“It has been estimated that the richest 10 percent of the population of Nairobi accrues 45.2 percent of income, and the poorest 10 percent only 1.6 percent,” according to a 2009 study on urban poverty by Oxfam.
Statistics on inequality and poverty are ubiquitous in the developing world. They are often underwhelming, however, in their impact. What does 45.2 of income look like? What does “urban poverty” look like? As, of course, every statistic is relative.
In Nairobi, a city of chaos, dynamism, and incredible unequal growth, this is even more difficult to portray. Yes, it has easily the poorest urban slums I’ve ever visited. In Kibera, a hilly community, every drainage is choked with tons of raw sewage and rubbish. Children play on live train tracks, running through the middle of the slum. Government services, aside from electricity, are nonexistent. The houses are made from a mixture of mud, sticks, and tin.
But also, yes, the wealthy parts of Nairobi are more difficult to see. They are hidden behind gated communities, ensconced in shopping malls, or wrapped in dingy-looking apartment buildings. Moreover, researching these inequalities is made difficult by the lack of searchable data sets, a draconian drone flying environment, and Nairobi’s infamous traffic problems.
The Unequal Scenes I have found in Nairobi are a mixture of traditional “rich vs. poor” housing images, but also depictions of how infrastructure constrains, divides, and facilitates city growth, almost always at the expense of the poorest classes. During my time there, I focused on a planned road that will bisect Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. This road will cut the slum neatly in two, displacing thousands of people, and tens of schools and clinics that are in its way. This road will help alleviate the city’s traffic problem, but it may cause more problems than it will solve. Just to the south, a new road has already cut off part of Kibera, causing people to cross it illegally, resulting in many deaths. From interviews with residents, it is unclear whether or not the planned infrastructure upgrades have adequately taken into account the public opinion.
This dynamism contributes to make Nairobi one of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever been to.