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The Young Girls Proving That Being From a Slum Is an Identity Not a Destiny

We visited Kibera, Kenya's largest slum, where girls grow up with harrowing experiences, but where some are now seeing Kenya for the first time and forming a very strong visions of the future.
Imagen vía Jennifer Graham Photography

Nine-year-old Malika is writing down what she would like to do to improve the slum where she was dumped as a baby in a pile of garbage. "I want to care for children because sometimes parents throw them when they are little," she carefully writes in her notebook.

Born in Kibera, Kenya's largest slum, the everyday problems that Malika and her friends talk about are harrowing. They speak in matter of fact terms about cholera, unwanted babies being thrown from the tops of homes, and children being abused and abandoned.


"I want to improve sanitation so there are no more flying toilets," writes Grace, 10, referring to feces in plastic bags thrown from people's homes.

The Kibera slum in Nairobi. (Photo by Anna Dubuis)

It is hard to get exact figures on how many people live in the sprawling sea of mud hut and tin shacks that is Kibera. Most NGOs point to the 1 million mark, while the official Kenyan census in 2009 recorded about 170,000 inhabitants.

Tarmac roads from the city turn into dirt tracks on the approach to Kibera. Inside the slum, a series of main avenues provide some kind of structure amid the thousands of alleyways formed from gaps between the huts.

There is no plumbing or waste collection here. Children splash in puddles that turn your stomach and play amid mounds of detritus strewn across every path. Behind the main thoroughfares, a foul stench lingers in the air as raw sewage trickles down muddy slopes.

The Kibera slum in Nairobi. (Photo by Anna Dubuis)

Given its proximity to the center of Nairobi, Kibera is far from forgotten about, however. About 30 minutes from the main airport, it's a popular stop-off for celebrities fronting charity fundraising campaigns.

Meanwhile there are hundreds of NGOs working here and a thriving entrepreneurial community. Lining the "main streets" are butchers, hair salons, bars, charcoal-sellers, and food vendors clouded in smoke as they char slabs of meat.

Yet, despite all the intervention, in 2016 the standard of living has little improved. Unemployment is high, and the majority of people live on less than $1 a day. Poor sanitation leads to disease. Poor diet leads to malnutrition. HIV is rife.


The Kibera slum in Nairobi. (Photo by Anna Dubuis)

Progress here, says Jessica Posner Odede, whose organization Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) runs the slum's first free school for girls, has been slow.

"A lot of people have got a bit too excited and there is an idea that it's the 21st century slum. It has been a huge misconception that has hurt Kibera," she said.

Posner Odede explained that while there is a lot of talk about projects in Kibera, few of these ideas are actualized: "People come and do a project and then they leave and there is no sustained local effort… Kibera is a very complicated place that has its own structures. I have been here for eight years and I find every day I understand it less and less. They need local leaders who understand it."

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For girls in Kibera, sexual assault is so common that for many (some say 12 percent, others say as much as 40 percent — again, reliable data is hard to come by) it is their first sexual experience.

They are pressured to leave school and forced into early marriage and childbirth, following the same cycle as the generations before them. "Girls are educated at an alarmingly low rate compared to boys. They just don't go to school," says Posner Odede.

The girls meet the Maasai tribe. (Photo via Jennifer Graham Photography)

"Families have to make financial decisions and they think a boy will go and get a job and bring back money but a girl will just get married. From early marriage to early pregnancy to a real lack of opportunities, life for girls is dangerous and incredibly difficult."


In a safe house on Kibera's outskirts, Malika, Grace, and 10 other girls crowd into a very basic three-bedroom building where they sleep two to each bunk bed. The girls, aged nine to 13, have either been orphaned or abandoned by their parents, or brought here following years of neglect and abuse.

Eve, now six, arrived at the age of four after she was raped by an 11-year-old boy whose mother ran a brothel. Rose, 13, whose parents died of HIV when she was a baby, was brought here following years of being burned, beaten, and starved by her aunt's family. Grace was taken in after she was neglected by her mother and forced to fend for herself.

These girls don't speak like typical adolescents. "I want to become a poet and a professor so I can help children in the slum because slum is an identity not a destiny," Rose, who acts as leader of the girls in the safe house and bounds in with confidence and optimism, announces in perfect English.

"I feel good about being in Kibera because I know I will change the life here when I am grown and I know I am not living in Kibera for the rest of my life," she adds.

(Photo by Anna Dubuis)

The girls get a lot of their ideas from their lessons at Kibera School for Girls, run by SHOFCO, which educates around 200 of the most vulnerable girls in the slum. Posner Odede calls it a "leadership academy," empowering the girls of Kibera to change their community.

"Kids see problems and we tell them from an early age that they can think of the solutions. That confidence is such a powerful thing. There is so much possibility for them. Our girls are so empowered and have a role to play," she said.


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It's one thing to be told about an alternative life to the one Kibera offers and another to experience it. Eileen Flannigan, an American entrepreneur, has spent the past year taking the girls from the safe house outside of Kibera's borders to show them Kenya for the first time.

Visiting a safari park. (Photo via Jennifer Graham Photography)

"In my life all my major experiences and exposure to different cultures, people, and ideas came through travel," said Flannigan. "One of the major problems here is ethnic conflict. When I heard the girls talk about different cultures I knew how much travel has been important in my life to forming different opinions… We talk about open mindsets but they are doing the same thing day in and day out. I didn't want to normalize their experience of slum life."

Flannigan began with taking the girls out of Kibera and into Nairobi. On their first trip to a gallery to see artwork by the Maasai tribe she heard them whisper "they're voodoo." So she took them to meet the Maasai tribe.

"They learned the Maasai were nothing to fear," said Flannigan. "I thought, what if they saw the whole country. They had never seen a zebra, while any tourist who comes here would see those. I wanted it to be educational, I didn't want them just to be tourists."

At Nairobi's elephant orphanage. (Photo by Anna Dubuis)

Flannigan's leadership camp, Girls on Fire, has since toured Kenya, taking the girls to conservation projects, to meet with girls from different tribes, to swim in the Indian Ocean for the first time.


At a first visit to Nairobi's elephant orphanage, just eight miles from Kibera, the girls, initially full of excitement at the prospect of seeing a baby elephant, grow quiet as they arrive among a crowd of tourists. They meekly stand by the cordon and as the elephants come towards them they dart out of the way.

Away from the crowds the girls liven up when they are asked what lessons they learnt from the elephants. "The elephants overcame their challenges when their mothers died and the other elephants came together and made a family. I will learn how to overcome my challenges in time," says Grace. Mercy, 11, added: "They never give up even when they are hurt."

"These girls are understanding the value of leadership," said Flannigan. "I believe 100 percent that they are the ones that will change Kibera. Everyone can play supporting roles but this younger generation will be the first to get out of dependency model and move to a model where they are the ones making the change."

*All the girls' names have been changed to protect their identities.

Follow Anna Dubuis on Twitter: @annadubuis