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Joseph: keeping optimistic

As a bright student, Joseph received sponsorship for his secondary school education but further sponsorship to study at a technical institute ran out and since then he has survived by “doing odd jobs like construction work”.

Now 28, he talks candidly about the overcrowding, lack of sanitation and disease in the Kibagare slum where he lives, describing demoralised and unemployed youth and the constant threat of eviction. He points to the vast divisions between rich and poor, and says that wealthy people “completely despise us”.

Joseph is trying to bring about change but complains of lack of support from the government. He says that they will rely on self-help. “We have a book where we contribute and record our savings. When the money becomes enough we will try and construct toilets… we also need a health centre, electricity – after being successful in one area we will start on others.”

If you finish [primary] school and you are among the top five students, you are sponsored to go to secondary school and that is how I completed my secondary education… I got to the end of Form 4 there and then returned to this village and I stayed here for a whole year without doing anything.

Later on I got [more] sponsorship… to go to Kabete Technical Institute and I managed to go for only one year, although it was a four-year course. I think the scholarship just ended while I was still in my first year. After that I dropped out and returned here to the slum…

I have a wife and a small child… As many people here are crying out for lack of jobs I am also facing the same problems as them. I get my daily bread by doing odd jobs like construction work…

“Drinking is one of the causes of poverty”

Actually the people here like reading and most of the youth here are Form 4 leavers but I observe that they have low self-esteem: they see that they have gone to secondary school, their elders are also educated and yet there are no jobs…

[Also] the illicit home-brewed alcohol…has made the youth lazy and stopped them searching for employment. They wake up to go and look for beer. That drinking is actually one of the causes of poverty.

Sometimes a parent might just wake up and go and drink. Maybe the child has gone to sleep hungry – you cannot expect this child to wake up and go to school on an empty stomach and with such difficulties.

Children have rights
I will need to work hard to ensure my son goes to school until Standard 8 (last year of primary school)… A child has a right to proper education, protection and to be fed and also to sleep well but at times, due to lack of resources, not all that is provided for them…

Nowadays the number of students has doubled. For instance, if you were teaching 40 students you will now find yourself teaching 80 students, and that is actually a lot of work for the teachers…their morale goes down due to that burden.

It is not just a matter of being educated but also [of children having] some manners. I would also like them to know how to respect older people like in the olden days…

Cleaning up the environment
Water is life. The problem is that at times the older people cannot afford to buy water. Our Member of Parliament said that some money from the Constituency Development Fund, about 500,000 shillings, had been set aside for bringing water to the residents here and he even published it in the papers, but nothing has been forthcoming yet. This could have helped these old people…

We started a youth group called Kibagare Youth Trust Fund and said that every Sunday we would make our village clean but it has become hard because the dirt was too much… There are no toilets and that actually made our job a hard one… When people throw away their waste anywhere, the result is that diseases affect people. And maybe someone throws their waste just at your doorstep, plus their dirty water, and that just makes the situation even worse.

We have asked our MP to construct toilets and even a rubbish dumping site although we have not yet been successful. We are lobbying for that… If there are proper toilets the ‘flying toilets’ (bags that people defecate into and throw away) will cease to exist.

As residents we have a savings group… We decided that we should not wait for the government to do everything for us and we have a book where we contribute and record our savings. When the money becomes enough we will try and construct toilets. That is our main aim… After toilets we also need a health centre, electricity – after being successful in one area we will start on others.

Poor health
Around here there are no health services and people have to depend on themselves. You either go to Kangemi Health Centre run by the city council or if you are able [to pay] you can go to Kenyatta National Hospital. On health issues the situation is pretty bad… Free medicine for some of the diseases is the only positive change…

Tuberculosis cases are rampant here, and the dreaded AIDS – for which not very many people have volunteered to be tested, but it is there…even my father suffered from tuberculosis… It is my duty to take care of him. I have to ensure that he eats well and also does not forget to take his medication.

“The rich completely despise us”

Poverty is the situation where a person lacks the basic necessities that any human being ought to have. I think everyone is poor, but the older people who have been widowed and have no one to take care of them actually can be said to be poorer still…

I get no help from anyone and I just struggle and whatever little I get is what we survive on. If we don’t get anything we struggle [again] the following day. I cannot blame God for that and say that he has forgotten us when rich people are driving big cars and living in big houses, and the structures we live in are not even good enough for their poultry!

I feel we are actually treated as very low class people. I think the rich completely despise us.  We have no right of passage [through the perimeter wall] and they think that we should not pass anywhere near their houses in Loresho suburb…

No freedom of movement
The rich people around here think of us as thugs. I know there is the right to freedom of movement, and we only need to pass through [their estate]… [The gates between Kibagare and Loresho] are usually closed at 8pm – and some people even die because they have to wait until morning for them to be opened. Last year (2006) a pregnant woman started experiencing labour pains around that time – the watchmen had to contact their bosses in Loresho for permission to open the gates and we waited for a long time. We felt like we were not Kenyans.

Even when a fire breaks out, the gate watchmen have to consult their bosses for permission [to open the gates]. Before they have finished that process, a lot of damage will already be done…

And in the case of an outbreak of fire, if you not living near the road, it will become difficult to save the situation as the spaces left in between buildings are too small for the fire brigade to pass through. We have experienced that – the biggest problem is access. At times we have to demolish some homes in order to save the situation and let water through to extinguish the fire.

Fear of eviction
Lots of things [contribute to overcrowding]. For instance, eviction of people from land which is said to belong to some powerful people, hence the increase in the population in the slums as people have no alternative place to go…

Recently one man claimed that he had been sold six acres for some 14 million shillings. Some people were evicted…I can say [those who grab land like this] are people who love themselves and they think we don’t deserve to stay here. We are being sidelined.

We have heard that if you stay in a place for over 12 years, you have the right to claim the place as yours. For instance, some people were born here and [in some families] the first person to live here came in 1952, so how can you tell such a person to leave? Where do they expect such people to go? …Yet most of the time we are told we will be evicted…

Conflict, too, is a cause [of overcrowding] as people run away from terror, for safety. People look for a place where life is a little bit easier… [The result is that] we are very squeezed in.

Development: “We are completely excluded”

There are some government projects we had heard of around 1995 and 1996, about slum upgrading, and we would like the government to consider us so that we can also benefit, and reduce poverty.

[As for the Constituency Development Fund] if you asked any resident of this slum they could not even tell you where the offices of the CDF are, and not one of them knows how the committee works since they are not included. We have no information on that.

On the local government funds, we were told that the money was used for development programmes in Loresho Primary School, and some water projects in Kangemi. We also wanted to be included in the funds for development. We were told that they would install a security light around here but nothing has been done…

Government funds for development? We are completely excluded… Concerning the slum improvement projects, we cannot say that we have seen any changes… It is our right to express our opinion but we are being taken round in circles and it is tiresome…always being told the person in charge is ‘not around’ and so forth… Yet we have our families to look after and they would go hungry if we kept on fighting [all the time] to be included in such things…

“I have never lost hope”

Kibagare is also part of Kenya and I would like organisations and even government to involve us in issues and decision-making…

I have been attending several seminars and I have been educated on my rights and especially on community development. KAVI (Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative) has taught us about HIV and AIDS and the Federation of Women Lawyers and so forth, and I think we are on the right track.

You know everyone has dreams in life and as for me I have never lost hope. I know that I will get a job one day and when I have a bigger family of my own and educate my children I know they will lift me out of the situation I am experiencing right now.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.


Joseph: keeping optimistic is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Kenya oral testimony project.


Alice: sleeping hungry

Deborah: widows have rights

Elias: cultural change

George: no jobs

Helen: poverty of war

Joseph: keeping optimistic

Lemaron: challenging discrimination

Martha: battling corruption

Mary: life of struggle

Mercy: completely forgotten

Nyiva: cardboard homes

Peter: search for work

Key themes






Self-help initiatives

Sanitation and health

Political representation


Crime and unrest



Homelessness and insecurity

Pastoralism and agriculture