Letters from Kibera

By: Alexandria Jackson

“Zitah, wait!” I called as I struggled out of the matatu, a van meant for eight that was currently crammed with about 17 passengers making their way around Nairobi.  A bus would have been much safer, but unfortunately the Nairobi bus system doesn’t stop anywhere near where we were going.  I often thought matatu drivers had a death wish with how recklessly they sped from one stop to another, weaving in and out of traffic, around stray dogs or cattle, blaring hip hop or pop, music that generally matched the art on the outside of the vans that varied greatly in size and capacity.  I’d seen a Beyonce matatu, one with Rihanna’s face plastered on the side of it, even several with toothy versions of Obama painted on the front and back.  Kenyans are incredibly proud of Obama’s Kenyan heritage.  I actually visited his paternal grandmother in her compound in Nyang’oma Kogelo, a small village just outside of Kisumu, near the famous Lake Victoria, a source of the Nile.  One particular Obama matatu was playing Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” on repeat.  I was scared.  I didn’t want to be hit at all and was relieved when we finally got off as it seemed inevitable.  I tripped after Zitah, who eventually realized I wasn’t quite as adept at navigating the crowded streets of her village as she was, and she slowed to an almost manageable pace.

I met twenty-one-year-old Zitah Jimoi a few years ago while working in Kenya, right before I began to work for Apogee’s philanthropic arm.  Zitah was nineteen at the time. I met her while visiting a few NGOs in Kibera, the most populated informal settlement in East Africa.  Zitah had just been awarded the title of “Miss Kibera,” an honor she received after giving a speech about what she believes can be done within Kibera to address some of the community’s most pressing needs. The slums of Kibera, just five kilometers southwest of the City Center, Nairobi, are home to more than one fourth of Nairobi’s population, over one million people.

I wanted to personally write about Zitah and Apogee’s support of her and her orphaned siblings, because Zitah’s story very much represents Apogee’s philosophy of helping and empowering people to help themselves.  Zitah is an extraordinary example of what one girl can do with some consistent help and encouragement.  Apogee has proven a lifeline for this little family and the affect she, in turn, has had on her immediate community has been exciting for Apogee staff to follow.

I think it is important, first, to get a better understanding of Kibera’s history and lack of resources in order to better understand the odds not only Zitah and her siblings face, but the entire population of the slum she lives in.


In the 1920s the British colonial government allowed Nubian soldiers from Sudan who had fought for the British in World War One to settle on a wooded hillside outside of Nairobi which became known as ‘Kibera’, the Nubian word for ‘forest,’ or ‘jungle.’  The British, however, never gave the Nubians the title deeds to their new land and while they built homes and set up businesses they had no legal rights and effectively remained squatters. Over the years many other Kenyan tribes migrated from rural areas in attempt to find work in Kenya’s capital city and began to rent huts from Nubian landlords. Zitah jokes that the Nubians, “want to be the Kenya’s forty-third tribe.”  Today every one of Kenya’s forty-two tribes are represented in Kibera.  These residents still rent their shacks and huts from Nubians, but also from middle class landlords who live in Nairobi.  The land itself, however, belongs to the government.

The government is almost entirely absent from Kibera and plays no role in building sorely needed infrastructure such as roads, sewage and water systems, schools, health services and hospitals. As a result NGOs and Faith Based Groups attempt to fill this void in order to provide some of these services, however HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment make up the majority of the mostly foreign funded aid. While Kenya has been independent for over fifty years and has had plenty of time to have granted the title deeds needed to legitimize the community, the government insists that because the slum is still illegal they have no obligation to address Kibera’s grievances. When members of Parliament do come to Kibera it is almost always to garner more support from their tribe, which encourages tribal animosity and oftentimes incites intertribal violence such as the infamous post election violence that forced thousands of Kikuyu from Kibera in 2007.

Zitah explains that the police rarely show their face in Kibera mostly out of fear for their lives.  When they do drive through in their armored trucks and vans it is mainly to extort small drug dealers and chan’aa(1) brewers for a few hundred shillings, or to accompany government power companies in their attempts to shut off stolen electricity, which often leads to mass riots and in turn even less police presence in the slums.  Three boys in Zitah’s community were shot by the police merely for walking down an alley at night, the police she says, “automatically assume we are doing something terrible merely based on where we live.”  This mutual distrust between the people of Kibera and the police, seen as government agents, only perpetuates the violence and anger on both sides.  The people of Kibera are therefore left to police themselves, which often leads to immediate and vicious retaliation often for something as small as petty theft.  Zitah says that if she were to scream in the middle of the night, to indicate that there was a robber in her home, for instance, five or six of her neighbors would rush into her hut and likely kill the thief.

While NGOs and missionaries have succeeded in implementing some basic education facilities there are presently only six primary schools and only three secondary schools in Kibera and as a result many children find themselves idle spending their days roaming the dirt alleys and roads “getting into trouble,” Zitah says.  The children that do attend school find themselves in classes among eighty to one hundred other students.  Teachers are not able to deal with the class sizes and as a result Zitah says, “Only the children in the front two or three rows actually learn anything,” the rest of the class “has nowhere to sit,” and “talk and play games.”

Zitah mentors thirty local children on Saturdays and Sundays. Many of these children, like Zitah, have been orphaned by AIDS and live with relatives who have little time to focus on the children.  Zitah explains that many of the boys in her group, “engage themselves in drugs because they don’t want to think about what their life is and what is next,” as there is “so little to aspire to.”  A few of the girls in her group, a couple as young as 14, have already engaged in prostitution, oftentimes for as little as twenty shillings or even some water, “they consider it an exchange,” Zitah says.  Zitah identifies the major challenges in Kibera as the lack of school fees, the inability to consistently find something to eat, the unsafe and limited supply of water and especially stressed the overwhelming percentage of people, adults and children alike, who spend their days idle for lack of jobs and available schooling.

Water is extremely limited in Kibera.  Each person in Zitah’s village is only allowed to buy twenty liters at a time twice a week.  Zitah and her sisters purchase their water from a tap in the center of her village. The cost of water on average in Kibera is twenty shillings for twenty liters, which is far more expensive than in Nairobi.  All water is pumped though plastic pipes alongside sewage trenches and often carries water-born diseases like cholera and typhoid.  This water must be used for all domestic activities including drinking, cooking, showering, and washing hands, dishes, and even clothes.

There are no proper toilet facilities in Kibera, only latrines, holes dug into the ground.  Children, mostly young boys, empty the latrines into the river, the source of Kibera’s water, for a small fee.  There is approximately one latrine for every fifty shacks and most shacks house families of at least eight people.

Electricity is very scarce and inconsistent in Kibera.  The majority of electricity in Kibera is stolen from Nairobi because the government refuses to install a safe and affordable means of powering Kibera.  There are no streetlights; this increases security issues at night, particularly for women and girls.  Many women and girls are victims of rape and abuse at night.  The inability to see the perpetrators makes it almost impossible for these victims to find justice.  Many unwanted pregnancies result from these rapes and also from the availability of chang’aa and the general fact that men in Kibera still do not use condoms.  At any one time about fifty percent of sixteen to twenty five year old girls are pregnant in Kibera(2). These pregnancies often result in women desperately seeking unsafe abortions, often with devastating results, including permanent injury and sometimes death.

The majority of the homes in Kibera are twelve by twelve feet shacks made from mud plastered over sticks and discarded pieces of wood or mabati, corrugated tin, with dirt or cement floors.  Thousands of narrow and uneven dirt pathways, sometimes only a few feet wide, separate these homes.  During the rainy seasons these paths become small rivers of mud, which often combine with the open sewer systems that also run alongside many of these walkways. Irene Khan, Secretary General Amnesty International, refers to these corridors as “the arteries of Kibera.”  Kibera’s arteries are clogged with every kind of garbage imaginable from plastic bags, broken glass bottles, rotting food, human waste, clothing, rubber, wood, and broken shoes. The sent of burning coal and garbage mixes with the sent of human waste and various foods to give the air throughout Kibera a constantly changing, but always pungent, smell.

While the majority of people living in Kibera do not have jobs people get by in various ways.  Some illegally brew and sell chang’aa, a spirit distilled from maize or sorghum that is sometimes dangerously topped up with methanol.  Others, mostly women, sell fruits and vegetables while men attempt to find day labor such as construction work.  Both women and men can be found making jewelry from cow bones to sell to various shops in Nairobi or, less frequently, to slum tourists, who the people of Kibera have grown accustom to seeing from time to time.  Some people sell coal and a few control the water pipes and sell water to the community. Many families of five to seven often depend on only one working member of the family.  Zitah’s aunt supports her husband and three sons by selling handicrafts that brings in an average of five thousand shillings a month (around seventy US dollars).  When her husband occasionally does find work as a day laborer he is paid a maximum of 200 shillings per day. Given that monthly rent is two thousand shillings, only three thousand shillings (around forty two US dollars) remain to support a family of six for a month.  As mentioned before basic necessities like food and water are far more expensive in Kibera than in Nairobi, where the government provides free or subsidized water for purchase and there is betteraccess to places to buy food, like markets, where competition keeps prices more affordable.

HIV/AIDS is extremely prevalent in Kibera and is estimated to have affected upwards of 25 percent of the community’s residents (far greater than the national average, 6.7 percent)(3), however, because of the lack of infrastructure and even consistent estimates of the number of people living in Kibera, a definite number cannot be ascertained. African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) is currently working on a mapping project of Kibera. Many people with AIDS do not seek treatment from the ‘free’ clinics, Zitah explains, because there are nominal fees of one to two hundred shillings per visit that patients are responsible for and cannot afford.  Parents would rather feed their children then seek treatment even when it results in their death, which it often does.  Zitah says “everyday you see people in the car going to upcountry to be buried, maybe one hundred a week, but then women are giving birth all the time too.”  Many of these babies are also HIV positive and often do not live past a year. Villages gather together to pay the burial fees for these members of their community.

Zitah wanted to stay in Kibera where she had family and knew the community.  Apogee rented Zitah a home and relocated her three sisters and Mary, who would act as their immediate guardian, to Kibera where they were finally reunited.  I spoke to the girls the day they all made it to their new home in Kibera, they were crying from happiness and their relief was palpable. The girls were all put into school and extra tutoring was arranged for the girls to catch up on the years they had missed.  Apogee pays their schools directly for their education and provides a small amount of money for food and clothing and books each month, plenty to live comfortably on but not enough to arouse jealously within Kibera.

Apogee also donated a school bus to Friscoh’s school and helps with various projects within Kibera.  The girls know they are incredibly lucky to have the help and give back in wonderful ways.  The youngest have focused on school and are doing very well.  They have improved the fastest, Friscoh and Purity are in the top 30 percent of their classes and Zitah is studying communications at a University in Nairobi to follow her dream of becoming a broadcast journalist.  She starts an internship program at the end of this school year.  As I mentioned before, Zitah mentors over thirty children in her community on weekends and Lucy has begun to help her with the group.  Lucy’s education is coming along slowly but her spirit has improved considerably.  No longer a burden to her family she finally has the opportunity to think about what she wants to do with her life, an option she took a while accepting.  She has also improved dramatically in school.

I have attached letters from the girls we received below.  Thank you for taking the time to read about the girls and learn a little bit about Kibera.  It is Apogee’s hope that the help we are affording them will in turn allow the girls to help their community directly because as wonderful as it feels to witness their improvement in happiness and health it is even more powerful and exciting to see what they will do with it.  The girls refer to me as their “big sister.” I’m honored to work for a company that takes philanthropy so personally.  It is our wonderful staff, engineers and customers like you that allow this good work to continue.  Thank you for supporting Apogee Electronics.

See the most recent letters from Zitah’s sisters, below:

If you would like to hear more about the girls or how you can help please e-mail me directly: