Kenya is My D.J.

One of my favorite things about life in Kenya is the music. It’s loud, it’s good, and it’s everywhere. As I leave my house each morning, I walk along the busy dirt roads in my neighborhood filled with people on their way to work, school children in uniform, and ladies wrapped in beautiful fabrics selling mandazi hot out of the oil. The first thing I hear is music, which resounds from the small shops that line the road. I arrive at the bus stop and music rings from the matatu as I climb inside. Sometimes the bass is so loud that I feel as though my head might burst. Other times my ears are tickled by smooth, soft beats.

At language school, which is attended by students from all over the world, we break though language barriers with music. During tea breaks we play music on our phones as we sing along to the sounds. In Kiswahili class, we learn traditional songs and dances from our teacher when verb tenses become too tiresome. As I board the bus to return to Kibera, more music. When I get home, there are music videos playing on television, which get the kids dancing around the living room and keep my host sister entertained as she cooks ugali. Enter almost any home in Nairobi and you’ll hear music playing. Even Nakumatt (Nairobi’s version of Super Target) and Java House (Nairobi’s version of Starbucks) have a fantastic mix of music playing at all times. And of course, no social activity is complete without a DJ.

The style of music heard throughout each day varies greatly, and much of it comes from local radio. In Nairobi, there is a station dedicated to every music genre imaginable and commercials are rarely played. The most popular styles tend to be Kenyan hip-hop and pop (and some from other parts of Africa like Uganda and Nigeria), reggae and dancehall, as well as some American music. But by far the most frequently heard music style is Christian Kenyan hip-hop, simply referred to as Gospel.  And I can’t get enough of it. The hooks are catchy, the beats are loud, and the dances are delightful. Nearly every song has an accompanying music video, which give viewers a good sense of popular clothing styles here in Nairobi – like neon colors, soccer jerseys, skinny jeans and beaded jewelry.

These songs aren’t just reserved for Sunday mornings; they are so popular that they’re played in night clubs, matatus and churches alike. Here are three of my favorites. Bet you’ll get addicted too :)

“My Call” – MOG featuring Juliani (I saw Juliani at Java House the other day and must admit I was a little starstruck…)

“Furi Furi Dance” – Jimmie Gait

“Mmmh Baba” – Kris


An Introduction to Kibera Slum

The master’s program I am currently enrolled in focuses on the issue of urban slums across the globe.  All students participating in the program live and work in or near slum communities from Kenya to the Philippines to India to Brazil. Slums are informal settlements that go unrecognized by local government and therefore lack basic infrastructure like roads, running water, electricity and waste management. Each slum has its own history, but generally they result from rapid urbanization as people move to cities to look for opportunity. 1.3 billion people in the world live in urban slums – a number that is expected to rise to 2 billion by 2030.

I live in the community of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, just a 3 minute walk from Kibera slum, which is the second largest urban slum in Africa. The local college I attend has set up a “campus” inside Kibera, so between my classes, my internship, and visiting friends, I spend 2-3 days per week there. No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera, but the population is estimated to be between 200,000-800,000. Yet it is only the size of New York’s Central Park.  Kibera is divided into several villages, though I am still learning where one ends and the next begins!  Homes are made of mud and sticks or mabati (iron sheets).  The conditions for residents are dismal, as there is only one latrine (toilet) for about every 50 households, and there is no sewage or waste disposal system, so human waste and garbage is dumped into the river that runs through the community or left along the roadside. Crime and disease run rampant. The U.N. estimates that 1 in 5 children die before their fifth birthday.

The Kenyan government actually owns the land that Kibera sits on, yet refuses to officially recognize it and therefore cuts it out of all government services. People who live in Kibera pay rent to the building owners, but are technically squatters. The government has attempted “slum upgrading” projects, which sound promising at face value, but during the process they have demolished homes without any notice to residents, leaving them homeless. Shortly after I arrived in Kenya this occurred and thousands were evicted, watching their homes destroyed by heavy machinery. The reasons people live in and stay in Kibera are varied and deep – and too complicated to discuss here – but attempts to give Kibera a facelift have failed time and time again.

One of the frustrations I’ve had since moving to this community is that Kibera is depicted to outsiders as a suffering, dirty place without human dignity (tourists will spend money to get tours of the slum so they can take pictures of children playing in piles of garbage). But Kibera is FAR from that one-sided picture. Kibera is a lively community with shops, restaurants, pubs, schools, services, churches and mosques. The people who live here are hard-working and extremely resourceful – they are students, artists, employees, and family members. As you walk the pathways in Kibera, you will see children laughing and playing, women braiding each other’s hair, men gathered for an afternoon chat, music playing, and people worshipping. While there are many tragic things about Kibera, it is also a place that is truly alive.

I will continue to communicate through this blog about the community of Kibera, as I hope to share about the people who live here and the many goings-on in the community. In the meantime, here are a few resources to learn more about urban slums, and Kibera in particular: