The Lifesavers of Kibra

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The Lifesavers of Kibra

During crises, people prefer stories of good news: miraculous rescues and escapes, acts of heroism and bravery, selfless first responders, and survivors being treated, fed, and clothed—all exemplifying an ideal disaster response. Rarely does anyone focus on the grim, monotonous, and challenging aspects of the process, such as coordinating recovery efforts or making attempts to rebuild.

For weeks, various parts of Kenya endured relentless heavy rainfall that wreaked havoc. Rivers and their tributaries  burst their banks, bridges  collapsed, roads cordoned off or barely passable, homes destroyed by floodwaters and landslides, and people stripped of possessions and loved ones. Estimates from the government as of 5 May 2024 put the deaths at 228 and more than 200,000 displaced.

In those weeks, emergency response from both national and county governments were lackluster at best. And even when they did eventually come in, it was mere optics and mandatory evacuations for residents near dams, waterways and water reservoirs, without much direction as to where those affected were supposed to go. Those bearing the biggest brunt for the lax response are residents of informal settlements, including those in Kibra, who are forced to become their own fallback plan.

Walking through Kibra a fortnight ago, all appeared well, life carrying on seemingly unaffected. Children, who were not in school due to the then indefinite suspension of opening dates, engaged in playful activities. Men and women went about their daily routines, creating a facade of normalcy. With the exception of scattered puddles and some muddy roads, one could hardly tell that the previous evening, and indeed many evenings prior, the place had been engulfed by heavy rains, as was much of Kenya. However, it is only when one delves deeper into the heart of Kibra, both physically and through conversation, that the veil begins to lift. 

There was absolutely nothing normal there. 

I was in Kibra meeting up with my friend, the photographer Jeremie Onyango, and together, we were to visit Moses Omondi who heads the Kibra Community Emergency Response Team (KCERT) that has been coordinating food drives for those affected by the floods. After rendezvousing at Olympic Primary School, we proceed to the location where Moses and his team are convening, a resource center nestled in Kibra’s art district, still within Olympic estate. 

Typically, the center serves as a creative hub for young people to learn, interact and create art, but with the floods it is now a vital command center for organizing and deploying emergency aid in whatever form it is needed — food, medical assistance (KCERT has partnered with CFK—Carolina For Kibra— Africa to provide ambulance services) and even assistance for shelter.

At the center, it is a hive of activity. Moses and his team are fully engaged — phones are ringing non-stop, tasks are being assigned and food supplies sorted and packed into individual parcels, each destined for families in need. Each parcel contains a two kilogram pack of maize flour, a kilogram of sugar, a pack of spaghetti, a liter of cooking oil and a bar of soap. Moses is swamped, barely able to spare a minute to chat with us. We wait patiently, lending a hand where we can.

Eventually, when we speak, Moses tells me it wasn’t always this way.

Moses has evolved into a seasoned emergency responder, putting his skills and team to work whenever Kibra is in crisis. He never imagined himself as a rescuer, or as someone who could stop things from going wrong, but he simply took action and one thing led to another. Yes, his undergraduate degree in development studies provided a foundation for his community work, but the lived experience through crises trumps any disaster management doctrines he may have picked up in class. 

In theory, emergencies follow a set plan, but real life does not afford one the luxury of time or thought. You think as you act. The floods in particular challenged the conventional response to flood emergencies. You are told to stay indoors and avoid unnecessary movement in the rains, but what do you do when floods are inside your house? Plus, the geographical (Kibra’s physical topography is characterized by densely packed makeshift structures and narrow alleys) and social vulnerabilities of Kibra are very different from many other places. Only a native would know how to go about things.

Kibra Community Emergency Response Team (KCERT) volunteers delivering food to flood victims. DEBUNK MEDIA/Jeremie Onyango

Covid 19 Taught Us

The emergency rescue initiative came up at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when three women within the community reached out to Moses, asking for work in exchange for food. “These women lived hand to mouth, and now the hand was cut off but the mouth still needed food,” Moses says. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t offer them the work nor the food.” It pained him. The pandemic had hit hard, work was hard to come by and not much was coming from the government. Burdened by the pain of the three women, Moses took to Facebook asking for assistance from well-wishers. Someone heeded his call and sent him supermarket vouchers to get food and other necessities. Annette ,one of the three women that he helped then, is now a volunteer with the team and has been key in coordinating the current food drive that I have now been enlisted into. 

The first house we get to is that of Grace* in Maranatha. Grace has taken in a young woman, Mary, whose mother and younger sister drowned a week back — among the first victims of the floods. Grace herself doesn’t have much despite offering to help her neighbour, so receiving the food pack is a greatly appreciated gift. In addition to the food, the team checks on her wellbeing, offering a listening ear and reassurances. But even then she’s too devastated to talk and is economical with her responses. 

It’s at Grace’s that we also meet Vincent Omondi. Or ‘Kadela’, as he introduces himself. Kadela has become a pivotal figure in the rescue operations, taking on selfless roles such as retrieval of bodies of those who have drowned in the floods, assisting in relocating those whose homes have been washed away or flooded, and any other tasks he deems fit in offering relief to his neighbours. Kadela retells the events that led to deaths of Mary’s mum and sister, deaths he says hurt him most.He recently retrieved the bodies of two boda boda riders.   

‘‘Maji ilibeba mukuru flani alikua neighbour yangu. Sasa vile maji ilijaa, hii njia ungeweza kupita hapa [pointing to the pathway]. Mtoi alikua mbele na yeye [the mother] alikua nyuma. Kumbe mahali mtoi alikanyaga ilikua matope. Mtoi akateguka kiasi akazama. Sasa mama hakua anaweza kumsaidia, akamrukia. Sasa vile alidunda hapa [the waters and the boulders] ilikua hitilafu huwezi ruka. Mamawe zikamgongagonga na maji ikampeleka. Tulifuata hii maji, hadi tukapata mwili karibu na dam.’’

Kadela and a few of his friends were the ones who retrieved the bodies of the woman and her five year old daughter. The mother retrieved a day after the incident, the young girl retrieved two days later. When I ask Kadela if he fears that he too could fall victim to the waters as he carries on with his rescue mission, he shrugs, saying “Kubebwa nini, si tuko na wasee,” adding that it’s not so much a choice but a duty, the work needs to be done. Kadela gives me the impression of a man who’s used to chaos, perhaps too used to it.

Victor Omondi, known as Kadela, a Kibra native and key figure in rescue operations. DEBUNK MEDIA/Jeremie Onyango

On the day of the visit, Mary — the surviving daughter — is away in hospital, having just delivered a baby. However, she will soon have to return to the reality of being homeless, and the absence of her mother and baby sister. I cannot begin to imagine how that may feel. Absence is an equable and yet vertiginous state. When you experience it calmly at a distance, it seems like a simple fact of life, something tangible and undeniable. But stand to approach, or rather to face it approaching, and the calm shatters into unimaginable horror. For now, the bodies of her mother and that of her younger sister lie at City Mortuary, with no certainty as to how they will be ferried to Siaya, their home. Presently, the priority is simply to survive.

Our second destination is further inside the neighbourhood. A row of houses where each, if not all, have been affected in some way. A young girl about 14 years old; an older lady whose leg is badly injured that they cannot go to work; a young woman, Lucy*, who by the look of it has been crying — swollen eyes and dried tears on the edges of her eyes. Attempts to talk to her and find out what has transpired are met with silence. I understand. I have learnt from previous experiences never to push it. One enters only on invitation. She had lost family, someone mentioned. The team has a register from which they countercheck the names, ensuring that each victim is served. They go as far as calling those not at home or asking the neighbours of their whereabouts.

As I stand nearby the houses waiting for our next moves, a woman pulls me aside. In an almost angry tone, she asks why it was we were giving food packs to some people and leaving others out. There would be many, many more such questions as we went house to house. I direct her to Moses.

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, Moses’ work has been to dissect the pain of each catastrophe and then, through training, partnership, and community resources, attempt to reduce the agony of the next. He has been increasingly worried about Kibra’s ability to cope with large disasters. It being a vulnerable community, and long before the current floods struck, he had already committed himself to advocating for prevention in the hopes of transcending the customary Kenyan reactionary approach to emergency, and to encourage a more preventive approach. “We are so poor in prevention but we are so quick to take photos during response but no one wants to invest in prevention,” he says. 

It has not been perfect and in many instances it hasn’t gone according to plan, but there are always lessons to be learnt. For instance, from the Covid-19 pandemic response, Moses learnt that partnerships were important, alongside mapping and planning before action and also the complexities of human behaviour — many will lie that they are victims when they are not, to get aid. This helped him and his team to better coordinate the efforts in dealing with the floods. They now know who lost what, who needs what and when. They may not serve all but they can serve a few. These very small interventions make a significant difference to the victims. They’re so tiny but they’re so fundamental. “Ata mtu akiwa na njaa akunywe strungi, ako sawa,” Moses says. 

Not far from Maranatha, in Katwekera, a landlord is counting his losses. 

The units on the ground-floor of his two-story building were completely flooded, forcing the evacuation of his tenants. Many of them are now staying with neighbours on the upper floor, crammed into the small single rooms that barely accommodated the owners before. When the floods hit, James* had hoped a nearby church could shelter the affected tenants, but it too was flooded. Left with no other options, the tenants had to make do with what little help was available. 

A local Kibra church where victims hoped to sought shelter, but it was also affected by the floods. DEBUNK MEDIA/Jeremie Onyango

James has marshalled fundis from within the community who are working tirelessly to quickly make the repairs needed so that his tenants – those that decide to stay – can start rebuilding their lives. Of course, all this comes at a cost, and an expensive one at that, given it was unplanned for. This has taken a toll on him. There is also lost rent. Those who have had to vacate the houses cannot pay him, and others have even sought houses elsewhere.

Still in Katwekera, a very important bridge has been damaged. This bridge connects Kibra to Langata and provides passage to one of the key hospitals, Kibra South Health Centre. The hospital, a level three centre, has facilities that other hospitals [within Kibra] don’t have and it serves almost all the areas of Kibra since people get referred to the hospital when they can’t be treated in other clinics, my photographer friend Jeremie explains.

Previously, passable by motor vehicles as well as boda bodas, it’s now only accessible to boda bodas and pedestrians. But even for boda bodas, it’s not all that safe. What’s left of the bridge is slippery and a huge hole is exposed. A small mishap, and one could easily fall into the hole full of water.

The bridge connecting Kibra to Langata and providing access to a key local hospital, was also damaged by the floods. DEBUNK MEDIA/Jeremie Onyango

At Kamkunji market, Wycliffe continues his daily hustle of selling cabbages. 

This has been his livelihood for close to 10 years now. However, the floods have not spared him either. While he hasn’t lost his home despite living next to the river, his business has been severely impacted. Storage has been particularly challenging with the rains. Previously, he would simply cover his mkokoteni with a tarp and leave it exposed in the open grounds where he conducted his sales. But now, he has been forced to seek shelter for his mkokoteni at a nearby welding shop. 

Selling off his stock also takes longer than before. His customer base has been hit hard, with many struggling to afford even basic necessities like food. The rains persisting well into the evenings also means that he cannot make sales late into the night, when he typically sees the highest foot traffic.

With the continued heavy rainfall and some roads blocked off, he fears scarcity of produce will ensue along with high transportation costs. Wycliffe usually gets his stock of cabbages from Nyahuhuru. Hike in costs, he fears, will force him to adjust his prices, a catch-22 situation considering his sales are already low and his customers are already suffering. 

What’s more, he is grief-stricken. 

One of his regular customers died in the floods, and he fears more will suffer the same fate, especially those living near the river. Despite these challenges, he still manages to afford a smile and offer a helping hand by providing discounts to his customers. A head of cabbage that would normally go for fifty shillings, he offers at a discounted price, sometimes as low as thirty shillings, in an effort to support his community.

Wycliffe continues selling cabbages at Kamkunji Market despite severe flood impacts on his business. DEBUNK MEDIA/Jeremie Onyango

What comes out strongly at the end of my day in Kibra is the strong sense of community and the will to live despite the odds. The dissolute conditions of daily life, along with the vices and aberrations often attributed to the people of Kibra (and all other informal settlements), places them in a separate category among Kenyans – one whose plights are ignored by the powers that be. This disregard has become evident once again in the handling of these floods. But Jeremie, born, raised and still residing in Kibra, and has seen it at its best and at its worst, tells me that it is this disregard of their being that has shaped Kibra to what it is – a community of sheer grit and of solidarity, even in crisis.

“The sense of community in itself gives Kibra the resilience it has always shown. Most of the time, people are always together, they experience life together and that longevity of being close to each other, understanding one another’s struggles and becoming a part of the community, makes one believe that it’s possible to show up in the face of adversity. I have been in Kibra all my life, and witnessed the 2007/2008 PEV [Post-Election Violence] and the subsequent ones too, in 2017 as a mere observer and a curious little kid, and in 2023, during the political protests [Maandamano in March of 2023] as a documentarian, one thing has always been clear: the community believes that we are on our own.”

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