by Nichole Sobecki
Comparing the Divide: President Barack Obama’s mother was from Kansas, and his father was from Kenya. As Obama prepares to deliver the first State of the Union address of his second term, stories of income inequality from Topeka and Nairobi offer insight into two distant places with a strikingly similar Gini coefficient (.425 in Topeka and .428 in Kenya) where many hope Obama can help reverse a global trend of rising inequality — while others see it as beyond his reach or responsibility.
NAIROBI, Kenya — Dusty morning light glints off the tracks, the rusted beams forming the main artery into Kenya’s largest slum. Crushed together, thousands begin their trek along the rails to the offices and factories of Nairobi’s city center.
Just below the crowds, hidden amid a mountain of waste and discarded objects, Philip Mbithi has already begun his day’s work. He is one of the millions who survive within Nairobi’s massive informal sector, which employs over 80 percent of Kenyans according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ recent 2012 Economic Survey.
Mbithi’s body is wiry and work-hunched; his face set as he methodically sifts through the most wretched of materials. For the past few years this has been his every day, collecting and selling to recyclers the things that others threw away. On a good day he’ll bring in $5, but usually it’s closer to $3.
Without a waste management system, Kibera’s landscape seems made for this work. Bands of trash crisscross the two-miles-by-a-half-mile stretch of land — along the rails, between the low-slung tin structures that form homes and businesses, under bridges, and within the slum’s winding, polluted streams. Wrestling his way through the trash, Mbithi tosses the thong of a sandal into a sack slung loosely over his shoulder. “My daily bread,” he says, soon adding a medicine bottle, several caps and a mess of wire to his stash.
No one knows for sure how many call Kibera home — most estimates land somewhere around a million people. They exist outside even the most rudimentary network of state support. Water, roads, hospitals, schools, sanitation, electricity — on every count the government has utterly failed to meet the needs of the slum’s residents, labeled squatters in official logs.
“The government has never helped me, they don’t know me,” said Mbithi. “Here in Kibera we’re invisible.”
Kenya’s native son
Kenya has a Gini coefficient — the most commonly used measure of income inequality — of 0.428, and the divide separating Nairobi’s ultra wealthy from the slum-bound here in the capital is massive. Economists say such a wide disparity doesn’t just hurt the 50 percent of Nairobians living in poverty, but actually hinders the growth of a national economy still recovering from prolonged political violence that claimed more than 1,100 lives and displaced 600,000 people following the contested 2007 presidential election.
Across the Atlantic, the wide, groomed highways and tree-lined residential areas that form Kansas’ small, midwestern capital of Topeka appear worlds away from this sprawling mess of a metropolis. Just 15 percent of Topeka’s residents live in poverty, well below Nairobi’s rate. Yet, Topeka’s Gini coefficient is .425, making it almost as unequal as this East African nation.
Topeka and Nairobi share another, unexpected bond: President Barack Obama. While Obama’s mother is from Kansas, his father’s roots lie in a tiny farming village in western Kenya, where the president’s grandmother still lives. While four years in office has reshaped the president’s image at home, in Kenya his message of hope and change remain potent.
“For a long time Africans were intimidated by the rest of the world,” said Dorcas Havene, a monolith of a woman who has sold githeri, a traditional meal of maize and beans, from the same corner in Kibera for the last two decades. “But if someone with blood from here can rule the world, it reminds us that we all stand a chance.”
As Obama was sworn into office last month, elated Kenyans took to the streets of Nairobi in celebration. From his podium in Washington, the president used his second inaugural address to reinforce his message that government must play a larger role in creating equal opportunity, and building a bridge across the canyon that rests between the haves and have-nots of the world.
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” Obama said.
For a population that tends to view their own government as if from across a great distance — “they don’t know where I am,” “we’re too far away” and “the government doesn’t know me,” were common explanations from Kibera’s residents for the absence of any tangible state presence in their lives — this American president is viewed with a surprising immediacy by many here.
“Obama is our neighbor, he understands what we are going through,” said Rosaline Amondi, known as “Mama Fish,” who owns a modest restaurant on one of Kibera’s main avenues.
Less than a month before Kenyans head to the polls, Obama drew on his connection here in a video posted last week urging voters to conduct peaceful, fair elections on March 4.
The video calls for Kenyans to “come together” to avoid the bloodshed that marred its last election. Much of that chaos was orchestrated by leading politicians, who capitalized on the tribalism that has long plagued the country.
The question of ethnicity, though, is closely tied to economics here. Kenya has more than 40 tribes, but the largest group, the Kikuyus, have dominated business and politics since the country won independence from Britain in 1963. This sense of favoritism mixed with gross poverty makes a volatile cocktail that Kenya is scrambling to put a lid on before votes are cast and counted.
In Nairobi especially, argued Catherine Wambua-Soi, a producer for Al Jazeera, in a recent blog post, the battle lines of this election are being drawn between the rich and the poor.
“Arguably, for the first time in the history of multi-party politics here, Nairobi’s county elections will be more along class lines rather than the traditional tribal blocs,” she said, detailing politicians’ efforts to connect with the capital’s slum dwellers by wearing ripped clothing, handing out food and bragging about being “from the hood.”
Encircling Kibera, and serving the city’s elite, are the manicured lawns of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, a handful of gated embassies, and a mile and a half down the road the upscale Junction Mall. Though named for a point of convergence, the traffic barriers and security checks make the Junction as impenetrable for Kibera’s residents as a feudal castle.
In the tasting room at WWW Shop and Bar, Christopher Muthuko is spending his Saturday afternoon catching up with a friend. Nairobi’s first wine bar, WWW Shop is one of many such swank establishments that have popped up in the past few years. They serve elaborate “bitings,” and for the deep-pocketed romantics, “precious stone cocktails” which offer one’s date the choice of a drink and a rock: tanzanite, pink topaz or diamond.
Muthuko, who owns a farm in western Kenya, leans back in his leather booth, polished glasses set casually atop a shaved head. He thinks Obama can help by bringing attention to the issue of income inequality, which until now has been seen here as “just something inevitable.”
“The politicians need to see this as a platform for unifying the country, and the more attention Obama can bring to it, the more likely things will be brought to the table,” he said.
Across the booth, Kojo Acquaisie, a political advisor for the United Nations, disagrees: “He has his issues to deal with in America, and our problems, they are for us to solve.”
This edge of survival
Nairobi is the economic heart of Kenya, accounting for 45 percent of GDP. Yet two out of three of the city’s residents live in slums and informal settlements, half of them in Kibera.
The line here between formal and informal work is not drawn neatly between planned neighborhoods and slums, but a strong correlation does exist. State investment in wealthier neighborhoods is much higher in Nairobi, even when poorer areas are much more densely populated. Access to capital is also key. Most banks won’t lend to those with nothing to leverage against a loan, often not even a permanent address.
In the shade of a makeshift awning, Kyalo Mungudi is orchestrating a rhythmic flow of water delivery. The jingle of coins changing hands, then the thunk of water hitting hollow plastic sounds on endless repeat through this narrow pathway. A lean teenager in sandals made from recycled tires, Mungudi operates this water point for its owner, who moved out of Kibera long ago.
At a stakeholders’ workshop last year Martin Mascinde, a fiscal analyst with the Parliamentary Budget Office, said that the Kenya Revenue Authority has lost more than 200 billion Kenyan shillings, or over $22 million, in three years due to the government’s inability to tax the informal sector.
“If the underground economy remains untaxed, the government will continue losing billions of shillings… it will become increasingly difficult for the government to hit its revenue targets,” he said.
For Mungudi too, the issue of taxation is central to progress.
“When the government collects taxes they can put more water points in Kibera,” he said. “We should pay so the country can develop.”
For now, the government delivers water to only a tiny portion of Kibera, leaving most reliant on hawked water from private taps, where they pay two to ten times what is paid by a Nairobi resident outside the slums.
“We are the ones helping ourselves, we’re forgotten by the government,” said Mary Okoth, who has come with three jerry cans to be filled. Scoffing at the idea of paying taxes to a government she never sees, she shrugs her shoulders: “For what?”
From her office on the top floor of the University of Nairobi, Dr. Mary Njeri Kinyanjui, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies, shares a similar skepticism.
“An industrialist will boast about his contributions to the national economy by paying tax, yet most of his workers can’t afford the goods he produces,” she said.
For Kinyanjui, though, the solution lies not solely on tax reform, but on wages: “We are a labor surplus economy so we keep our wages low, but meanwhile people are living just on this edge of survival. How can we grow like that?”
Jua kali: Swahili for innovation
The development world has long viewed the informal economy as second-rate, or simply backwards, but here in Kenya many are beginning to view places like Kibera for what they are: consummate machines of production and creativity.
“Western industrialization has failed to respect informality,” said Kinyanjui, who believes that the solution to inequality here rests not on imposing formalization, but rather in supporting the informal sector as an indigenous advantage.
In Swahili, this informal spirit is known as jua kali, which means “hot sun,” and was originally applied to artisans who labored all day in the open air.
Folding his hands together, Acquaisie argues that the jua kali needs to be better supported by the state.
“These traditional mechanisms help pull society together,” he said. “But these ideas need to be institutionalized. We need to mainstream ideas that already exist in our society, and we need government policy and legislation to back them.”
Technology has also been used as a bridge between the formal and informal economies. Following the explosion of access to mobile phones, Kenya’s Safaricom developed M-Pesa, an innovative system that allows those without a bank account to transfer funds with the ease of a text message.
On both large and small scales, such creativity is often born of necessity.
Beams of light flood into the Cana Children’s Center through holes in the corrugated metal roof. Three classes crowd together in a single room, their lessons coming from community members who are little more than volunteers. Yet three years ago, before the Cana Center was built, none of these children attended school, and many spent days without a hot meal.
“There’s just too much need, and too little being offered by the state,” said Martha Ayuma, the founder and principle of Cana Children’s Center.
“Bit by bit, though, we are building something new.”