Urban Hunger in Nairobi’s Slums

John Kilonzo and his wife Lucia Kamene with their young daughter Esther in the miserable slum of Mathare

In his tiny one-room shack in a Kenyan slum, John Kilonzo and his family are the new faces of urban poverty – squeezed by rising food prices and trapped by disease. Hunger is stalking Nairobi’s shanty towns just as it stalks the parched pastures of the north and the overcrowded farmland of the west.
“Things are very expensive at the moment,” says John, wheezing with Tuberculosis, the medieval disease that clings on to the destitute in the 21st century. His surname means “big noise” in his tribe’s language, but it’s all he can do to whisper. “I go to the market when I have money. I buy whatever food I can with the money I have.”
That means buying in bulk to get a better price. Where once 200 shillings (about £1.50) would see him come home with 16 cabbages, these days he is lucky to buy six. His wife is out at a neighbour’s “borrowing” maize meal to make ugali, the staple of Kenyan life. One of his sons appears at the door with a bowl of beans donated by another friend. It is 3pm and no-one – not one of his six children – has had their first meal of the day.
His family suffered badly in Kenya’s post-election violence. John is from the Akamba tribe, who became targets of opposition supporting thugs when their big man, Kalonzo Musyoka, sided with President Kibaki. The family’s house was burned down and they lost most of their possesions, including a TV. It is a reminder that – despite appearances – life in the slums was often bearable for families seeking work in Nairobi. That was before mobs went on the rampage and the cost of living began rising rapidly.
Things have slowly begun to ease for Kenya’s urban poor. Fuel prices are creeping down as the global credit crunch puts brakes on growing economies – but the fear is that developed countries will now cut back on aid as they watch their revenues decrease. For now though the credit crunch seems rather like a bad joke when viewed from the narrow, muddy alleys of Mathare.
“We feel bad and bitter that we don’t get any food when we know that people outside the cities are being given food,” says John. “Here I don’t see anything getting any better.”