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14 July 2003

An Africa that Bush won’t see

In Nairobi's slums, you walk in waist-high puddles. But you won't find a drop to drink. By Sebastian

By Sebastian Skeaping

”Business is good,” comments Abdullah Wakhayanga, 22, an undertaker in Nairobi’s notorious Mathare slum. “We’re making 50 to 60 coffins a month.” (Prices range from £15 to £70.) There are five funeral parlours on just this one street corner. I’m not surprised: Mathare is home to nearly half a million people, living in appalling conditions. Many residents are without water, electricity, basic sanitation or medical facilities. Unemployment, crime, prostitution and Aids are rife. But can the optimism of a new government and the promise of assistance from the United States really change anything for the forgotten residents of Nairobi’s slums?

As George Bush tours Africa trumpeting his $10bn Millennium Challenge Account – the first visit by an incumbent Republican president on African soil – he would do well to consider the effect of prohibitive trade tariffs on the unemployed urban masses of Africa’s slums. Here in Kenya (considered too dangerous for the Bush itinerary), the 14-party National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), headed by Mwai Kibaki, has the unwanted distinction of governing the world’s fifth most corrupt country, according to the analysts Transparency International. Elected in the last days of 2002, the coalition is undoubtedly an improvement on 24 years of rule under Daniel arap Moi, but the legacy of poverty and disease is daunting.

In Kibera, a million people cram into a mere two square kilometres. Litter is strewn everywhere, among a sea of rusting corrugated shacks. A stench of burning rubber hangs in the air, fetid green puddles and thick glutinous mud lie all around. Only 12 per cent of households have water connections, and it is normal for 75 people to share one pit latrine. More than 55 per cent of Nairobi’s residents live in such slum conditions, occupying a mere 5 per cent of the city’s housing area.

My sixth interview in Kibera is with Beatrice Wanjiro, aged 24. Like the last five single mothers to whom I have spoken, she “sells greens”. She needs 3,000 shillings (£25) per month for rent and something to feed her five-month-old daughter, Esther. Surely she doesn’t make that hawking vegetables? The truth is she supplements her income by prostitution, obtaining anything from 100 to 500 shillings (85p to £4.15) a time, but thereby exposing herself to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Accurate statistics are impossible to obtain because testing is rare, but everyone knows that Aids in Kenya is a huge personal, medical and national economic disaster: 700 people a day die from HIV-related infections. Anti-retroviral drugs are too expensive for the slum-dwellers (despite the pledge of $15bn for combating Aids, Bush appears unwilling to upset the pharmaceutical companies), adequate healthcare isn’t available and, as for using condoms, “it’s like chewing a sweet with the wrapper on”, says my guide, Zachariah Theuri, 26. Besides, in a country where life expectancy is 47 years, who says Aids will get you first?

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Here on the equator, you’re just as likely to die from malaria, which kills 3,000 African children a day – one every 30 seconds. So the longer the Bush administration prevaricates and the more distant it grows from the UN’s African initiatives, the more people will die.

The women here in Kibera are subdued, lethargic and depressed. They live without any hope of change, scraping a living from day to day. It is standard here for eight people to live in a single mud-walled room measuring ten feet by 12 feet. Everybody was born here, everybody will die here. There is no escape.

It has been raining all week. A million people have been displaced by the floods in western Kenya. But here in Nairobi, although you can walk in sewage-infested puddles up to your waist, you can’t get a drop to drink, as the floods swept away 50-year-old water pipes at the Nairobi Dam over a month ago. “This is a big problem in Kibera,” says Ruth Wangale, a 30-year-old single mother with five daughters. “We have to buy water normally, but now the prices are as high as 50 shillings [42p] for 20 litres, if you can even get it.” The average income for poor families is 90p a day.

There is no doubt that the new government is more serious about respecting human rights and tackling corruption. In February, three secret torture chambers located in a government building were opened to the public as testimony to the brutality of Moi’s rule. An inquiry continues into high-level government participation in the country’s most serious corruption scandal, implicating Moi and the former vice-president (now the education minister), George Saitoti, in a £400m gold and diamond export scam. Meanwhile, governmental posters warn that “corruption is bleeding Kenya to death”.

President Kibaki has successfully introduced free primary education and has pledged to create half a million jobs and build 150,000 houses every year. Now he must rebuild Kenya’s beleaguered economy to pay for it.

Tourism has been badly hit by terrorist bombs in Nairobi (1998) and Mombasa (2002), as well as by the recent suspension of British Airways flights. In addition, the coffee industry is in meltdown.

For the time being, the only Kenyan slum-dwellers sitting pretty are the entrepreneurs of death – people such as Abdullah Wakhayanga, putting the finishing touches on another coffin in his shack on the corner of a street in Mathare. The test of Bush’s new-found convictions is whether they impact on the millions of impoverished, tragically short lives that end in shanty towns such as Kibera and Mathare.

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