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Kenya: Hopes, dreams, love, and life in Nairobiís Kawangware slum

Teenage mother Monicah with her daughter Samantha
Teenage mother Monicah with her daughter Samantha
August 6, 2012

Regina would rather sell snacks than her body. Rubberty cleans toilets, but dreams of being a musician. Mary is a teenager looking for a bed for the night. Monicah is struggling to make a better life for her baby daughter. Tafroza intends to be a doctor...

They all live in Kawangware slum, seven and a half miles west of Nairobi, Kenya, a sprawling city of corrugated tin, mud, scraps of wood, and fabric fashioned into makeshift homes.

Life in Kawangware

It would be a mistake to think that just because Kwangware is a slum it doesn't function like any other town. For Regina, Rubberty, Tafroza, and 600,000 other like them, Kawangware is the place they call home. Here life is played out in all of its raw glory; births equal doctors, engineers, lawyers, musicians, and astronauts. It's just that everyone lives without electricity, running water or basic sanitation.

Kawangware is one of Africa's biggest slums, home to a population equivalent to that of Bristol or Toulouse. Most residents live on less than one dollar a day and over 65 percent of them have no permanent job. Without access to education, some teenagers forget their dreams and turn to prostitution or crime to earn money; others fall pregnant and face a continuing struggle to survive.


Monicah, 19, sits on a sofa in the tin shack she shares with her mother, four siblings, and two year-old daughter, Samantha. Monicah looks down at the linoleum floor, worn into the earth in places. The next room is the bedroom, shared by all seven of them.

"It’s been a traumatic experience,” she says almost inaudibly.

Monicah got pregnant two years ago at 17. Her boyfriend of three years left her a few months afterwards.

"He left me once I told him. He said that the child wasn’t his responsibility. What could I do? If I had known that he was like this, I would never have dated him,” she adds in a whisper.

She brightens only when she glances at Samantha, who is clutching a stuffed bunny. Monicah hopes to be able to go back to school and run her own shop, but she’s lost hope of ever getting married.

“No one wants a single mother. I must resign myself to being alone. Now I can concentrate on my daughter, who’s going to get a good education and not end up in the same situation as me.”

Urbanization in Kawangware

The Kawangware slum is just one of many on this continent burgeoning from sweeping urbanization. Two-thirds of all people in the world will live in cities by 2050; in the developing world, 60 million people move into cities every year.

And nowhere more so than in Africa, where in the last decade, rural populations have flocked to the cities lured by the glint of a better life, education for their children, and career opportunities.

But the population is growing so fast than the cities’ infrastructures can’t keep up. Millions find themselves living in urban slums; without electricity, running water or basic sanitation.

In Kibera, the other slum in Nairobi, there is one toilet for every 150 inhabitants. Suddenly the supportive structure of the village is gone and people are now on their own.


Rubberty, 29, writes songs about his dead mother, who never wanted him in the first place, about HIV and the devil that tempts him. Clad in green overalls and long black boots, wielding a bucket full of soap and water, he scrubs some of Kawangware’s few hole-in-the ground toilets and dreams of the day he will go to Europe and make music.

“Everyone here knows me as the singer,” he grins, his arms moving rhythmically as he begins to rap in English and Swahili. “It’s a brutal life here. God has saved me and I have decided to sing for him, in Europe.”


As darkness falls over Kawangware, a cluster of children forms in the half-light. Everyone who owns a tin shack has already disappeared inside, afraid of the violent gangs who roam the slum at night. The children huddle together to keep warm.

Mary has never met her father and her mother died of tuberculosis in 2006. She’s been living on the streets of Kawangware ever since, sometimes begging a stay with her grandmother, who kicked her out of the house last Monday.

“She chased me out of her house and threw stones at me,” explains the orphan. “I have no idea what I did. She has been acting strange ever since my mother died.”


Regina was 22 years old when she first sold her body to a man on the street. Dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, one of her front teeth glued with white paste where it broke, Regina can recall every detail of the night she and her friends dressed up and left the slum to sell themselves at the infamous intersection in Nairobi. When the night was over she had 1000 Kenyan shillings in her pocket.

“I thought it was disgusting, I didn’t like it at all,” she says. “But suddenly I had a lot of money.”

It was when Regina started having nightmares about the men who paid her for sex that she began to stop by at a centre run by the NGO Plan International for young prostitutes as part of its Youth Economic Empowerment Project (YEEP). Here, young women could train to be hairdressers or get financial help to start their own businesses.

I had pictures of the men in my head,” says Regina. Afraid of going back to that life, and now a single mother, she got a loan to start her own business and now sells roasted sausages for a living. On a good day she earns a third of what she made on the street, but she doesn’t mind. "When you have a child, it isn’t tempting anymore," she says.

"I’d rather earn my money this way."

Hope for Kawangware

The turquoise walls of the packed classroom are peeling, but the lesson is in full swing. There are 50 students here who dream of becoming doctors, pilots, nurses, teachers or lawyers. ‘Say No to Drugs’ and ‘Education is Power’ is painted on the walls of the entrance hall, as the school tries to wean children from a life of abuse and crime.

Headmaster Gitau Mwara says that part of the school’s function is to keep the children off the streets. Two giant pots of half-hardened porridge bubble away. For some of the pupils, this will be the only meal they eat all day. The cement floor is so thin in places that it crumbles away into the red earth. A fluorescent light dangles over the blackboard.

Tafroza, 12, has hair braided in straight corn rows and red glittery lip gloss. Her school uniform has only a single hole; her ankle socks and shirt are bright white. Tafroza is third in her class and she dreams of being a doctor.

“I want to help others, like I was helped,” she says, holding out a hand that is tight and scarred where she burned it as a baby.

YEEP consists of 31 voluntary youth groups whose members help create better opportunities and conditions for everyone living in Kawangware.

With the aim of helping young people gain life skills and create change, the projects spread knowledge about health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, alcohol, and drugs. They help young people with disabilities and works to get children into school and off of the streets. Volunteers get teenagers playing sports, help clean up the streets, and improve sanitation by building toilets. Young women who were once forced to sell themselves on the streets are now given loans to start businesses and the training that they need to learn new skills. By learning how to make decisions, they are socially and economically empowered.

“We must give them a good reason not to stay away,” says Mwara as the students have lunch.

“I am confident that God will open doors for me and the others,” says one of the students. It strikes me that most of all, in Kawangware, there is hope.

Learn more about Plan's work in Kenya




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