My mother, like her mother, her grandmother, and so on, was born into poverty in the rural village of Rarieda, Kenya. I, too, was born in the village, and lived there until it was struck by a brutal famine when I was two years old.
With no food, money or opportunities, my mother did what thousands of African villagers do every day: She moved us to the city in search of a better life. However, given the lack of jobs and housing in Nairobi, we ended up in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums.
Located just a couple of kilometers from downtown Nairobi, Kibera is a heavily polluted, densely populated settlement composed of informal roads and shacks with corrugated tin roofs. The Kenyan government does not recognize Kibera, there is no sewage system or formal power grid.
Its residents, estimated to number anywhere from a few hundred thousand to more than one million, do not officially exist.
Kibera is just one example of the consequences of the rapid urbanization that is gaining momentum worldwide. More than 44 percent of developing-country residents already live in cities.
The Population Reference Bureau estimates that by 2050, only 30 percent of the global population will remain in rural areas. However, few have stopped to consider this shift’s implications for families like mine.
When people think of Africa, they often focus on the hardships of village life — a perception reflected in iconic images of African women on their daily excursions to fetch water. However, an increasing number of people — already nearly 300 million — are facing the harsh reality of the urban slum, where resources are scarce and economic opportunities are elusive. More than 78 percent of the urban population in the world’s least-developed countries, and one-third of the global urban population, lives in slums.
Nairobi is a dynamic and growing city, with shopping centers, restaurants and Western-style companies catering to Kenya’s emerging middle class. Yet no one knows how many people live there. According to the last (highly politicized) census, completed in 2009, Nairobi has a population of more than 3 million; but it is probably closer to 5 million, with a large percentage living in slums.
It is these people, Nairobi’s poorest residents, who build the buildings, staff the restaurants, drive the taxis and power the city. (From the age of 12 until I was 22, I was part of this group, working at construction sites and in factories.) Indeed, without the poor, Nairobi could not function for a single day.
Nevertheless, they remain all but invisible, with no political voice. The world’s enduring perception of Africa as a village exacerbates slum dwellers’ plight, keeping them off the global development agenda.
Every day, more people arrive in Nairobi, lured by the promise of employment, resources and a better life, only to realize that they are not equipped to survive there and that their children will grow up in a slum. At least half of those living in urban slums are under the age of 20. Without access to education, this generation — which will soon be the majority — has little hope of ever escaping its straitened conditions.
However, for how long will a majority serve a minority? For how long will it accept a lack of water, sanitation, education and dignity?
Urban slums worldwide will soon reach a tipping point, with young people rejecting the lives that they have been offered. Their power lies in their numbers — more than half of the world’s youth shares their fate — and their anger. They will rise up, refusing to accept their status as second-class citizens of ever-expanding urban settlements, and they will destabilize countries like Kenya, undermining efforts to build more stable, prosperous societies.