To fully understand the rich and often neglected history of Kibera, one must first understand what a slum and shanty town is. A shanty town or slum is a settlement composed of buildings or shacks made of materials such as wood and mud. These communities typically lack access to basic resources, such as clean water and electricity. While it may appear to be a difficult place to live, many are happy to call it home. A community packed to the brim with approximately 250,000 loving and supportive people, Kibera, Kenya is the largest slum in Africa.
Kibera originates from “Kibra”, meaning “Land of the Forest'' in Nubian, the language of people indigenious to Northern Sudan. Towards the end of the 1880s, the British Army enlisted Nubian soldiers from Sudan to fight with them in East Africa. They went on to fight for the British in World War I and II as the King’s African Rifles (KAR). The Sudanese soldiers were stationed in the forest on the outskirts of Nairobi, now known as Kibera, so that they would be able to quickly reach Nairobi’s center. This was a critical role in the development of Kenya and East Africa.
Around the same time, the colonial government began categorizing and separating Kenyans based on ethnicity and tribes, settling them onto “Native Reserves.” Hoping to limit the number of Kenyans able to live in the center of Nairobi, the colonial government passed acts that restricted their movement. Unsurprisingly, the rationale behind this initiative has racial undertones; the colonialists' real goal being to separate the white people from others of different races and cultures. As the colonial government implemented this segregated housing policy, many were forcibly removed from their homes and ostracized from the city. They were then put in regulated housing with temporary accommodations.
Despite classifying and settling nearly all of these “Native Reserves,” the Nubians were excluded, as they were not not native to Kenya. However, without a native reserve and unable to return to Sudan, following the conclusion of WWI, many of the Sudanese soldiers settled in Kibera, turning it into a permanent home.
After the second World War, the British stopped enlisting the Nubian soldiers in the KAR. Despite the important role the Nubian soldiers played in the wars, the British did not legitimize the Nubians as an official community in Kenya. Because of this, when Kenya gained independence in 1963, the Kenyan government changed Kibera’s official status to “unauthorized.” Since 1963, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans and other people have been placed in Kibera, slowly transforming the land into the slum people know it as today.
While Kibera is a product of colonialism, it has developed a vast and united culture over the past decade.It is vastly important that we uplift not only the stories of its current inhabitants, but also the history of those who created the place it is today.