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It used to be ‘Mzungu!’ Now ‘Corona’ is a Nairobi greeting

‘Corona! Corona!’ two young boys shouted towards us as they ducked under live electrical wires, jumped over a rubbish-strewn open sewer and disappeared down a shoulder-wide alley of sun-deprived, mud-walled dwellings.

My mother and I had just finished a two-hour tour of Kibera (2500 Kenyan shillings; £19pp), billed as ‘The friendliest slum in the world’ by our operator, yet such comments made us feel as welcome as the invading desert locusts.

Kibera slum Nairobi

Although there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 by 10 March in Kenya, six deaths had been reported in the UK – with the U.S., France and Spain reporting approximately five and, in Italy’s case, one hundred times’ as many – hence the reaction of locals in the Global South towards the presence of potentially infected musungu (white people) from the Global North; local reports of anti-Chinese prejudice were fuelled arguably more by sensationalist journalism about “China’s Chernobyl” than, say, scholarly publications pertaining to the Spanish Flu by Mark Osborne Humphries (‘Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic’, War in History, 2014), who posits it ‘likely emerged first in China in the winter of 1917-18’, or Fred Andayi, Sandra S. Chaves and Marc-Alain Widdowson (‘Impact of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Coastal Kenya’, Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease, 2019), who illustrate its deleterious effects on Kenya’s coast.

Yet up until digesting such remarks now, during the journey back to the overrated Norfolk, I hadn’t truly appreciated Kiberans’ vulnerability to this epidemic; the World Health Organisation upgraded the status of the COVID-19 outbreak to pandemic a day later, on 11 March. I say this given the tour around East Africa’s largest “informal settlement” – where settlers such as low-wage migrant workers (save the 13,000-strong Nubian community descended from Sudanese ex-serviceman conscripted into the British colonial army recently granted a communal deed) have no title deeds – was positively upbeat. Carrying out the stated aims of Kibera Tours’ cofounder Freddy, a man with an elaborate coiffeur who’s not overburdened by shyness, our thirtysomething guides and guardians Winnie and Elijah “show[ed] the positive side of [their town] and promote[d] unique projects around the slum[].” (Quote cited in Al Jazeera interview featured under the headline ‘“We Are Not Wildlife”: Kibera Residents Slam Poverty Tourism’, 2018.)

After a four-mile drive (south-west) from our hotel along the capital’s traffic-clogged Ngong Road, weaving between matatus (minibuses), we parked outside Adams Arcade and walked to Toi Market: it’s here Winnie buys mitumba (second-hand clothing) for her young son at ‘pocket-friendly’ prices and where footy-obsessed Elijah fired back ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ when learning my religion is Church of Liverpool FC. The briny fragrance of the day’s catch (from Lake Victoria) and sight of rainbow-coloured vegetables from market stalls lingered in my nasal cavities and remained seared onto my retina as we arrived at the first community empowerment project: a bead factory.

Victorious Craft Group was founded in 2006 we learned from Lucas, a young-looking quinquagenarian Training Officer, before he provided an overview of how the company practises environmental sustainability by recycling animal bone sourced from slaughterhouses. Of all the micro-industries to have sprung up in Kibera, this most resembles those comprising the informal economic powerhouse of Dharavi in Mumbai, albeit with improved working conditions. With the sun’s piercing light reflecting off a Mount Kenya-like pile of bones, stepping into a workshop to witness the trash-to-cash process provided relief, though only momentarily, since dust generated from electric-cutting machines used for moulding clung to my equatorial sun-scorched and perspired face.

Leaving the men in a state of barely-veiled laughter, our quadrumvirate walked 450 metres – along an Ayers Rock-red wet clay path, either side of which stand brick-built shops adorned in racing-green Safaricom advertising, dodging sweaty porters (illegally) carting charcoal at such a speed they’d be mistaken for contestants nearing a checkpoint in the BBC series Race Across the World – to the Power Women Group, housed within a strikingly-blue-painted shack where we met Treasurer Rosemary. Softly spoken, heads were tilted like curious dogs to hear about the hard work carried out since 2004 supporting those living with HIV/AIDS, and it was life-affirming to learn how handmade crafts subsidises day-care for workers.

That proceeds from tours assists Hope and Shine orphanage/school, opened in January 2020, further warmed the heart. Yet by continuing to illuminate the resourceful and resilient harambee (post-independent unified) spirit of its residents, Kibera Tours goes beyond busting stereotypes to normalizing – even romanticizing – poverty, thereby casting a shadow over the need for systemic change, ‘unwittingly undermin[ing] its raison d’être’ much like Mumbai-based Reality Tours, according to Melissa Nisbett (Senior Lecturer in Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College London and author of ‘Empowering the Empowered? Slum Tourism and the Depoliticization of Poverty’, Geofroum, 2017). Sanitizing the poverty-stricken life of slum dwellers blinds tourgoers to the cold reality where – within a cramped sprawl covering one and a half square miles, under corrugated iron-roofed (mostly unventilated) huts measuring 10x10ft, across 13 villages – between 700,000 to 800,000 (according to the Rockefeller Foundation, hundreds of thousands of whom are daily-wage earners unable to “work from home”) live inside an incubator for COVID-19 where there’s a chronic shortage of water: water used for cooking, not handwashing, thus explaining Kenya’s handwashing culture. (Only 52% said they habitually wash hands after visiting the toilet, according to a 2015 WIN/Gallup survey, presumably because Médecins Sans Frontières report there’s merely 200 water points.)

To assist Peter, my room attendant (whom I observed walking the colonial-era railroad, evidently on his one day off a week, as Elijah pointed out respective directions of travel towards Uganda and Mombasa), with the daily dilemma of either being starving or sick, I’ve decided to stockpile water upon returning to the hotel. This starry-eyed visitor would’ve overlooked doing so – myopically believing what (Western-centric) commentators were saying about COVID-19 being an equalizer – but for those enfants terribles, whose words prove more affecting than the jambos (hellos) and karibus (welcomes), since they provide a timely reminder about what Mehita Iqani (Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and author of Consumption, Media and the Global South: Aspiration Contested, 2016) says regarding ‘newfound enlightenment translat[ing] into action[]’, which translates in this instance as not allowing Kiberans to ‘walk alone … through a storm’.

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