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.

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