I just returned from Nairobi. Nearly ten years ago, it was there that I visited my first African slum. Actually, the first time I tried the people I was with would not even let me enter Kibera in Nairobi; merely stand on the outside looking in. Too dangerous, they said. I felt embarrassed, like the archetypical gawking Western tourist.
Since then, I’ve been back to Kenya many times and have visited many neighborhoods in its cities. Originally, I had not known what to expect. My image of slums came from my American background and my work in housing. Tall buildings in disrepair, often owned by the Government. Some so bad that they ultimately had to be blown up. That image was so different than what I saw Nairobi as in many other African cities. The buildings are low, often small shacks. The streets aren’t paved and goats wander through acting as trash collectors. Many of the houses and apartments don’t have running water or indoor toilets. What surprised me, though, was the level of activity. People selling everything from clothes to mobile phones to food. Working men and women everywhere. And kids playing in the streets – and always wanting their photograph taken.I’m one of the people that are trying to find ways to improve the way people live. If there is a lesson I’ve learned it’s that the answer is not to destroy the neighborhoods and replace them with apartment buildings, but to build on the strengths of what already exists.