Monthly Archives: January 2013

Age of Zinc is proud to present the fifth installment in a new memoir from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

One thing my mother could not shield us from was moving from low income housing in Kariobangi to Korogocho slum.  The feeling of moving into Korogocho was sickening and scary. Very frightening indeed.

We had lived close enough to Korogocho to understand that our moving meant life had taken a turn for the worst. Yet, for my mother, it meant she did not need to pay rent. It also meant we would have a piece of land in the city of Nairobi.

As a single mother struggling to raise children without any assured job it must have been a most liberating thing.  So as a strategy of raising us, my mother religiously maintained most of her rural culture and traditions. Looking back, this contributed greatly to our character and behavior.

Today, in comparison to most of the children we grew up around, my mother’s strategy worked. Even as children we knew that the other children in Korogocho were urban kids and mainly ghetto. This is how it happened:

My mother maintained a very strong link with her rural folks. Every school holiday we would be sent home to our relatives. The visits played a major part in molding our values and character. As urban dwellers we were humbled by the harsh life our rural peers lived. They walked long distances to fetch water, firewood and to school, to church and occasionally to the shops. They tilled the land, took care of livestock. They had no electricity, ate very plain food, dressed in near-rugs. Yet they had enough time to study and were quite disciplined.

At the time our relatives were not rich. The didn’t have much, but our cousins, nephews, nieces and some of my step brothers and sisters inspired us, they influenced how we thought. My mother ensured the connection to our rural links remained strong.

While in the city my mother adopted an attitude of doing anything or any job for the sake of her children. In time the family had grown to include nine children. She engaged in many manual jobs besides her main one of raising us and ensuring we go to school every day.

Some of her jobs included providing unskilled labor in construction sites, as well as painting houses in the posh estates that were being constructed in city like Outer-Ring and Buruburu.  Of all the jobs she did I have always admired her for two: urban farming and local alcohol brewing.

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“Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Age of Zinc is proud to begin a new year with the fourth installment in a new memoir from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

I recall my early life with somberness.  This was a time when my mother, a single mother, had just migrated into the city of Nairobi.

Our first rental house in Kariobangi was made of mud lumped onto a frame of wattle poles, and had a tin sheet roof. The room we, the children, occupied was divided into two sections: one side for the nine of us and on the other side we had space for our family’s goats.

Later, when I was eleven, going on to class four, my mother managed to get a piece of land to construct her own house in Korogocho slum. She did this through her ‘Nyakinyua’ group. Nyakinyua women dancing groups were formed purposely to perform during government functions or other gatherings that required entertainment.

Though our house was built under the high voltage power line, we lived there for over 20 years oblivious of the danger. We, and all the goats and some chicken, lived in that house without threat from the power company or the government. The construction of our first house involved us all. It did not require a lot of expertise in the construction as I recall vividly the activities. All we needed were wattle poles that were plenty in Korogocho. With the poles we mixed grass and mud and covered the walls. For the roof, it was improved later, we only used sheets of polythene. There was plenty of waste polythene and PVC in the city’s dumping site that shares a fence with Korogocho.

Later the house was improved as we continued staying there. It never got to the stage where it required an architect nor a design approved by the City Council. To this day the quality of houses in Korogocho remain largely unchanged. However, the slum now has a good tarmac road network and better electricity and water supply.

It was much later, when we were older, that we fully understood how tough life was and how wise my mother was in shielding us from the full impact of our situation. Many evenings, the pot would be set to boil for the evening meal. After sometime my mother would say that firewood had ran out and send us out to get any flammable material outside. We would come back and the fire would be started again and the food would continue bubbling.

Occasionally my mother would stir the food or add fuel to the fire. Eventually we would get drowsy and nod off in the comfort that when the food was ready we would be woken up to eat. Our young minds never suspected that all that the pot had was boiling water.  We all thought that we kept falling asleep before the evening meal was ready. Today, I understand the power that hope brings.