Kibera News Network – list of story ideas

I would like to introduce…Kibera News Network, Kibera’s first TV news station. Featuring online content produced by 16 youth from Kibera!

Last week, we began training 16 enthusiastic youth on Flip cameras. We haven’t quite got the internet installed at KCODA for the uploading, so we’re not online yet. But I can’t wait. Just see below all the amazing stories that the teams are planning to report on. They have already started and I’ve seen some great footage! THESE are some of the stories that are hidden inside the slums waiting to be told. Notice that most groups categorized stories into themes (and some only had themes, so we will work on that).

Group 1:
Collins, Moha, Steve

1)    Noise pollution: the noise rules are not followed; during day it is very noisy due to business activities like CD shops.
2)    Olympic bus terminus: the bus turn about was repaired but it not used (waste of municipal funds?)
3)    Need for bumps along chief’s camp road: speeding vehicles are dangerous to school children
4)    Dangers of living along the railway lines: possibility that train will fall on them, endangering their lives
5)    Grabbing of land meant for pavements and paths: no room for pedestrians due to building out into slum road
6)    Youths and illegal gangs in Olympic – repairing your structure often requires bribe payment to them
7)    Interference of power transformers by residents: those who live in kibera often replace the fuses themselves: this causes fire to houses such as that last week of several homes
8.    Insecurity: Bars operate till very late, so they can harbor criminals
9)    Presence of local artists who promote peace: like solo 7 and maasai 2

Group 2:
Regynnah, George, Eddie

1)    Talents: profiles of especially talented youth: youths playing football, singing, other
2)    Security: adopt-a-light program and how it has helped security since lights are now available in some areas, also chief’s place improvements that improved security
3)    Education: in Kibera there are some very good schools like Olympic that is top in country, and Soweto academy: profiling top schools in slums
4)    Unity: in case of fire outbreak, people unite to help each other and don’t wait for fire truck – team firefighting in kibera
5)    Love: people don’t allow each other to go hungry, neighbor will give food if someone needs it
6)    Informed: we as youths of kibera are well informed about our rights, not ignorant
7)    Fighting poor sanitation: there is a cleanup process where youth gather together and clean the villages themselves
8.    Fighting poverty: many people are self-employed, own their own kiosks and do not work for others
9)    Self-reliant: Those in Kibera do shopping in Kibera, not Nakumatt – one can just get the same items cheaper here and that way the money stays local to Kibera

Group 3:
Mildred, Jacob, Shadrack, Sizzah

1)    Sanitation: community health and garbage collection
2)    Education: outsiders think Kiberans are not literate and educated; showing that is not true
3)    Development: community initiatives that are trying to improve Kibera
4)    Recollection: sports and events, community activities and talents, fun
5)    Lifestyle: poverty – people are sometimes wealthy but staying here anyway – inside their mud houses you find nice things they have bought.
6)    Housing and land
7)    Human Rights
8.    Intercultural and Religious: People intermarrying among tribes. Others think they cannot stay together due to election violence. Is this a problem since 2008?
9)    Disease
10)    Skills, Knowledge:  one man built a vehicle for himself in Kibera using scrap metal alone – profile of entrepreneurship

Group 4:
Isabella, Wilfred, Hassan

1)    Biogas projects coverage
2)    Youth group activities documentation
3)    Sanitation – water taps and toilets
4)    farming produce in sacks – new method for business and fighting hunger
5)    poultry farming – can get financially stable by chicken farming in Kibera
6)    lobbying and advocacy
7)    kazi kwa vijana: jobs for youth program follow up – is it working? have youth found jobs?
8.    security
9)    expansion of roads and impact that is having – some people are being pushed out
10)    hospitals establishment: residents use local clinics not Kenyatta hospital – plenty of local health services now

Group 5:
Cliffton, Douglas, Lucy

1)    Sanitation: UN toilet compared to CDF funded: comparison of quality
2)    Education: informal vs formal schools – quality comparison
3)    Health: how people approach public health and facilities
4)    Transport infrastructure: looking at roads inlets and outlets
5)    Business: kinds of businesses that exist here, commodities produced.
6)    Drainage system: sewage disruption in gutters caused by blockages leading to home flooding, yet sewer lines run right under Kibera without servicing it.
7)    Housing: slum upgrading project and how are initial structures looking
8.    Public health: Food kiosks: whether environment is sanitary at these kiosks
9)    Water: toilets built along water channels, drainage creates disease
10)    Tribes: enclaves: conflicts because people are now living in different areas not mixed. How this happened, makes it easy for attacks on tribes since you know who is who.
11)    Land issue: no one has title deeds which causes major problems

Wongonyi: Coast Province, Kenya

The small village of Wongonyi is located in the Taita hills not far from the coast, nestled among lush hilltops with views over the massive Tsavo game parks. Mikel and I had the good fortune to spend a recent escape-from-Nairobi weekend there. Our friend Primoz who sent us was a minor celebrity up in these parts for having actually walked and mapped the whole village, which is spread over several very steep hilltops.

Wongonyi views
Wongonyi views

The entire constituency of Mwatate, in fact, has been on our radar for a while; we visited local authorities with SODNET last year, and they were very interested in getting community feedback through mapping or other technology. We made plans to come up and do some training. But Wongonyi is literally off the grid. To what extent can technology make a difference, or even make sense, to the small-scale farmers living up here? Places like this always inspire me, and challenge me to question everything we consider to be “development.”

Just around the corner, but a million miles away

To get to Wongonyi, you must brave a matatu ride from the town of Voi up a steep, deeply rutted dirt road, for 250 shillings ($3 in a dollar or two per day economy), or for twice that amount you might get a seat in the four-wheel-drive truck. This is a road built where nature never intended. Following partly along the course of a dried riverbed, it hugs the mountainside improbably and forces a speed of about 2km/hr. At 7:30 each morning, the matatu pitches and heaves back down carrying some 20 people in seats meant for 14, along with several gallons of fresh milk in empty plastic vegetable oil containers to sell in Voi. Mama Ruth, our adopted mom on the mountain, tells us that improvements have been made: now we have 2 matatus and the truck, when we used to have just one matatu. She says it as though she owns them, and in a way, the vehicles do belong to the whole town – even she, who could afford a car, wouldn’t bring it up the mountain, where it might melt into the earth during a hard rain. It simply doesn’t make sense to own a vehicle that isn’t being used constantly and by everyone.

Mama Ruth and Mrs. Wood
Mama Ruth and Kathy Wood

The road has actually been paved in concrete in some particularly unwieldy passages, rendering it passable on most days. Progress, we think. This must help the residents. Not really – matatu prices have not decreased for villagers, and the only change they’ve seen is that big logging trucks can now make it up the paths into pristine forest, and bring the goods back down. In fact, the local chief started to tell people not to cut their trees because a place like Wongonyi depends heavily on sustaining a delicate environmental balance. The shangas, or small household farms, are built on terraced mountainsides next to trees that hold the slippery earth in place. Most of the trees have been planted, after an initial shaving of the hillsides many years ago. A virgin forest – more of a jungle – tops the mountain, also preserved in order to prevent devastating erosion and to protect the watershed. When milk prices fall for these subsistence farmers, they are understandably tempted to cut the trees on their property for some 50 shillings (though the middlemen can make several times that in profit) and the chief must intervene.

Village to Village

Sarah and William
Sarah and William

We happened to be in Wongonyi at the same time as a family of four Canadians, the Woods. Hailing from a small town in northern Ontario, they had turned fundraising for Wongonyi into a family passion and this time brought 600 kilos of donated items (baby clothes, dress patterns, solar lamps). We watched them unveil a sunflower seed-press for a women’s group, bought from Kickstart in Nairobi. The Woods had also begun to construct a playground at the elementary school, donated baby clothes at the clinic, brought sewing patterns and fabric for a seamstress training project, and were paying scholarships for a few girls to finish high school and college. We had several interesting discussions with them as they debated what would make the most impact and not go to waste, and tried to convince people they were just small-town average folk like themselves. Ronnie Mdawida, a local resident, had been their exchange student in Canada inspiring the founding of their Ronnie Fund. Ronnie is also the reason we are there in Wongonyi thinking about how we can possibly lend our own skills. After founding Kosmos Solutions with an American friend, Ronnie and his wife Sarah have been working hard to improve the village. Challenges here abound: alcoholism and absentee drunkard fathers are common, girls go to school only until their parents decide they’re much more useful collecting firewood and managing the household – usually before the age of 12. There is no electricity, minimal running water, and few medicines at the clinic. The death of a parent can leave 8 children fending for themselves off the food raised by farming on steep terraces, and funerals are frequent due to lack of medical care. HIV has made its way up from the towns. But there is an abundance of less tangible goods: extended family usually lives just down the path, and neighbors support each other in times of need. The stars at night come out suddenly in bright abundance, just after the pink sunset fades over the plains below. Food is cooked in large batches and shared with friends and family. Folks will walk half the day to attend the funeral of someone they were barely acquainted with, bringing small coins or food. They are buried in their own backyards. And the land is incredibly fertile. Taita was largely spared from the drought that recently plagued much of Kenya. Several springs and rivers run down the mountain and provide natural irrigation. From my perspective, too, arriving in Wongonyi was like coming home to a family I never knew I had. Everyone we passed said a bright hello (or, rather, habari yako) and wanted to know what we were doing, maybe have a chat. I also felt the urge to say hello and learn about every person, releasing my cautious and guarded Nairobi attitude.

Mapping and Media in Mwatate

So – what is it we’re planning in this hamlet? Primoz, as mentioned, has already mapped the village. Our partners at SODNET want to extend that to the whole constituency. We want to do some training as we’ve done in Nairobi, with young people who want to map their own villages, and think of other ways that the rural community can hold information locally for policy impact and self-advocacy. With a receptive MP this can be very effective; he complained to us that he simply doesn’t have enough basic facts on the area’s needs. Collecting, sharing, talking, and thinking about community needs might mean starting mobile phone radio or storytelling with the local girls’ club. I think it’s really important not to plan too much from the outside (Nairobi), but to come with ideas and allow the process to develop organically. Certainly, that’s what has worked in Kibera. I’m ready for this process to be much slower than it’s been in Nairobi. Everything is slower in Wongonyi. I certainly don’t mind. Walking and then talking face-to-face is still the primary communication method, although mobile towers allow for decent coverage. Everything is done on a personal level: small projects come and go, each meant to provide income: butterfly farming, biogas collection, etc. What might happen if some of the girls in the girls’ club had the experience of creating short videos or audio recordings about their lives, or about anything at all. Would it be a confidence-builder, could they even participate in the village planning process this way with pride in their special knowledge of a technology that others don’t know? That’s been a boost to our current group, made them feel smart and proud. Or is that simply going too far: after all, the girls in the club lead what we’re told is a tough life of household work, farming, and school, and leaving their chores for even one hour a week can be a tough sell to parents.

Are we the teachers, or the students?

Mikel and I left Wongonyi feeling inspired yet challenged: him pondering the difficulties of life so cut off from anything outside or “modern”, me bemoaning the fact that the world we usually inhabit has lost the communal aspect of life and regard for nature that is simply required for survival in such an environment. Each other human is worthy of time and respect, and is valued if only because of being few humans so dependent on each other. But aren’t we all, in fact, dependent in this way – only we’re able to pretend otherwise? Aren’t we also at nature’s mercy for survival, only we offhandedly destroy it daily? It might be romanticism, but seeing only the poverty and dire challenges confronting these villages is also nearsighted, though that is the typical language found (abject poverty, desperation, disease, hunger). It’s the same language used to characterize Kibera, the image that can hurt more than help. Blanket characterization of any way of life as either piteous or righteous is far too facile. I only hope that our contributions to Wongonyi and Mwatate can help them to plan and advocate for what they want, and as always, to know that their knowledge and views are important and should be shared. If we ever hope to find balance on this planet, it’s their stories even more than ours that needs to be heard. Whose reality counts? Can we offer something useful – whether technology or simply the knowledge that they now count, they are visible, they have this map, or these stories, and they can slowly impact the course of life in Mwatate? It is in such small-scale development work where we encounter what I consider to be the central dilemma of the issue at hand. Here we are, from the outside, doing something we think will “help” someone else. How can we ever know what impact we will have? Are the things we bring from our own culture – like technology – a blessing or a curse here? The only way out of the paradox, is to learn, listen, and to bring your humanity. Is there any other way than to offer something you believe in, while honoring the small ingenuities or qualities you encounter in the other? Otherwise, you either continue dependency cycles or simply are seen as somehow better and wiser simply by merit of your apparent power and wealth. Why do we so often hide the fact under a veneer of “professionalism” that we are interested in benefiting too – that all is not perfect in our world, either, and we are there because we want to enjoy ourselves and learn, not from pity. We are equals, merely sharing skills – we happen to have the ear of the powerful, and some tools that might help bridge the gap. What skills can they share in return? I would love to know how to manage a small farm or even kitchen garden. I’m hoping to get my shamba started as soon as someone can teach me.

Starting up again

It has been an eventful couple of weeks here in Nairobi picking up where we left off with Map Kibera. I think we’ve finally proven that we meant it when we told everyone we’d return – how often have such promises been broken in Kibera? Now, we’re looking more broadly at what it takes to empower people to create, share and use information (maps, data, news reports, personal accounts) about their community to gain greater understanding, spark change and influence policymakers. We’re here for another six months in part to work toward the elusive, coveted goal: sustainability.

A lot has happened since December. We have several different potential partnerships on the horizon – organizations and businesses that want to adopt community mapping in their own programs, and others that want to work directly with the mapping group to collect more data within Kibera. The group has met in our absence and begun to think about how to constitute itself as an organization. This is the outcome we were hoping for.

But, first some plain facts: the mappers needs a lot more support in order to become self-sustaining, in terms of things like organizational know-how, partnership building, avenues for financing, and the most straightforward – improving their skills so they have a strong enough grasp to teach others. This is what we’re ultimately hoping will happen in other slum areas of Nairobi and/or elsewhere in Kenya.

We’re also preparing for a big “push” on community media support, meaning working with a team composed of lead local journalists (some of whom double as mappers) to make full use of the Ushahidi Kibera site, providing technology support (read: getting a website) for their respective publications, and ultimately forming a network of those who wish to collaborate and support each other to produce a truly representative picture of Kibera using new technology. We think that these citizen reporters in combination with the mappers are a formidable team, and at the forefront of new kinds of journalism in Kenya. There’s also room for more creative illustrations of the map including personal videos, stories, and photos. We think the map and related digital media can involve a lot of people in conversations about their vision and hopes for Kibera, and want to spend this time reaching out to as many different people as possible. We think that this way, folks on the ground will be able to influence and share with powerful actors like international organizations and government. This is an evolving vision, and we welcome your comments and thoughts – and always, your help.

We’re also going to work on creating better documentation and analysis of the project for publication and curriculum development, building up the Nairobi social technology and new media community of practice, and various tech projects such as printing the maps (a cartographical challenge).

We’ve also had some interesting visitors. Last week, Ory Okolloh, the Kenyan blogger and one of the founders of Ushahidi, came to Kibera with a Swiss documentary film crew in tow to meet some mappers and also the Kibera journalists who will be working on the Ushahidi site. We realized that she has something (well, probably many things) we lack – the ability to relate to the challenges of being a youth in Kenya: unrepresented by politicians and the media, unemployed, poorly educated, and generally ignored in decision-making, but with the responsibility to build the future of a nation and the strong desire to shape it for the better. Ory grew up near Kibera and started her blog as a way to express some of these frustrations, and she was keenly interested to hear how their encounter with technology had so far inspired the journalists and mappers (I, for one, learned that they were using their phones more often to access the net and particularly the ever-popular Facebook). I wanted her to stay and visit them every week just to inspire them to new visions of how all the work they’re doing can have an impact, and help them break through the barriers they’ve grown up with. It was clear to me that we’re trying to support a new paradigm of citizenship in a country where resignation and cynicism (if not resentment and anger) greets any mention of politics. Ory latched on to one mapper’s shy admission that she enjoyed the “celebrity” of getting attention for this project – such pride can transform into real community leadership and a sense of confidence and possibility. And she is the living example of that.

The quickie European tour

January might not be the time of year that most people think of taking a European vacation, especially to the north where sunlight is rare and there has been a record amount of snow this winter. But, foolhardy as we are (a word whose dictionary definition is strikingly befitting: “Adventurous or bold but lacking in good sense”), Mikel and I thought it would be fun to combine a weekend meeting he had to attend in Amsterdam with a train/ferry tour through Ireland, the UK, and France.

Why those countries, you might ask, and not somewhere in the sunny Mediterranean? Well, on my part it was pure ignorance, really. I’ve never been to Europe in a meaningful way (i.e., not during a stopover or at the nearly forgotten age of 15), except for an impulsive trip to Italy last spring that really whetted my appetite for Europe.

In fact, what led to this clumsy itinerary was similar to the ruse of blindly putting one’s finger on a spinning globe – I simply looked up the prices of air tickets to all the countries in Europe, and it turned out that Ireland had the cheapest flight. Sounds like a deal! But, several hundred dollars worth of train and ferry tickets later, I had to rethink this budget-shopper rationale. It’s much like entering a store with a coupon for ten dollars off, and walking out with $200 of merchandise (your puny ten doesn’t even cover tax).

It was consistently beautiful and astonishing and fascinating. On the flip side, we came close to throttling each other on more than one occasion, I vomited during the bus tour from some cocktail of jet lag, sleeping pills and Irish breakfast, and we faced the reality that Europe is yet to become in any way accessible to either the handicapped or those with large luggage.

I don’t think I’d ever been a tourist in the purest sense until this trip, and I must say it’s not necessarily the way to go. Being a pure tourist means you show up at a hotel having no idea what to do, just wanting to “see the sights”. It means you are dependent entirely on various websites or brochures advertising these sights. In my case it also means that you haven’t had time to properly plan anything and find yourself waking up in a new city and trying to remember what it was you once heard was the thing to see there.

That said, I hereby present my brief impressionistic thoughts about our destinations.


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It might be worth a $500 round trip ticket to Dublin just to quaff a few creamy pints of Guinness as God meant it to taste. I finally understand how they can drink the stuff by the gallon. Sitting in a crowded bar late on a Friday night, a youthful band played lively music with a mix of traditional and new instruments while we sat sipping our drinks and watching the party. Still jetlagged, it was a bit like coming across Mr. Fezziwig’s ball during Jiminy Cricket’s tour in a Christmas Carol; watching the revelry but nearly invisible, privy to an intimate scene. The drunken patrons were aged anywhere from 20 to 60, dancing up a storm and here and there breaking into Irish dance, the band occasionally giving in to a traditional song so everyone could sing along. I could actually feel just the slightest tingling of familiarity — the tunes, the straight-armed hopping Irish dancing, the mix of despair and mirth in the songs, the way the bus driver slipped in stories of murders and suicides in a hushed voice while we drove the countryside (“ah, poor lad, what-a-shame”). I’ve never before been in the midst of a foreign culture whose influence I could feel in my own Irish-Catholic-tinged upbringing, in my own roots, and a nice homecoming it was.


It was a mere three hours we had in Wales between ferry and train, but a lovely tea in a local diner was served with such an exquisitely executed scone and helpful manner that I left thinking Wales must be a bit like Midwestern America: down-to-earth and comforting, if a bit old-fashioned, like your grandmother.


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Upon arrival to London, I posted to Facebook: it’s like Manhattan, but more sinister. After four days there, I have to stick by that. Perhaps it’s the dreary winter weather, but London was dingy, gothic, and severe, and I loved it. We went from Tate modern to Westminster to Brick Lane (a kind of hipster haven) where we ate lox and cream cheese bagels at odd hours. The greatest surprise for me was the quick rekindling of my love for fashion – the dark yet frilly look seen about town had an air of quirky haughtiness that inspired me to wear my high-heeled boots every day in lieu of tennis shoes and thereby give myself shin splints. To be honest, London felt almost frightening at first; the coffee shop seemed sharp and filthy in a way that surpassed Brooklyn’s seediest, the apartments cramped and musty. But after a few days I envisioned a whole new vintage-clothed version of myself wandering the cobblestone graffiti art corridors and welcomed the thrill.


They seem to worship a small boy peeing. The waiters were uppity and brisk and may as well have been wearing pince-nez and waxed moustaches. They have paid centuries of obsessive attention to beercraft with unmatched results. They favor chocolate and giant waffles overflowing with strawberries and whipped cream. The main square contains the most ostentatious flaunting of exuberantly baroque architecture I’ve seen yet. This all leads me to conclude that this is a most whimsical culture. I happen to consider whimsy a high form of intelligence.


The thing to appreciate in Amsterdam is design. A culture which I find a bit impenetrable became clearer to me on a solitary sojourn through snowy streets in a residential neighborhood of houseboats smelling of woodsmoke. Then, I encountered the library. The public library is like living inside an iPod. The design is smooth and white with rounded corners, managing, like Apple, to feel futuristic yet warm and friendly, hip yet welcoming even the squarest, a populist kind of library. It boasted a public piano complete with a sign clarifying, “30 minute limit – only experienced players, please.” And, obligingly, the sounds of classical piano wafted up through the central atrium from a volunteer at the keys. Rather than being filled with too many books, the main feature of the library is in fact a multitude of lovely Macs to serve the public, who may browse from the comfort of cushy white sofas while taking in an exquisite view of the city. There is a sense of everything being available, without a fuss, a city that above all works – everyone calmly bicycling through the snowstorm obeying traffic signals. I often find that a mite boring in a place, but this time I relaxed in the peaceful, streamlined atmosphere of an ideal liberal society.

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I was surprised to find Paris a bit rough and dirty, maybe owing to our overhasty selection of hotel over the web from the bargain barrel. It hardly seemed the refined and posh city I envisioned, with more street beggars and homeless than anywhere else we visited. At the same time, its opulence and majesty was undiminished in the likes of the regal buildings, ornate gold-leaf interiors, wide promenades, astounding art collections, and the flair of class in the street fashion. But what charmed me in the end was the French language. I loved sounding out the words written everywhere, whether I understood them or not (to Mikel’s dismay), and after a few days the cobwebs came off and the rusty gears began to churn in the section of my brain that once spoke high school French. The curlicues of the language seemed to mirror the frilliness of the gothic architecture, showcasing form over function.

Vennes, Brittany


Here, I enjoyed the charm of what must be the “real” France to some – small shops, cobblestone streets, a slower pace of life, allowing time for the richness to soak in. That is, absolutely mouthwatering pastries, croissants, baked buttery goodness everywhere. At Mikel’s friend Nicolas’ house where we stayed, fresh baguette and cheese, Brittany’s regional crepes, cider, and even fresh caught sting ray for dinner. Like in Amsterdam, I found everything to be designed just so, with no clutter. Children’s toys were wooden basics with bright colors and fine construction, as though made by elves. The whole town felt wholesome, loving, and warm. We were ready to move in.

Elephants and Christmas

Last Sunday Mikel and I went to the Nairobi National Park. This amazing place is essentially an urban safari – buffalo, giraffes, zebras, even lions inhabit some 120 square kilometers of protected land just bordering the city. A visitor can enjoy the surreal experience of peering past a giraffe’s neck toward a panorama of skyscrapers. A truly amazing sanctuary, particularly in light of land-grabbing in Nairobi and beyond.

The highlight for us though was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust located in a special area of the park. This is where we experienced cuteness the likes of which can only compare to, maybe, housing a pile of kittens. But everyone has seen kittens. What about the kitten version of enormous, two ton mammals that can both stomp you to death or perform circus tricks, depending on the situation? That’s right – baby elephants.

I also wanted to let you all know, Christmas is here in Nairobi – especially at Yaya Center Shopping Mall, a haven for expats and also where I’ll admit we sometimes do sneak off for excellent coffee and pastries after a rough workday in Kibera. Lately we’ve been serenaded by this chorus performing at the photo-with-Santa booth in a Coca-Cola sponsored mall wonderland:

And in case you wondered, they do get down sometimes too:

I swear I’d go to church more than once a year if everyone would shake their hips like that in front of God and everybody.

Maps and the Media

Now that we’ve finished the initial training and mapping phase of the project, it’s time to look at where we’ll go from here. I have a particular passion for working with community and citizen journalists. Put that together with a map and you have an opportunity to actually locate where stories and events are taking place geographically.

In my view, the map is a way to represent visually the community’s knowledge about itself – it’s both factual and representative of the way this group of 13 wants the rest of the world to see Kibera. Good local journalism is the same, and ultimately we wish to support the kind of empowerment that comes from self-representation and local production of information. When a community becomes engaged in telling the story of who they are and reporting their own facts and their own news, a new kind of communication becomes possible.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in Kibera, it’s that there is A LOT happening in this tightly packed city-within-a-city. As a journalist by nature (and sometimes profession) I get very excited about this. There are a few local organizations that produce community media – print, radio, video – with room for more. Kibera has a population estimated to be as high as one million – larger than many cities in the United States. So we’re now developing a project to put these existing streams of information together in one place on the web.

The entire time we’ve been here (and even before we arrived), I’ve been talking to everyone I can about local media in Kenya. We partnered with two NGOs who happen to work on media in Kibera. Carolina for Kibera (CFK)houses a small volunteer group known as Kibera Worldwide that uses Flip cameras to tell stories about Kibera. Kibera Community Development Agenda (KCODA) publishes the Kibera Journal, a monthly newspaper. We have now trained two journalists from the newspaper and one from local radio station Pamoja FM on mapping. The Flip camera group followed us throughout the mapping process, and I’ve been working most closely with them to create video portraits and interviews around Kibera to bring places on the map and issues of concern to light. They have also picked up some of the mapping skills along the way and produced a short film about the project.

We’ve begun working with Ushahidi to bring these different outlets together along with citizen reporting on events in Kibera. The purpose is not so much to report through the website to Kibera’s residents, who aren’t online most of the time; it’s to link together stories and facts from various community media to allow them to amplify their own coverage to the rest of Nairobi and the world. It’s to provide a shared platform that isn’t owned by any one of them. It’s to offer a way for ordinary residents to SMS reports into a channel that can be accessed by more than just one station or paper when an even occurs, and that can also be seen by authorities and police. It’s also because of a meeting I attended where Kibera’s community leaders met with journalists from Nairobi to discuss what they considered to be poor coverage – none of the positive things that they were doing made the news. The hard work on peace and reconciliation, economic improvement, democracy, health, you name it, went unrecognized. This is a complaint I’ve heard echoed everywhere while working in the community. It became clear that local media in Kibera was missing a link to the mainstream media, but also that they wanted to directly represent themselves – to shout louder.

In fact, sometimes the question about benefit to those who aren’t online misses the point. The digital divide is a fact and needs to be addressed, but when it comes to community information there is also a need for expression outward and collaboration within Kibera. Something like the Kibera Journal or Pamoja FM allows Kibera to talk to itself, while putting facts and stories online allows it to speak to the rest of the world (including wired Nairobi, politicians, national press). Our job, now, is to make sure the world is listening. A place of that size cannot be ignored, but it can and has been spoken on behalf of. This is where I think technology can serve even the poorest and enable them direct access to the eyes and ears of the powerful. It can also project their voices, so that those in power can no longer ignore them. A community with a voice is a community at peace.

Lake Naivasha

We took a vacation. It was about two hours drive from Nairobi, a popular vacation spot, and my birthday. We couldn’t have known that the tin box of a room that we slept in on the first night was owned by half of a feuding family, or that we’d be awakened in the middle of the night by children of white colonials on a drug binge partying like the open-air wooden bar was a London club. We also didn’t know that Lake Naivasha’s most premium shores were distributed among Moi’s cronies, or that hippos kill some 30 Maasai fish poachers per year as they swim neck-deep in the shallows, by biting each man in two with their huge jaws. But buffalo were said to be the most deadly local animal, lying low in the bushes and lashing out with their great horns without warning. Hippos, we were told, could be outwitted if you just ran zigzag.

These are just a few things we became educated about. Luckily, they were just incidental to our lovely weekend.

We wound up running off from the terrible Camp Carnelli after arguing with the owners about their mismanagement. Running being perhaps the wrong verb, since rather than use the road we found a boatman on the shore willing to take us directly over to the other side of the lake with all of our luggage. A short walk should land us up at Crater Lake Lodge, on another small lake nearby. Of course, we hadn’t banked on our guide being of nomadic Samburu stock, for whom “short” is perhaps under two hours, nor the devil thorns lurking in the scorching hot sandy earth we hiked across in our sandals. Julius, the guide, had apparently grown up walking some 40 km to school each day, also under threat of buffalo attack which took his best mate as a child. We learned a lot about Julius. He also carried our suitcase the whole way on his shoulder.

Making up for the sweaty journey, it happened that we had to walk right through a private game reserve. Like walking past some cows on a farm, we hiked by a herd of zebra who paid us no mind, while giraffes magically emerged from among the trees which camouflaged them nicely. I’m a novice to the safari experience, so for me it was something surreal, even bizarre, hallucinatory. We’ve dismissed most animals from our everyday vicinity to the extent that I felt that I’d walked not back in time so much as onto another planet. But why? What a sad and limited life we humans have constructed separate from the animal kingdom. These private reserves are nice because the Maasai graze sheep right through them, and a lack of predator animals makes it possible for people to actually live and work in the reserve. Also, you don’t need a car but can simply walk through.

After trodding about an hour under the hot sun, we made it to our destination. A beautiful small lake of paradise, filled with flamingos and home to at least two kinds of monkeys.

After that, we mostly slept, ate and lounged in the cabin known as a banda. Not bad. It’s funny, though, watching the groups of tourists come and go from such a place. It reminds me that the tourist is often so isolated from the environment, kept separate by design- nice Kenya, pretty things to see, eat and drink, hakuna matata, no problem. It is so much more interesting to know the story of where you are, who lives there, what happened to this place during and after colonialism. In Kenya I notice touches of Britain everywhere – and even the colonists themselves and their descendants are still around, if lying low – like a quiet but powerful animal sated and enjoying its repose. I find it decidedly strange. In a resort area like Naivasha, they serve brown sauce and fat sausages and beans for breakfast. The camp that we vacated initially was owned by a white Kenyan family. What’s their story, why have they stuck around, and how exactly do they fit in – or not – with the rest of Kenya? – these questions fascinate me here. In India one finds British influence everywhere – maybe even more so – but as for British people, well, they’ve long since fled.

It’s hard for me to imagine skimming the surface of a place like most of the heavy-camera-wielding Europeans vacationing at the lodge or passing through to take in the scenery. But in two days – most of it lounging on the porch of the cabin – that is pretty much what we did. As I learn more about this country, I hope to unravel a bit more history of this region. Every time we tap in just a little bit, it bubbles up to the surface and begins to overflow like a hidden spring. It seems there is so much to know, but even more urgently, so much that seeks to be known. There is a story – there are so many stories – of Kenya, of Africa, which haven’t been told, or haven’t been repeated enough times and in enough ways to purge the land of its disfiguring by foreign historymakers; or that is how looks through my eyes. In Kibera, the people we meet crave to be known proudly and truthfully, they are tired of the ugliness of the portrait they’ve been handed. All over, there are people muted by tales of atrocity, starvation, violence, and they continue to be defined by these stories told by outsiders. Until now, that is, until now.

Kibera Emerging

We’re now on our third week out mapping Kibera. Our group of intrepid explorers has had two weeks out mapping their neighborhood and uploading and editing their map data in the computer lab . They have been quite patient and dedicated to the task of learning new computer software, and we’ve pretty much brought the Sodnet offices to maximum computing capacity. Thankfully, we have five technical volunteers who are helping them learn the OpenStreetMap program, upload data, and scan in their paper maps.

We’ve now changed our schedule to accommodate the extra time – and focus — needed in the computer lab – spending one full day in the lab, then one full day in Kibera mapping and discussing our progress.

Here in the lab, we’ve found that computers are funny partners for those who weren’t brought up on Windows, much less Facebook (though we’re proudly starting a Facebook group!). There is the whole problem of click-and-drag, of click versus double-click, of opening and finding something in a web browser as opposed to a folder or flash drive, of typing web addresses precisely and passwords with proper capitalization (common practice is to flick on caps lock instead of shift). The use of a computer is not actually as intuitive as I had come to think. Certainly the keyboard, with its shift and control keys and illogical location of the letters, is not a straightforward tool. A few times, I have been reminded of how I painstakingly studied typing in grade school via a little computer program called Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Thanks Mavis! Wish I had a copy for our participants now.

But the fact is, after just three days in the lab and two days in the field, we have quite an impressive amount of marks on the Kibera map. It’s starting to not only resemble other urban areas with churches, schools, and public toilets marked in abundance, but also to reveal the astounding density of the place. After the second day out mapping, we took just five of the villages and had the mappers tally the features they recorded. Here’s the impressive list they made:Tally of mapping day 2

I spent Friday morning walking around the village of Raila with Regynnah, one of the mappers, tripping up the dirt pathways alongside trenches filled with running waste water, past small kiosks selling soda and cell phone top-up cards and toddlers chanting in unison “how-are-you!” We stopped at a few pre-primary schools – they seem abundant – and were treated to a little dance and song at one of them.

We toured a toilet facility under construction, and marked an AIDS clinic, chapatti shop, a cobbler. The sheer amount of potential landmarks led me to wonder what everyone had decided was important to map, and we came to a kind of consensus after making that list on the whiteboard. Then underlined features are essential to map, the rest are up to individual discretion.

So the next challenge on our plate is to help build bridges to make use of the information and demonstrate where it fits in to the bigger picture. We’re bringing in various speakers to Kibera to share some of the possibilities for this kind of mapping and introduce the participants to the wider world of technology. So I would say our ambitions are high – it’s a matter of not only teaching computer skills but envisioning the mappers as eventual full participants in the global wired world.



I really wish I knew Swahili. Sitting in the hot sun listening to speeches by every manner of councilor and administrator, including what were apparently fiery political diatribes, some basic Swahili might have kept us there just long enough to hear Prime Minister Raila Odinga himself give a speech. In fact, we’d thought we were going to actually get a chance to meet the PM ourselves, since the Area Chief of Sarangombe – now a fan of Map Kibera – had indicated as much. But this didn’t seem remotely possible once we were sitting in the Olympic primary school grounds at a fundraiser, surrounded by crowds of Kiberans and various suited men and brightly-dressed women. Oh, well. We’re never quite certain of anything until it actually materializes.

But things have materialized, right in front of ours eyes, time and again. On Friday, I showed up at the Ngong Hills Hotel at the invitation of our new friend Kepha, not sure exactly what I was there for. It turned out to be a forum organized by the Moraa New Hope Foundation, where approximately 40 people in various influential positions in Kibera and the Nairobi media discussed how to improve coverage of Kibera. Community leaders complained that some reporters asked for handouts in exchange for coverage; reporters tried to defend their coverage by explaining how something becomes “news”; community journalists (our friends at Pamoja FM and the Kibera Journal) pointed out their vital role as a non-commercial source of local information. It was right in line with our efforts to develop community-generated information sources through Map Kibera. It was clear to me that Kibera residents are tired of being seen negatively, while outsiders want more nuanced information. Hopefully Map Kibera can fill part of the gap between the local self-representation and national and international perception.
In fact, I’ve hardly ever seen such a vibrant, active place as this slum. On Saturday, the streets of Kibera teemed with life – cars covered in ribbons for a wedding party, church groups headed out in matching outfits for service projects, young kids playing football, everyone out shopping or selling, CD kiosks filling the air with music, brightly outfitted music and dance groups getting ready for the PM’s visit. Mikel and I hung around drinking sodas and taking in the scene. It was nice to see kids running about and a general levity that we were told is in sharp contrast to the post-election violence of 2007 and early 2008 – which people mention frequently in conversation, the scars obviously not yet healed.

There seems to be no limit to the energy of Kiberans working as civil servants and community workers, even while plenty others that we have not met are causing the trouble that they seek to remedy. Even our young candidates for the mapping plainly admit that other youths are not so civic-minded, more than one indicating that they wanted to volunteer because “idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” It was difficult to say no to any of them. These are high school graduates, some with college too, in a place where the opportunities don’t measure up to their talents. In fact, we’ve been rather overwhelmed with their interest. And I had worried that the time commitment would be an issue.

The bigger issue might be that for many of them, their computer skills are quite basic. The principal benefit of the project for these participants may turn out to be increased computer literacy – a valid objective in itself. Luckily we’ll have some tech volunteers to help out in the computer lab.

We’ve also invited some video reporters to participate from a group called Kibera Worldwide. They will be gathering stories alongside the mappers, which will provide further illustration of the place from the point of view of the residents. My hope is that this can further blossom into a map-based platform to connect local community media to the rest of Nairobi and the rest of the world. So the meeting with the PM might never happen, but I’d be satisfied with the respect of the average Kibera resident.


There is really no way to know quite what to expect in advance when you’ve entered a new culture. Even operating in English, signals are uninterpretable, people hard to read, and I sometimes feel that all the prior preparation was just a roundup of possibilities, like spreading a batch of unidentified mixed seeds. One of the delights and trials of the project so far is watching what actually sprouts. And every time something does, I think Mikel or I visibly breathe a sigh of relief, half expecting that here on the other side of the world seeds require something other than water to grow.

Take the pot of lentils. We bought what seemed to be ordinary yellow lentils (labeled dahl) at the grocery store, along with an Indian spice mix. After following the directions on the spice package to the letter, we waited for the lentils to cook. And cook they did, for 30 minutes, one hour, and more, but they remained stubbornly like little stones, completely inedible. Finally, hungry and irritated, we had to make alternate dinner plans. We soaked them overnight and tried again the next day. After that failed, I kept them for two more days in water before finally admitting defeat. And it’s not as though I haven’t cooked dahl – what, thirty times? fifty times? The mystery of the stone lentils remains unsolved. You see –though you’ve always known B to follow A, there’s still a good chance it won’t.

Which is probably why, Saturday morning, we were a bit reluctant heading off to the Carolina for Kibera offices to interview our final few candidates for the mapping trainee slots. Would they actually be there at 10 a.m. on a Saturday? Lacking a confirmation SMS from the office, we were a little unsure. It turns out we should have had more faith – in fact, three young men had patiently waited since arriving early, at 9 a.m. And now (this is probably burying the lead) we’ve made our final selection and have 13 great participants from every village of Kibera ready to start training tomorrow.

There is a general sense of cross-your-fingers and hope things turn out. Part of this is because we Americans are so used to having electronic confirmation – email, text message — of every transaction that it is almost like we’re letting everyone off the hook. It’s no longer enough to give your word, so we don’t feel the need to keep ours. If you say on Monday that you’ll meet on Thursday at 5, better check in once or twice to confirm that. It doesn’t seem to work that way here, where technologies are newer and differently used. In fact, only face time seems to really count – and email is just an add-on, something extra.

Not to say a spoken plan is gold, but it does seem that when one thing falls through, something else comes up in its place, which makes this a pretty thrilling place to work. The training that will start this week won’t be like we expected, but there are sure to be more unexpected sproutings.