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Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya ;

How do you manage COVID-19 with a population density of 130,000 people per square kilometre?

Making sense of the impact on society
Faith Taylor

Lecturer in Physical Geography Education, Department of Geography

29 April 2020

Social distancing and regular handwashing present huge challenges to those who live in slums, yet these communities are proving to be smart during COVID-19. Dr Faith Taylor explores how Kibera in Kenya – home to 300,000 people but barely registered on official maps – is collating data during the pandemic that could shape the future narrative around slums.

Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya is one of the largest slums in Africa. Population estimates vary wildly, but it is thought that, in a space smaller than London’s Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, there are more than 300,000 people who call it home.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that, if there were no buildings and everyone in Kibera spaced themselves evenly, they would have about 2.7 metres between each other – just enough for social distancing. By comparison, people would be able to stand nearly eight metres apart in Islington, the UK’s most densely populated borough.

From my visits to Kibera, the images etched into my mind are of a youthful population, forced to live in crowded rusty shacks with no running water, surrounded by piles of waste long forgotten by the city. So, when the first case of COVID-19 in Kenya made the news, my heart sank at the thought of how this disease might spread in the slums.

The reality of the situation

How do you wash your hands and keep your distance when you have to walk past hundreds of people to buy water every day? And how do you feed your family over a potentially drawn out lockdown period when you rely on making money day-to-day, with no access to social security and limited, if any, savings?

Kibera’s smart response to COVID-19

On the flip side, slums have been described as ‘the ultimate smart city’ – lack of formal opportunities mean that to survive, if not prosper, people have to maximise the opportunities they have – and social relationships are the core of this. Kibera’s communities have shown that they can be smart when it comes to COVID-19.

Within 24 hours, we received a list of 20 activities taking place in Kibera to help fight the virus from our partners. Some interventions are practical, like handwashing stations. Others have a brilliant Kenyan flair – like a local designer handing out masks made from the bright Chitenge fabric or the ‘We will overcome’ song by Stivo Simple Boy.

In a settlement left behind by formal government, healthcare and municipal services, a number of initiatives have emerged from the community to support the community. The key issue now is to understand who is being reached and who is being left out.

The reality of being left out

It took me some time to realise that a slum is not one ‘thing’ – like any city with a population of 300,000, Kibera is diverse, with better living conditions in some areas than others, and disparities between communities and the attention they receive from NGOs and researchers. – Faith Taylor

This got us thinking about the spatial disparities in COVID-19 related activities across the settlement. We started thinking back to our field research in a neighbourhood of Kibera by the river named ‘Andolo’. Andolo means ‘Deep Sleep’ in Swahili, to signify that the area that has been forgotten by the government and NGOs. Might Andolo also be in a deep sleep when it comes to access to handwashing stations and people handing out masks?

This is where mapping comes into play. A phrase in Geography 101 is that ‘Spatial is Special’ – meaning that processes can be better understood when we start to map them. The birth of spatial analysis is often heralded as Dr John Snow mapping Cholera outbreaks in Soho (London). Identifying the cluster of cases linked to the Broad Street water pump on the map fundamentally changed our understanding of the disease from airborne to water borne. 

How mapping interventions can help

In a world where most of us have access to Google maps in our pocket, you might think it would be easy to identify spatial patterns of COVID-19 interventions. But slums generally look like blank spaces on the map – they are often illegal or unregistered and change rapidly. This means official data is at best, incomplete, at worst non-existent. Looking at Kibera in Google maps, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a village with a few shops and schools – certainly not home to nearly 10% of the population of Nairobi.

In the absence of official data and within the constraints of not being able to do any field visits, we are turning to the crowd and using online mapping to identify the spatial patterns of COVID-19 interventions in Kibera. This includes working with our local partner KDI to develop an app-based survey to inventory the locations and types of activities taking place in Kibera.

From this, we can identify the spatial hotspots – areas that are buzzing with COVID-related activities, and most importantly, the cold spots where people are not being reached. This data will be shared in an open, online map to guide where new interventions should be targeted.

We hope that the map will also serve as an important advocacy tool to demonstrate that in slums – beyond the capacity or willingness of government’s support – people self-organise and social networks take on responsibility for life saving actions. – Faith Taylor

This mapping methodology can be applied to other slums to show the important connections that already exist, which can be harnessed to truly transform  and rebuild slums for the better in the long-term. 

We hope that in a month or two, Kibera will be recognised as providing an important part of the solution to COVID-19 in Nairobi – not as a hotspot of contamination, but as a place of innovation and social connection. And by extension, that the residents of Kibera will not be scapegoated but celebrated. This would mean a step toward rebalancing the wider lack of acknowledgment for Kibera and other slum settlements in Nairobi – and worldwide.

Maps will be viewable at Work done in collaboration with Professor Mark Pelling, Professor Bruce Malamud, Dr Maud Borie and Vera Bukachi, Joseph Mulligan, Amos Wandera and Manshur Talib (KDI).

In this story

Faith Taylor

Faith Taylor

Lecturer in Physical Geography

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