The Mathare Slums

Taken by Justin Ahrens

Taken by Justin Ahrens

A billion people live in the slums of our world.

As one of the 5 billion that don’t, I think we have an obligation to at least know what life is like for the other 17% of humanity. So, I thought we would take a stroll together through the slums of Mathare.

Wait, you are going to wear those shoes? Are you sure? They look awfully white.

Man makes things in straight lines. The Mathera valley is anything but. The tin shacks, rickety antennas, rusting roofs, and winding paths are awkward an uneven, organic. Nature takes what’s given to it and makes what it can. People living in poverty do the same.

This path leads down the valley. It hurts my knees to take such large steps without anything to hang on to. I’m 31 with a bad set of knees and it’s a bit challenging. What about the old folks? Well, considering the average person lives to be 50 in Mathare, it’s not that big of a deal. Something else usually gets you before your joints fail completely. There aren’t any walkers or scooters here.

You’re asking me what you just stepped in? How am I supposed to know, you are the one who stepped in it. I told you that you shouldn’t have worn the white shoes.

There are puddles here. Lots of them. You can’t really call them water puddles or mud puddles because they are a mix of bathwater puddles, laundry puddles, pee puddles, and any other form of thing that oozes and runs from high places to low. You stepped in a slum puddle.

You’ll get used to the smell after awhile. Trust me, I’ve been sprayed by a skunk. The smell would never be canned and sold, sure, but I don’t think it’s bad as you think. You know how when you don’t like the way something tastes you hold your nose? Well, here in Mathera, if you don’t like the way something smells you can close your eyes and it won’t smell so bad. You won’t see the four-year-old boy dropping trowel, you won’t see the three little piles of poo next too each other, each unhealthier looking than the next. You won’t see food scraps, plastic, cardboard, and people in various stages of decomposition and degradation. You won’t see the screaming toddler on the ground kicking his feet after a painful fall, not looking for his mother because she’s not watching, dusting himself off and going about his unsupervised toddler business.

Speaking of the kids, just let them tug on your arms. They don’t see people like us that often. We have arm hair and they don’t. Anytime you meet someone with hair in a place where you never knew hair grew – or at least in such a quantity – it is natural to pet them. Enjoy it.

While you’re being petted, I recommend working on a few Swahili words, Jamba and Sassa both mean hi. You could also teach the kids how to thumb wrestle, how to pull your thumb off, or anything else with your hands that requires the movement of your hairy little digits.

Watch your step, it’s especially slick and steep here near the river. Yep, that’s not a river of Orange Crush splitting the valley. This isn’t Candy Land. In board games everyone plays by the same rules, everyone has the same chance of getting to Gumdrop Mountain before any other player, everyone has an equal chance to be a winner. Mathare is full of losers.

The people started at home – likely a surrounding province – moved to Nairobi “the land of opportunity,” and found themselves stopped in the Molasses Swamp with little hope of ever moving onward.

The river of Orange Crush is nearly worthless. It’s good for carrying waste of humans or from humans away. It can’t be used for drinking or washing. It damages homes when it floods. And the true test of any body of water to it’s usefulness, kids can’t/won’t play in it.

The bridge is a bit tricky. I’m sure you could build a better one with a $25 gift card to Lowe’s and 20 minutes. Still, there’s no other way to cross. Yes, it’s uneven. Yes, it bows beneath your weight. No it probably hasn’t been “inspected” since the last person walked across it and it didn’t break. But it didn’t break, so buck up and cross.

Welcome to the west side of Mathare. It’s pretty much like the east side so I’ll shut up now and you can soak up Mathare for yourself.

There is one last thing you should know: the folks on the west side think the folks on the east live tougher and more dangerous lives. In turn, the people on the east believe the same thing in reverse.

It’s our nature to think someone else always has it worse than us. In some instances, it’s healthy. But for you and me, who belong to the privileged 80% who don’t live in a slum, it’s anything but healthy.

In fact, it makes us sick.

Kent says:

That’s intense Kelsey… What’s going through your mind as you see the sights that you describe… and the ones that you chose not to share?

Let your voice be heard!