and commode toilet. We have electricity (most of the time) and large water storage tanks for when the city sends water ONCE a week (see above pic). (We used to have a borehole well but the pump broke and still hasn’t been fixed.) And it costs the same as a comparable apartment in the US, a real bite out of my budget considering I make 1/4 of my US salary, which makes it beyond the affordability of the masses in Kenya, who make only a dollar or two a day. For a tour of my apartment…click on this pdf file link My apartment in Nairobi updated Oct 2011
So where do these people live?? As I said there are all ranges of housing available. Those who make a similar or better salary than me, live in a very nice apartment, townhouse, or stand alone house that can be very similar to what is found in the US. But as salary goes down, so does the standard of housing. If one makes enough but not a lot, they will live in a small concrete block house, with multiple rooms. If they make enough it could be built with more aesthetics (like tile floors and nice woodwork), but it might just have plaster over the bricks and a concrete floor.
These houses will most likely have electricity. The kitchens tend to be very basic and small, and more likely to have a two burner propane stove than a large stove and oven we are used to and have in our apartment. They may or may not have a refrigerator, which is definitely a luxury here.
Another type of house that is very common and is built out of long branches and mud bricks with a dirt floor, which is a traditional construction that can be seen all over Africa. These types of houses are more often seen in rural areas outside of the cities, but you can find them anywhere. I have seen a few built on a concrete foundation but I think that is rare.
Sometimes a mud plaster is made to coat the inside and outside of the mud brick, so it kind of looks like it is stucco I’ve seen larger houses made with this mud brick construction and then covered with real plaster and you really can’t tell the difference between one made of concrete block (also sometimes covered in plaster), That is if it is made well.
The roofs may have tin, but in rural areas will most likely be made of woven palm branches or dried sisal leaves. In areas that don’t have these plants they use the mud bricks and have kind of a rounded roof. Basically this type of house can be built from local raw materials, minus the concrete.
There will probably be an outhouse with a squatty potty, which could have a concrete floor with a sunken toilet but could just have a concrete floor with a hole. The one in the picture has a water line connected to a water tank. Although, it would be very rare to have water pipes to some of these houses and they probably have to go to a local tap to buy water in cans or even buy it from someone bringing the cans on donkey carts. Sometimes they have to walk a long ways to get water from a river, stream or pond and it is NOT safe to drink, but it is all they have. Obviously they would be taking bucket baths and if they are lucky they have a bathing area with a concrete floor. By the way, these houses could be square or round and could have varying degrees of separation inside from half walls to curtains.
They probably have a cooking area where a charcoal or wood burning “stove” is built; ideally it would have a chimney but most just vent out a small hole at the top of the house. Or they might just have a portable stove, called a jiko that uses various fuels, from wood, to sawdust, to charcoal. If the house is tall enough it might have a storage loft and dividing walls inside.
So what is next??? Slum housing.
I’m not sure any words I put on this page could adequately give you a true picture of this in your head, but I’ll try.
The slums could have mud brick houses but more than likely they are made out of scrap materials. The frame made out of sticks, with either scrap wood or tin on the sides and usually tin on the roof. They tend to be very small and cramped. In some areas these are built on concrete foundations but usually they have dirt floors. If they are lucky they have a door with a padlock, but many just have a curtain hanging in the doorway. Most activities are done outside if possible, but if it is raining that just isn’t possible. Can you imagine using a charcoal grill inside in a small enclosed space??? Not good breathing conditions.
The slums usually do not have electricity running to every dwelling. If they are on a main street (ie. big enough to drive a car on) then they might have electricty, and there are no switches just a breaker, so either everything is on or nothing is on. So there is a local missions organization that are making and installing “water bulbs”. These are made out of two liter soda bottles, filled with water and a little bleach. Then they cut a hole in the tin roof, drop the bottle in and seal around it with caulking. Awesome project of Kenyans helping Kenyans.
There is very little sanitation in the slums and consequently EASILY preventable disease. Kenya is starting to build localized PAY toilet facilities to correct this problem, but there aren’t nearly enough yet. And clean water is always a problem. In the city’s slums there is usually a local tap to buy water from, but you still have to carry it back to your dwelling, usually on a daily basis. And the water still has to be treated or filtered to make it safe to drink. The tank pictured at the left is run by a missions organization to provide a water souce locally.
Then there are the “tents” for lack of a better word. They build a round skeleton of sticks onto which they put tarps or scraps of material or anything else that is handy. They can even be covered in grass or sisal leaves. These are more typical of mobile people groups, who frequently move as they move their herds of livestock.
There is only one type of housing that I can think of that is worse than this (other than the lack of one at all) and that is the tents in the refugee camps along the border of Somalia, which is in the midst of the worse famine in 60 years. Most of the camps have twice to four times as many people as they were designed for, so sanitation and lack of food and supplies is a huge problem. The current drought is a huge problem and people are starving to death. If they are ‘lucky’ they will have a modern tent, but most are living in stick and cloth constructions, without even a tarp on top. We aren’t allowed to visit this area as it is a restricted zone for good reason, so my only knowledge comes from the news reports. The largest refugee camp in the world is in Northern Kenya, so if you want to see pictures or new reports look up Dadaab Refugee Camp. Here is a link to BBC online slideshow. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14119487
Pictures and illustrations are the only way for you to get a visual of this, but to truly understand it, you would need to experience it. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that is true than experiencing it would be a worth million, because there aren’t pictures or words enough to truly describe what I have seen and experienced in this country.
If you want to get a small sense of the slums, then click on this video below. Sorry for the poor filming but it is hard to walk, watch where you are walking and try to take video without being conspicuous. Unfortunately I can’t replicate the smells of the slum, especially the ‘sewage’ ditch we were walking beside.
Video walking through Korogosho slum
May your day be blessed by this post, and may you be truly thankful for the roof over your head, the amenities and luxuries in your house, and your wealth of possessions, because if you live in the US, you are probably in the top 8% of the worlds wealthiest people.