orange roof homes next to a wall and slums, nairobi
Upwardly mobile Kenyans live in planned, gated communities. Sometimes these abut the poorest of slum communities, this one in Loresho. 
“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. Whatever the answer, inequality in Nairobi is definitely visible from above.
golf course next to a slum in nairobi
The Royal Nairobi Golf Course next to Kibera. 
orderly homes next to a large slum  in nairobi

The Mukuru Kwa Njema slums are made up of several informal areas southeast of the city centre, including this one called "Riara". Added together, the slums have a population totaling over 120,000, a vast slum city with poor services, stolen electricity, and mounds of rubbish in the streets. The unerring regularity of long tin roofs, perfectly parallel, belie the squalor underneath, and from the air create incredible striated patterns. 

Next door is the Imara Daima estate, where affluent Kenyans live in single-family homes on cul-de-sacs which directly abut Riara. Much like in other parts of the world, developers have built a "buffer zone" in between the two communities, a wall and a pathway which serves as a dumping site and toilet. Illegal electrical and water connections by Riara residents often cause problems in Imara Daima, creating an uneasy codependence that typifies many unequal communities. 

While Mukuru and other informal areas around Nairobi are highly unequal, they are not completely poor either. On a conservative basket of services (electricity, water, toilet access, and rent), Mukuru’s annual economy is estimated at USD $70 million, much of which ends up in the hands of informal service providers. So while the poverty penalty presents a challenge, it also demonstrates the latent capacity of communities to afford services, invest in their communities, and perhaps make contributions to housing improvement.

orderly homes next to a large slum  in nairobi

The dense settlement of Riara fits together with Imara Daima estate like two puzzle pieces. 

men crossing train tracks  in nairobi

An "upgrade" to Kibera has been the steady removal of informal houses from alongside the train tracks which run alongside the Royal Nairobi Golf Course. This does have a good reason - freight trains pass multiple times a day through densely packed neighborhoods full of children.

elderly woman in orange in nairobi
man with blue vest in nairobi
muslim family in a slum  in nairobi
Residents who are slated to be moved from either the planned railroad or highway improvements.
golf course next to a train and slum  in nairobi
Twice a day, a passenger train barrels through the slum, less than a meter away from people's homes and businesses. Next door, people play golf at the Royal Nairobi Golf Course surrounded by greenery.  
 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. Infrastructure, I've come to realize, represents the physical manifestation of inequality better than almost any other visual element - what Eyal Weizman calls "the surface of human inscription".  Further, it seems to make the reality of back-room discussions and planning meetings actually real. It's where decisions, usually taken around a table by a group of powerful men, come alive.
For example, the Kilimani-Langata road extension that bisects Kibera, estimated to have displaced over 11,500 people and destroyed over 598 structures, including schools and clinics. Of course this road helps alleviate the city’s traffic problem, but does it cause more problems than it will solve? For example, just to the south, a new road has already cut off part of Kibera, causing people to cross it illegally, resulting in many deaths. Additionally, the benefits in the form of improved connection times for residents of Kibera - most of whom take packed minibuses called matutus - is unclear. From interviews with residents, it seems that the planned infrastructure upgrades haven't even taken into account the public opinion in a meaningful way. Is this the price we need to pay for progress? Are some people just born to lose? 
It's important to understand that Nairobi is not just Kibera. A vibrant, educated middle class is quickly growing, turning the city into a center for innovation and tech industries, not just on the continent but worldwide. It's known as an incredibly international city - perhaps more than any other on the continent - due to the location of the UN and other major international business headquarters. Kenyans are friendly, welcoming, and the country is largely stable and peaceful. This growth, dynamism and overall - the people - contribute to make Nairobi one of the most fascinating cities in Africa.​​​​​​​
bullzdozed road through a slum in kibera nairobi

The Kilimani-Langata road connector was an audacious plan to bulldoze right through the middle of Kibera, Africa's "largest slum". In 2018, it happened two weeks before I arrived. 

children playing in a school half destroyed in nairobi

Half of the Mashimoni Primary School, and hundreds of homes, have been razed for the planned Kilimani-Langata road extension, built in 2018. The initial stats estimated by Map Kibera: 11,500 people displaced, and 598 structures destroyed. 

man sitting at school desks outside

A board member from Mashimoni Primary School sits amongst the desks moved after 1/2 of his school was demolished to make way for the road. Hundreds of his school pupils stop showing up after the road was built. "We don't know where they went", he told me.

woman with niqab walks in kibera, nairobi

A member of the community of Mashimoni, in Kibera, walks in the bulldozed land where hundreds of homes used to be. Residents complained that they were given little warning of their evictions. 

highway cutting through a slum  in nairobi
The Southern Bypass is another road that has already lopped a portion off of Kibera, in the quixotic search for a less congested city. Although there is an underpass (visible at the bottom), people often cross the road from above, resulting in many accidents.
 In Nairobi, a city of chaos, dynamism, and incredible unequal growth, inequality is difficult to portray. Yes, it has poor urban slums, where every drainage is choked with tons of raw sewage and rubbish, and children play on live train tracks. But also, the wealthy parts of Nairobi are 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. ​​​​​​​
large houses next to a packed slum and the nairobi river
Kibera is constrained not only by infrastructure but also the natural environment. The "river" at the bottom of the slum drains thousands of tons of rubbish into the Nairobi Dam every year.
highway and slum in nairobi
The Southern Bypass road follows the contours of the river and slum next to it. In the distance, you can see the construction beginning on the new road, which will connect Ngong Rd to Langata Rd.
road construction about to cut through a slum in nairobi

The Kilimani-Langata connector road before it was built, in 2016 - soon to bisect the Kibera slum in Nairobi, displacing thousands of people.

pink houses and orange slums in nairobi
The suburb of Loresho is home to the wealthy and the poor alike. 
pink houses and orange slums in nairobi

As in many places around the world, the rich and poor are separated by only a thin concrete barrier. But inequality in Kenya represents much more than that - the divide is also an invisible barrier to social mobility.

orange houses with green yards and orange slums in nairobi
These barriers, whether concrete or imaginary, represent an entire class separation, one that may not be surmounted for generations to come. 
orange houses with green yards and orange slums in nairobi
Amazing geometric patterns emerge from the air in Nairobi's suburbs.
aerial view of kibera, nairobi

The scars of bulldozing through Nairobi's largest slum are clear. The initial stats: 11,500 people displaced, 598 structures destroyed. 

a golf course next to a slum with downtown skyscrapers in nairobi
The chaos, noise, and density of the slum is neatly juxtaposed with the orderly calm green of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, which opened in 1906. 
a train in kibera, nairobi

The "Lunatic Express" railway in Kibera.

man putting sand on train tracks in nairobi

Often, freight trains will not be able to get traction to make it up the hill inside Kibera. Here, an engineer spreads sand on the track to help. 

a man watches the train tracks in kibera, nairobi

Looking at homes slated for demolition, Kibera.

men run on train tracks in the rain

Residents run for cover as a train approaches in Kibera. 

people cross train tracks

Immediately after trains pass, life goes back to normal. 

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