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Kibera: Mapping the Unmapped 0

How many people live in Kibera?

Whenever I have been asked this question over the last two or three years, my answer has always been, “Many say one million, but I believe it is an exaggeration. I would think they are seven or eight hundred thousand.”

However, I had no data to support my claim, and on the other side, it is difficult to swim against the tide: the first ten results of a basic Google search for Kibera estimate the number of the slum’s inhabitants at around one million.

Whenever I have found a chance, I have always wished and suggested that it would be very interesting to have “the biggest slum in Africa South of the Equator” mapped scientifically.

Well, Stefano Marras finally did this work in the middle of last year, publishing “Mapping the Unmapped”.

A mapping specialist, Marras trained some local personnel and worked closely with them to verify the data collected.

In the process, his person – with his notebooks and questions – became a part of the Kibera scenery.

A first brief description of Marras’ work is reported below.

In his final statement, Marras wrote:

“…Looking upon the data reported above, and considering that type, dimension and distribution of the buildings observed in Kianda is typically the same in the whole slum of Kibera, it is possible to make a guess about the numerical dimension of its population. Considering that its area of Kibera is set between 2.3 and 2.5 sq km, the total population living in the slum can be most likely estimated between 220,000 and 250,000 people”.

Surprising? Not really.

For certain, politicians, NGOs, and the Kibera residents themselves have an interest in inflating the numbers, not only for a kind of prestige derived from the fact of living or operating in a slum with a record population, but also because high numbers attract attention and hopefully, funding. The mass media, which also loves records, is very often lazy when it comes to serious verification of information.

When a journalist gives inaccurate facts and goes unchallenged, many others will often repeat it and the wrong information acquires a life on its own.

Other questions immediately come to mind.

Is Kibera the only Nairobi slum with an overestimated population?

Certainly not, and the estimates of the population of other Nairobi slums should be proportionally reduced.

This can be done through a simple operation: open Google Earth, measure the area covered by Kibera and the area covered by other slums, then make a proportion.

In fact, the population density per square kilometer does not vary significantly, given that housing models are identical in all the slums.

This simple operation could immediately show that, anyhow, Kibera has the unenviable record of being the biggest slum in Nairobi by far.

Another support to this comes from the fact quoted in a note by Marras, where it is clear that there is a great discrepancy between the “estimates” and surveys done with a little more seriousness.

Does this mean that several “facts” that we have repeated like parrots over the past few years – such as the preconception that two thirds of the Nairobi population lives in the slums – are not true?

Not necessarily. This estimate is most probably close to reality because there are grey areas that are not considered slums, but where a large chunk of the inhabitants live in shacks.

These include Kawangware, Umoja, Dandora, Riruta and some others. Still, it would certainly be necessary to do proper research before giving out numbers.

There are more questions coming to mind that require serious research.

For instance, how many people voted in Kibera during the last election?

I would not be surprised if the number of voters was higher than the number of inhabitants according to Marras’ estimate…and this is one of the reasons why the numbers could be inflated.

Another interesting question is: who pockets the money from the rents?

According to Marras, 96 percent of all Kibera residents pay rent to someone else, and in Kianda alone, the monthly total of the rents paid is around 53,000 euros.

In Kenya, and even in Europe, this is a considerable amount of money!

In short, we hope the research done by Marras can be extended to the whole of Kibera and enriched by other data, like, for instance, concerning the presence of NGOs, health and educational services, civil society groups and so on.

There is a last important note.

Marras did this work with funds from a scholarship, using an amount that in the average project financed by any European country would fall under “contingencies” or “stationery”.

Yet he has accomplished a task of great value and that is scientifically outstanding, such that from now onwards, no government or NGO project conducted in Kibera can afford to disregard his data.

All the same, Marras has not found anybody ready to finance the continuation or extension of the research to other parts of Kibera.

As Marras says “I am frequently urged by numerous researchers that want to work with me on this topic, but now it is all still hazy. Maybe in two months something could move in the field of funding”.

Is it possible there is no foundation out there, a serious research institution or cooperation office that is interested in the completion of this research?

Obviously, I am not referring to the Italian Cooperation, since we know that with the present Italian government, the funds allocated for international cooperation have been reduced once more, and Italy, in terms of percentage of the IGP given to international cooperation, is amongst the last in the OECD countries.

On his side, Marras prefers to be patient.

“I have such an extraordinary remembrance of this experience: I could transfer new competences to local communities and meanwhile I made possible for people involved in cooperation in Kibera using new statistical data in the development of new projects”.


Mapping the Unmapped

Renato Kizito Sesana – News from Africa

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Direttore Responsabile Stefano Arduini