There’s a railway track that runs through the outskirts of Nairobi separating a manicured 18-hole golf course, complete with a swimming pool and squash courts, from Africa’s largest urban slum, Kibera. The slum’s name means “jungle” in Nubian, a fitting description of the vast expanse of corrugated metal, housing nearly a million people in roughly the size of New York City’s Central Park. The contrast between the sheltered fairway and the congested, high-poverty community is a striking view into the inequalities in Kenya’s capital, a city rampant with political corruption.
When walking through the mud aisles of Kibera, you can hear the hum of Pamoja FM, the community’s radio station. The sound has become the beat of Kibera. Two years ago, I worked at this small USAID-funded station, as a news reporter — my stories were translated into Swahili and then sent over the slum’s airwaves.
It was 2009, and Kenya was in a fragile state. A year earlier the country had exploded in violence, which rocked what had long been considered a relatively peaceful nation. The ember that ignited this anger was what appeared to be the theft of the national election by the incumbent president, who was sworn into his second term under a cloud of suspicion that he had rigged the race. Following the election some 1,200 people were killed, over 300,000 displaced, massive sexual violence was committed and scores of small businesses and homes were destroyed.
Kibera had been one of the hotbeds of violence because of its diverse population, bringing together in tight quarters different ethnic groups that politicians have worked decades to pit against each other. The radio station had stood as a voice of reason during the conflict, reminding residents of what they stood to lose by uprooting their neighborhoods. At one point, a mob tried to burn the seven–story building where the station is based and the radio’s staff members quelled the angry rioters by explaining that the station belonged to everyone, including them.
At the station, I was partnered with a young reporter named Ali. He became my lifeline as he guided me through the unfamiliar terrain, translated our interviews, and facilitated our connections. As a duo we reported on how government corruption impacted Kiberans, the intense poverty facing the community, and the peace-building efforts by residents to rebuild a community torn apart by violence.
As a foreign reporter, I drew a lot of attention in Kibera. This complicated my reporting, since I was there to observe. The people I interviewed would steer towards why I was in East Africa, rather than answering my questions. Children would swarm around our crew to shake my hand and practice the “how are you?” they learned in English class. At press conferences, I was pushed to the front, instructed to properly “tell everyone in America about Kenya.”
There were a few days of riots while I was there, where crowds clashed with local police. At one point, I was near a group of young men who were throwing rocks at a swarm of policemen a couple yards ahead of them. The men halted their rock throwing, turned towards me, pointed and shouted “mzungu”— the Swahili word for foreigner. After the novelty wore off, they continued with the riot.
President Barack Obama was inaugurated a few days after I arrived. “Hey Obama’s sister” was the chorus I heard yelled at me while in the market. I would also frequently hear the pick-up line, “Want to know what happens when Kenyans and Americans get together? They make Obamas.” The mother of the family I lived with insisted we visit Obama’s grandmother, Sarah, in her small town of Kogelo, since the grandma and I share the same name.
But my outsider’s perspective also worked to my benefit. One afternoon, I was in a downtown elevator when my editor and Ali raised the topic of homosexuality. Neither knew much about the LGBT community in their country — they actually denied it existed — and both adamantly expressed their opposition to a gay and lesbian lifestyle. While the U.S. is far from achieving equality for the LGBT community, there is at least a more open discussion of the discrimination in America. I identified this as an important story for Ali and I to embark on for our final piece. We engulfed ourselves in the topic of what it meant to be part of the LGBT community in Kenya for my last month there. The piece aired a few days after I left, followed by a call-in question and answer session with an LGBT advocate from the community. I was told that listeners’ questions leaned more towards curiosity than regurgitating hate. Our piece was a finalist in a local competition, gaining Ali a spot in a local journalism training session.
Kibera had been a community that I had been told by NGO officials, travel advisories, and other Westerners to fear. They told me to watch my back, hold my purse, and leave before sunset — which can often be good advice. But the slum is a complex, lively, compassionate, and promising community — a perspective I gained from reporting for the small radio station known to residents as “sauti ya kibera,” meaning the voice of Kibera in Swahili.
I came to Kenya feeling somewhat jaded by the media — weighed down by reporting on bureaucracy and statistics. But Pamoja FM reminded me that, at its best, journalism can be a voice for the underrepresented, a source of education and a unifying force.
At the end of my time there, I still stood out, but felt at home while sticking out. No recognition of my journalistic work in the future will compare to the satisfaction of walking through Kibera and hearing residents yell, “Hey, Pamoja” at me, rather than calling out to remind me I was a “mzungu.”
Photo Credit: Sara Jerving