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Squalor everywhere, but still this is a neighborhood

In huts of mud and tin, surrounded by filth and thugs, millions hang on in Africa's swelling slums.

July 16, 2004|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — Plastic bags, knotted and sagging, soar across the slum late at night.

They bounce off tin roofs, splatter against mud walls patched with tin cans and tumble down the steep hillside, where they sprout every few feet like plastic weeds. In the morning, they are trampled into the ground.

After 33 years in this shantytown known as Deep Sea, Cecilia Wahu barely notices the bags anymore. They are called "flying toilets," and because no one here has a bathroom, everyone has thrown a few.

"My dream, before I die, is to live in a permanent house, not a shack," says Wahu, 66, who has rheumy eyes and is missing teeth. "It could be small, but it must have a nice kitchen, a real bed and its own toilet."

That is her dream. Her reality is an 8-by-8-foot mud hut.

Survival in Deep Sea is a matter of staying above an endless tide of mud and waste. All that separates Wahu from the filth is a dirt floor, thin plank doors and a stubborn sense that even this place is a neighborhood.

About 1,500 people are crammed into this treacherously steep four-acre warren. They live on less than a dollar a day, and this is the best shelter they can afford.

There is one water faucet, one toilet and no electricity. The homes are jumbles of tin, red-baked mud and sticks that barely keep from tumbling into the fetid Gitathuru River below.

Tropical rains eat away at the walls. Roving bands of thugs threaten to break down homes unless they are paid protection money. Wealthy neighbors across the river lobby the government to clear the hillside.

The future of Africa is bound up in such places.

Rural people seeking jobs, medicine and a better future are overrunning the cities of sub-Saharan Africa. They are among the fastest-growing cities in the world. The United Nations estimates that by 2020, these urban areas will be home to 550 million people.

Nairobi's slums, where more than half of the city's 3 million people live on 5% of the land, are the first stop for the new arrivals. Despite the wretched conditions, most people must pay to live here. As the slums grow more crowded and destitute, the land becomes more precious. A network of tribal leaders, government officials and other slumlords profits handsomely.

According to a U.N. survey, 57% of the dwellings in one Nairobi slum are owned by politicians and civil servants, and the shacks are the most profitable housing in the city. A slumlord who pays $160 for a 100-square-foot shack can recoup the entire investment in months.

"People will fight, they will kill, for this place," Wahu says. "It's a roof over your head. And everybody wants that."

Through the smoke of Deep Sea's hundreds of coal-fired cooking pots, the Kenyan capital's most exclusive neighborhood shimmers on the other side of the river. It is called Muthaiga, and it is home to ambassadors, entrepreneurs and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

Loud Congolese Lingala music blares from Deep Sea's shacks and wafts over the river to intrude on the splendor and solitude of the rich.

"They only make noise and cause trouble," says one longtime Muthaiga homeowner. "We will get them out ... at any cost."

But much as they complain, Muthaiga residents need Deep Sea for the cheap labor it provides.

From the kitchens and gardens of Muthaiga where they work, the slum dwellers see rolling coffee plantations, lush forest and monkeys swinging over fences into backyards.

It is a stark contrast to Deep Sea, which is barren of vegetation and dotted with litter.

Wahu and her family arrived in Nairobi in 1970 and settled here on land that no one else wanted. A relative had evicted them from a plot in a coffee-growing district about 35 miles away. One morning, Wahu's husband left to look for work and never returned, leaving her to raise five children. She found a job cooking three meals a day for an Indian couple, caring for their four children and cleaning their house. The pay was $5 a month.

Wahu and her neighbors named their collection of shacks Muchathaini, or "bitter thing" in Kikuyu, after a wild plant they pulled from the ground and ate. Several years later, after a young boy tumbled down the hill and drowned in the river, they re-christened the slum Deep Sea.

The slum has since grown to about 550 structures so closely packed together they appear to be one. Wahu, now too old to work as a maid or nanny, earns about 20 cents a day washing potatoes or shelling beans at a nearby market.

Wahu has seen many families come and go over the years. A few earn enough to move up and out. Some others, defeated by rent and crime, go back to the countryside. Like her, most just hang on.

A few doors from Wahu's hut, Joseph Mutua laces up his shoes, getting ready to patrol the neighborhood. A local church pays him about $35 a month to keep thugs from harassing residents.

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