Kibera is one of Africa’s largest slums. It resides in the Kenya’s capitol, Nairobi. I went to Nairobi about five years ago (it’s now spring, 2021) to research the area and the history so that Bombing the moon would convey an authentic and a realistic depiction of the city. Some say that authors do not need to travel to the destinations in their novels and I think there may be circumstances when this is true. But when it came to Nairobi, I knew I had to go, and I knew if Kibera would appear in the novel, I would have to see it for myself.
I knew I had to be careful about it. I am not a proponent of what some call “slum tourism.” If someone is merely curious, or finds entertainment in witnessing acute poverty first hand, they should not go. I find that disrespectful. Even though I was conducting research, I felt awkward and I can’t exactly articulate why. I went with a tour company led by residents of Kibera. After the tour, we went to a local bar and shared a drink and I had the opportunity to ask more questions about things not covered in the more sanitized tour itinerary.
I saw. I listened. And yet it didn’t feel quite right. Kibera is someone’s home and who should be able to drop in and tour that? Well, I’m grateful for the opportunity nonetheless. It provided richness to the story and perspective I wouldn’t have been able to research on my own. Perhaps more importantly, I was, myself, transformed.
One cannot simply walk into Kibera, or perhaps you can, but the tour operator I went in with, Kibera Tours, wouldn’t recommend it. My spouse and I met two young men at a strip mall before walking in. They were warm and friendly and really beautiful people. They took us around to places where people wanted to share their story. There was much of Kibera we didn’t see; it is a huge place.
There is much that happens to a person from a first world country, white and privileged as I am, when they walk into a slum like Kibera. The poverty is raw. It is unapologetically itself and it is suddenly your responsibility to drop your presumptions and stereotypes and ignorance and just see and listen, if you can. For instance, everything I thought I was, was challenged, because where do you come from, what help was given, what luck, what support came with your birth place and your economic situation? Where does your world end and you begin? You can’t see yourself as autonomous and free-wheeling and independently successful after standing in Kibera. What you see is the privileges that hold you up, that helped you, and that may have nothing to do with merit.
What I saw was, yes, poverty, and issues related to garbage and toilets and clean water, yet I also saw beauty, community, and love. In fact, after the initial shocks, it was most of what I saw. I was introduced to women working with those who had contracted AIDS and did education to de-stigmatize the disease. I saw children in classrooms in a school within the slum itself. Shopping streets. Bars. A place where people live.
I went as a student and I’m grateful to have learned something about Kibera and myself.