Paul Kivitu sells umbrellas from a wooden shack near Kibera, and with the height of the rainy season pummeling the sprawling slum, business is booming.
“I sell fifteen a day for 250 shillings ($3 USD) each,” he told me as we cowered under his big blue-and-white umbrella, rain thundering onto the pavement around us. In total, he brings in roughly $45 USD a day. Not bad for a neighborhood where it takes the average resident a full day to earn enough to buy a single umbrella.
But Kivitu is one of the few celebrating the “long rains,” as the rainy season is called here. Beginning in mid-March and stretching through April, the wet weather brings a host of problems to Kibera. A river washes away houses, water leaks seemingly everywhere, and disease spreads quickly. Deluges bring commerce to a halt on the usually bustling streets as people scurry for shelter. School attendance drops as roads and pathways become impassable.
On a recent afternoon I walked along the Kibera’s main waterway, a brown river that cuts along the settlement’s western boundary. My guide was Vincent Achuka, who edits a community newspaper here. The river tumbles down to the slum from the nearby Ngong Forest, entering Kibera under an arching concrete bridge. By the time it reaches here, the river is already a roiling torrent, fed by the slum’s many open drainage ditches that carry water and all forms of waste downstream.
Near the bridge, we met Samuel Naminde, 32, who lives in a mud-and-stick shack about 30 feet from the edge. “Yesterday it got some houses on this side,” he said, pointing to the eroded riverbank. Naminde lives far enough above the river’s high water mark, a blanket of yellow and white plastic strips caught in the muddy banks, that he doesn’t need to worry about flooding. But he said water leaks through his roof and onto his bed at night, and can seep onto the floor from the narrow walkways between houses which, without proper gutters, become streams of their own in a storm.
Still, Naminde was positive. He sells roasted corn for a living, and said business is up. “This is a good time for our work,” he said. “It is cool out and people like something that is hot when it is cool.”
His neighbor Evelyn Awour, 29, found no silver lining. “I haven’t slept in the last several days because when it rains I’m afraid it might seep in,” she said. With four young sons in the house, Awour has a lot to worry about. There’s a pit latrine on the riverbank nearby, and as the waters rise, it overflows raw sewage into her home. Now her children are sick with diarrhea; she blames the rains. “I hate the rainy season,” she said, resigned. “But I just have to live with it.”
Vincent and I continued along the river, passing a group of men with shovels and pickaxes excavating a collapsed bank where another house once stood. Soon, blocked by a fence, we crossed a metal bridge to the other side and climbed up the steep, 60-foot bank. That side of the river was outside Kibera, but makeshift shacks were here too, inching toward the Ngong Forest. Behind us stretched the Kibera valley, a glinting plain of angled rust and cooking-fire smoke.
“Kibera started from that far end,” Vincent said, pointing to a collection of apartments beyond the other side. “And it’s been spreading. Each year guys are encroaching into the forest because there’s no space and Kibera keeps on growing.”
As the slum pushes outward, however, the rest of the city pushes back. A highway overpass is being built next to the shacks, redirecting storm water toward a row of now-ruined houses whose broken foundations hang over the edge of an eroded ravine.
“Last year when they started constructing this [highway] they diverted water from the construction site to the river,” explained Vincent. “Last year these houses were here, but the rainwater was so fierce it keeps on widening this ravine. Each time I see it, it is wider and wider.”
Indeed, next to the houses sat Rebecca Ambasa, roasting maize over a small charcoal stove. Her house was washed away the week before in a storm. “Before the road construction started, water just used to flow,” she said. “But this year the water has become too much.”
She gestured to her former home—a few crumbled walls on the edge of where a thin waterfall trickled into the ravine. “It started raining at night and I knew water would enter so the first thing I did was get me and my children out.” Soon after, the house was swept over the waterfall. Ambasa salvaged a mattress and some bedding the next day, but has been living with a neighbor, slightly upstream, ever since.
“This year has been my worst rainy season so far,” she said.
Vincent and I descended the waterfall back to the muddy river. There, we came across a surprisingly idyllic scene, a fresh-water spring next to a shady school playground. Half a dozen women gathered to use the natural water source for clothes washing. “There’s an organization that found water coming from that rock so they tapped it,” said Susan Odhiambo. “Everyone from this area uses this water. I come here five times a day.”
A bit further downstream the river slowed into a marsh. Children splashed in the shallows, and tall stalks of sukuma wiki, a type of kale eaten with nearly every meal here, lined the banks, fed by the flow. We stepped across some wooden boards to the other side and came up under the huge metal water tower of an NGO called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), which can be seen for miles. People trek to SHOFCO from across Kibera because the drinking water supply is consistent, quality and cheap, only two shillings a jerrycan.
One unlikely customer among the mostly students and parents waiting in line at SHOFCO was Rosa Odinga, who buys water to brew changaa, a fiery illegal liquor. After filling her jerrycans, she hauled them to a low barn above the river. There, she sat in a haze of lazy charcoal smoke, stoking fires beneath six boiling ceramic cauldrons. Thick brown sludge seeped from beneath them to the river below, yet another foreign substance flowing into Kibera’s waterways. Odinga said she sleeps at the barn because distilling a 50-gallon drum of changaa takes all day and night. But during the rainy season, the wet mud underneath makes sleeping impossible, and like so many who see the bank crumbling below her, she views the swollen river with scorn. “The river is associated around here with death and destruction of property,” she said.
As we continued, we saw some practical uses for the water, though. A girl scooped river water to mop her floors and a group of women packed wet charcoal into cones to dry. A maize grinder collected rain in metal canisters to cool his mill’s engine, while two men in waders dragged fist-sized magnets through the river, trawling for scrap metal to sell.
Eventually, the river met a larger tributary and spread into a floodplain around a small island. We hopped across and picked our way through ankle-deep mud filling the island’s alleyways. One block had a concrete sidewalk with a flowing drain, built and paid for by a man who lives there. In this nook of Kibera, residents must build their own utilities.
At the island’s tip, a family sat outside on a carved bench submerged in inches of water. Banana trees and sugar cane filled the floodplain; no space wasted here. The early-morning storm had flooded these houses, and when we arrived, residents were bailing out their homes. In these lowlands, the water is too slow to wash away houses, but it is everywhere.
Jacob Opondo, a 45-year-old tailor, hired a neighbor’s son to pitch water from his house. “I’ve lived here ten years,” he said, “but this is the hardest rains yet.”
Opondo looked at a pile of soaked sandbags by his doorstep. “You cannot prevent it,” he said. “You can only scoop it out when it comes in.”
By then it was about one in the afternoon. Vincent and I had walked for about three hours along the riverside, but had gone only a kilometer because of the maze of alleyways. The morning’s rains had passed, and the streets were no longer spongy. Under the midday sun Kibera’s commerce was coming back to life. As we walked out, we left a trail of muddy footprints.
“The only thing that’s good about the rain,” Vincent said, “is that it dries.”