One aspect of cultures around the world that remains the same is the very human enjoyment of holidays and celebrations. This holds true in Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, which is located southwest of Nairobi, Kenya. Sources differ on the number of individuals that it houses, some saying around 200,000 people while others suggesting that the true number could be as high as 1,000,000. Residents face extreme poverty, without access to drinking water or electricity, a lack of basic services like healthcare, and high crime rates and drug abuse. Nonetheless, Kiberans’ perseverance is evident in their commitment to their celebrations. Many of the landmarks of these festivities are familiar to us in the western world: special food, time to relax, and an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family.
Kenya is home to people from a plethora of different cultures and religions, the most prominent being Christianity and Islam, which accounts for 85% and 11% of the population respectively. Consequently, many of the corresponding holidays are observed, like Al-Hijra, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. Additionally, state holidays like Labour Day, New Years, and Independence Day are widely celebrated.
Despite the observance of these holidays, most Kiberan residents survive on less than $1 USD per day, and thus cannot afford to spend the liberal amounts on their holidays that we do in the West. Martha Odhiambo, a native Kiberan who now studies at Buffalo Seminary School in New York, says that “we cannot go ‘all out’ like you do”. However minimalistic, holidays are marked by a distinct change in the energy of the slum, where a sense of lightheartedness and relaxation envelopes the community. “You just know, you can sort of feel it,” Martha describes. The 50% of Kiberans that are employed work hard hours for little pay and cannot afford to take time off, so the few opportunities they have to do so are cherished, contributing to the positive energy surrounding holidays.
Despite the burdens that they face, where they can, Kiberans take the opportunity to make holidays special, which is exhibited in the food that they eat. These meals are an opportunity for Kiberans to eat meat, a rarity due to its high price-point, as Martha describes “chicken is like a once in a while Christmas thing”. Chapati, a type of East African flatbread, also makes an appearance at the holidays, known for being crispy and flaky. Families work together to be able to afford the more expensive food, and also take the opportunity to spend time with one another.
For teenagers in Kibera, it can be very difficult to arrange western-stlye celebrations, so they have found more creative and humorous ways of commemorating birthdays. “On your birthday, all your friends will get a lot of water and pour it on you, so everyone gets very wet,” Martha explains. In special cases, this is accompanied by some sweets or a cake that is savored by friends and acquaintances. Unlike in the western world, gifts are unusual and most often unaffordable to the people of the slum, but on occasion parents might give their children small amounts of money to buy themselves a small present. As children get older and the reality of life in Kibera begins to set in, the gift giving on birthdays tend to fade away.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a fresh batch of problems with it, yet Kiberans have maintained their positivity through their holiday celebrations. Martha says “there’s nothing really different”. Their perseverance and creativity in holiday times despite the difficult conditions that they live in is testament to the strength of the Kiberan community, and also serves as a reminder to us in the western world to appreciate that which we take for granted.