Squalor everywhere, but still this is a neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

Plastic bags, knotted and sagging, soar across the slum late at night.

They bounce off tin roofs, splatter against mud walls patched with tin cans and tumble down the steep hillside, where they sprout every few feet like plastic weeds. In the morning, they are trampled into the ground.

After 33 years in this shantytown known as Deep Sea, Cecilia Wahu barely notices the bags anymore. They are called “flying toilets,” and because no one here has a bathroom, everyone has thrown a few.

“My dream, before I die, is to live in a permanent house, not a shack,” says Wahu, 66, who has rheumy eyes and is missing teeth. “It could be small, but it must have a nice kitchen, a real bed and its own toilet.”


That is her dream. Her reality is an 8-by-8-foot mud hut.

Survival in Deep Sea is a matter of staying above an endless tide of mud and waste. All that separates Wahu from the filth is a dirt floor, thin plank doors and a stubborn sense that even this place is a neighborhood.

About 1,500 people are crammed into this treacherously steep four-acre warren. They live on less than a dollar a day, and this is the best shelter they can afford.

There is one water faucet, one toilet and no electricity. The homes are jumbles of tin, red-baked mud and sticks that barely keep from tumbling into the fetid Gitathuru River below.

Tropical rains eat away at the walls. Roving bands of thugs threaten to break down homes unless they are paid protection money. Wealthy neighbors across the river lobby the government to clear the hillside.

The future of Africa is bound up in such places.

Rural people seeking jobs, medicine and a better future are overrunning the cities of sub-Saharan Africa. They are among the fastest-growing cities in the world. The United Nations estimates that by 2020, these urban areas will be home to 550 million people.

Nairobi’s slums, where more than half of the city’s 3 million people live on 5% of the land, are the first stop for the new arrivals. Despite the wretched conditions, most people must pay to live here. As the slums grow more crowded and destitute, the land becomes more precious. A network of tribal leaders, government officials and other slumlords profits handsomely.


According to a U.N. survey, 57% of the dwellings in one Nairobi slum are owned by politicians and civil servants, and the shacks are the most profitable housing in the city. A slumlord who pays $160 for a 100-square-foot shack can recoup the entire investment in months.

“People will fight, they will kill, for this place,” Wahu says. “It’s a roof over your head. And everybody wants that.”

Through the smoke of Deep Sea’s hundreds of coal-fired cooking pots, the Kenyan capital’s most exclusive neighborhood shimmers on the other side of the river. It is called Muthaiga, and it is home to ambassadors, entrepreneurs and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

Loud Congolese Lingala music blares from Deep Sea’s shacks and wafts over the river to intrude on the splendor and solitude of the rich.

“They only make noise and cause trouble,” says one longtime Muthaiga homeowner. “We will get them out ... at any cost.”

But much as they complain, Muthaiga residents need Deep Sea for the cheap labor it provides.


From the kitchens and gardens of Muthaiga where they work, the slum dwellers see rolling coffee plantations, lush forest and monkeys swinging over fences into backyards.

It is a stark contrast to Deep Sea, which is barren of vegetation and dotted with litter.

Wahu and her family arrived in Nairobi in 1970 and settled here on land that no one else wanted. A relative had evicted them from a plot in a coffee-growing district about 35 miles away. One morning, Wahu’s husband left to look for work and never returned, leaving her to raise five children. She found a job cooking three meals a day for an Indian couple, caring for their four children and cleaning their house. The pay was $5 a month.

Wahu and her neighbors named their collection of shacks Muchathaini, or “bitter thing” in Kikuyu, after a wild plant they pulled from the ground and ate. Several years later, after a young boy tumbled down the hill and drowned in the river, they re-christened the slum Deep Sea.

The slum has since grown to about 550 structures so closely packed together they appear to be one. Wahu, now too old to work as a maid or nanny, earns about 20 cents a day washing potatoes or shelling beans at a nearby market.

Wahu has seen many families come and go over the years. A few earn enough to move up and out. Some others, defeated by rent and crime, go back to the countryside. Like her, most just hang on.

A few doors from Wahu’s hut, Joseph Mutua laces up his shoes, getting ready to patrol the neighborhood. A local church pays him about $35 a month to keep thugs from harassing residents.


Mutua, 49, pays $10 a month for a 100-square-foot shack, a typical size in Deep Sea. He lives there with his wife, Stella, and their seven children. The place is wretched, but when he gets his salary, Mutua immediately pays the rent. He has seen how a partial or late payment can lead to swift and violent eviction.

“The landlords throw you out in no time because so many others want the house,” Mutua says.

At night, Mutua, his wife and their toddler, Benson, sleep on a piece of castoff foam in a corner of the room. The other children sleep shoulder to shoulder on cardboard boxes. Pictures of rap star Eminem, Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo and Jesus are plastered on the mud walls. When it rains, water flows through the room.

Compared with their neighbors, the Mutuas are comfortable. Joseph, who earns more than the average resident, sometimes tells his children to skip school and look for odd jobs. As a result, in some months they are able to set aside a dollar for access to the single water faucet that a Catholic church recently installed near the entrance to Deep Sea.

Many of his neighbors, unable to afford access to the faucet, pay peddlers the equivalent of 8 cents for a 5-gallon container of water. That’s about 20 times what the city charges for tap water in better neighborhoods, according to a recent United Nations study.

To use the toilet, Mutua pays the church another dollar a month.

The faucet and toilet are in a small wooden structure at the top of the hill. The building, with a concrete floor and walls painted lime green, is the sturdiest piece of Deep Sea.


But when the Mutuas can’t afford it, or when it’s dark and they’re afraid to walk up the hill, Mutua says, he too resorts to the flying toilet.

The practice has become so rampant that several nonprofit groups have launched a “Stop Flying Toilets” campaign. They have adopted a winged logo and are sponsoring races with well-known Kenyan marathon runners to spread the message.

“We have to stop the epidemic of diseases when you have sewage in your frontyard, on the footpath and even on your house,” says Risper Radula, an official with the African Medical & Research Foundation, which treats slum dwellers for cholera and respiratory illnesses.

Disease is just one of the dangers in Deep Sea. Thugs prowl the alleyways. They prey on young women at night and, like the landlords and government officials, they extort whatever they can.

Wahu keeps some Kenyan shillings in an empty condensed milk can under her bed to pay her 15 cents a week in protection money. She also saves to pay wazee wa viriji, Swahili for “agents of the chief.” They come on behalf of the local administrator, who assesses fees when residents make repairs or improve their homes.

Wahu says the chief’s men take away her front door or beat her when she doesn’t pay. When they see her Bible, they mock her, as if to say her God is weak: “If you are a Christian, why are you living like a dog?”


Even so, life is better than it used to be.

When Wahu arrived here, her roof was made of plastic bags. Today, it is tin. In the old days, she had to carry water from a pipe a mile away. Now, the church’s faucet is a short walk.

Just up the hill, a rickety sign hangs on the Deep Sea Hotel, proudly proclaiming: “Under new management.” It’s a mud hut like all the rest, but it’s called a hotel, in keeping with the colonial tradition of using that title for a place where refreshments are served.

The proprietor, Margaret Wambugu, stocks a few sodas, loaves of bread and a small clump of wilting vegetables, discards from the nearby wholesale market.

“Karibu!” she calls out to customers. Welcome.

Across the mud alley, an establishment with no name sells changaa, a harsh brew made from corn and often spiked with battery acid. A couple slow dances to a Percy Sledge tune oozing out of a small boombox. Peter Wanjohi, the bartender, greets each new customer by holding aloft a green bottle.

“Kumi-kumi?” Wanjohi beckons, using the Swahili slang for the drink. It means “10-10,” because a generous shot costs 10 shillings. “One shot, and you’re good for the day.”

Down the hill is a clinic that treats children for lice, scabies and respiratory diseases, common here because everyone breathes in the fecal dust. The Consolata Church in Nairobi, which installed the faucet and toilet in 2002, has built a nursery school and a workshop where a few residents make shoes and clothes to sell.


“They’re here to stay,” says Peter Ndungu, one of the church’s social workers. “We have to work to make their lives better.”

Residents have begun to defend their turf. Two years ago, the local administrator gave landlords permission to start building more shacks on a small patch of land at the top of Deep Sea that for years has been a playground.

Wahu, Mutua and others joined together to fight the proposal and some evictions. About 150 residents raised $500 and approached a charity that provides legal help to slum dwellers. They fought the landlords for months. They petitioned the government and staged rallies. They demonstrated at the local administrator’s office.

In the end, they stopped the landlords from building and saved the playground.

The narrow plot is just large enough for a children’s soccer field. Rocks stick out of the reddish earth there. In the dry season, the winds whip the dust into little twisters that make the children cough and rub their eyes. And when it rains, the water pours downhill into Deep Sea, pushing mud and debris against the huts below.


About this series

The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in dire poverty has nearly doubled in the last two decades. Times staff writer Davan Maharaj and photographer Francine Orr traveled the continent over nearly two years to chronicle the continual struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day. The six articles in the series:

PART 1: Sunday -- Eking out an income.

PART 2: Monday -- Staving off hunger.

PART 3: Wednesday -- Settling for castoff clothes.

PART 4: Today -- Living in 100 square feet.


Coming later:

PART 5: Locked out of school.

PART 6: Surviving AIDS.


On the Web:

More photos, narrated reports by the reporter and photographer, previous articles in the series and information on how to help can be found on the Times website at:



Huddled masses

About a billion people worldwide live in slums, most of them in Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa, however, has the heaviest concentration, with nearly three-fourths of its urban residents living in slums.

Slum dwellers (In millions) East Asia: 246 South-Central Asia: 219 Sub-Saharan Africa: 163 Latin America/Caribbean: 135 Southeast Asia: 58

Urban population in slums Sub-Saharan Africa: 72% South-Central Asia: 58% East Asia: 36% West Asia: 33% Latin America/Caribbean: 32%

Source: United Nations Settlements Programme. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken

Doug Stevens Los Angeles Times