Korogocho, in Kikuyu dialect, means confusion. It is one of the 200 slums in Nairobi, about 10 km from the city center. 10 Km away from the buildings, skyscrapers, banks, from Keniatta Conference Center, shops and western cafés with armed guards to watch over them. 10 Km of empty space, green parks or red African soil, is the abyss separating the vertical city of the rich from the horizontal anthill of huts where the poor live. Korogocho does not exist for the state. As any other slum, it is not even indicated on the maps. Nairobi – the ‘green safari city”, counts 4 and a half million inhabitants, approximately 60% of whom live in slums, occupying less than 10% of the urban territory. 60% Of invisible people.
The Korogocho area is bordered by the river that gives name to the Kenyan capital, on one side, and by the Mukuru landfill, where the trash of the city is brought every day, on another. Local criminal gangs manage and traffic waste recycling. There are violent struggles to take possess of them.
It is impossible not to notice the landfill. Desolation and sewage, and a group of children who are avidly eating strange greenish spaghetti. Here a family of 4 people lives on 6100 shillings a month, which is little less than 70 euros. There are no official statistics – nobody takes a census of non-existent people, but estimations by NGOs that work on the territory say that HIV strikes around 50%-70% of the population in the slums. Alcohol abuse is absolutely obvious; it jumps at you without any data. The same is true for drug consumption. It is normal to meet men saturated with changaa, a home-produced distillate made from cane or corn, or street children sticking to their flasks of glue for shoes.
The Comboni St. John parish along with the elementary school are a point of reference. Street children have painted the map of the slums on the walls. Reality and fantasy, colors and inscriptions in a dizzying myriad of damned stories which are difficult to digest.
There is Sofia who is 12. She has little hair and her teeth are rotten. She has lost her parents to AIDS and her grandmother is sick and it is hard for her to take care of the girl and of her 4 brothers and sisters. The youngest is little over 1 year old. I try to take him in my arms but I am white, muzungu, and he looks at me with fear and suspicion. There are many other stories like this.
In the slums, with a few exceptions, there is no private land ownership; it belongs to the State. Slum dwellers have a temporary permit to use the soil, which is revocable at any time. There are no public services and electricity is a privilege only a few people have there. Most slum dwellers come from rural areas. Lack of governmental investment in agriculture, terrain fragmentation inside the families due to inheritance, and its concentration in the hands of the multinationals push people towards urban centers. Then there are refugees and displaced people of some of the many wars going on in Africa. Slums are the result of completely absent policies for public housing: an urban growth without a city, which is handy for those who govern, because the system of temporary permits has created political nepotism and corruption, which helps politicians and government officials who can rely on the rents business and the ease of manipulating the poor as electoral constituency.
In Soweto, South Africa, Kibera competes for the primacy among the largest shanty towns on the African continent. It is a separate no-place, a city inside the city with an absurd population density – it seems to be of 3000 people per hectare. The railroad cuts the slum from east to west, the rails are next to the shacks. It is a pile of metal sheets, a view of an environmental monster made of roofs that are red because of rust, sporadic, miraculously propped up by wooden pillars. Air is unbreathable, the smell makes you sick. It permeates your nostrils, your throat. Africa’s sultry weather expands this sensation beyond belief. We walk on excrement sewage debris mire and dead mice, and I am only able to think about my spasmodic need to take a shower so as to get rid of all this filth.
In Kibera was shot a movie I like a lot, The Constant Gardner, an act of accusation against multinational pharmaceutical companies and their inhumane policies on the African continent. Words pronounced by one of its protagonists come to my mind: “Do you think the world is controlled by the governments? Now you sing God save the multinationals, you know?
Soweto is yet another slum on the far outskirts of Nairobi. The Pope John XXIII Community has been present here for almost 20 years. The missionaries carry on the “Rainbow Project”, a model of intervention on multiple levels to help orphans made so by AIDS. To get to Soweto, one has to walk. Slums are not reached by public transport nor by any other infrastructure. No matatu (minibus) enters them. Words are not sufficient to explain Soweto and life in this place. There are images, stories, faces.
Such as the of dozens of street children, with inevitable skin diseases (not to mention malaria, typhoid, diarrhea) whose fate is likely to end up sniffing glue or – for girls – to become prostitutes in the city in order to feed their children. They shout while laughing ”muzungu, muzungu howareyou?”, jump on me, pull my clothes, and I laugh as well as I answer “muafrica muafrica I’m ok” , and they want me to take pictures of them, and after a while I have to lie that the camera has broken. When night falls, doors are closed and you cannot go outside, it is too dangerous, drunk men steal and rape in the streets. Yet Soweto in the dark has a picturesque charm, flames, humming quiet clicking noises, the moon and the shadows. As a ghost village in a fairy tale.