The Women of Kibera

Hamza Ahmed is walking quickly down the main street of Makina market. She weaves through the children, cars and crates of chickens, raising her hand and voice in greeting to women sitting outside shops in this crowded "village" of Kibera, a sprawling slum in the heart of Nairobi.

"Salama Alekum," Hamza greets an old man who is talking with three other men.

She stops briefly to exchange news, but is quickly back on her way. She cuts onto one of the countless footpaths and, spry for a woman for 65, manoeuvers over the open sewers and rutted path.

To a stranger, this slum settlement is a maze of one-room mud houses and narrow, winding corridors. But Hamza has lived here her entire life. She knows Kibera as well as she knows the faces of her three children and four grandchildren.

Today Hamza is on her way to visit Zakia Yusuf, a widow who is struggling to raise her two boys while managing her HIV infection and the unemployment that is endemic in Kibera.

"She is very brave," Hamza says of Yusuf. "She is a hard worker. She is struggling, but she is very brave."

Hamza is paying today's visit on behalf of Interfaith Women for Peace and Development. She founded the women's organization in 2002, following riots in Kibera that left many people dead, injured or homeless.

"The riots were not tribal," Hamza says. "They were over rent and housing; certain tribes were targeted for violence. In truth, the violence came for political and economic reasons, not because of culture. "

Up to one million people live in Kibera, which is roughly the size of Manhattan's Central Park, and represent almost all of Kenya's 40 tribes. Although Hamza says there is some segregation by tribe among the settlement's 12 villages, they all live close together.

"Kibera is an entry point to Nairobi," Hamza says. "Whoever comes to Nairobi to look for a job starts in Kibera because it is so near to the city centre."

Sitting in the one small room where she lives with her two children, Zakia Yusuf is a long way from where she was before the riots. In 2001, she and her family were living in the Kamimuru neighbourhood of Kibera. Her family was living without electricity, water or sewer services, but were still able to get by. Yusuf had a thriving salon, where she styled hair and sold toiletries.

When the riots broke out, her home and business were destroyed because people from the ethnic Luo community, who represent the vast majority of residents in Kibera, wanted to move Yusuf and other Nubians out of Kamimuru.

"I was born here in Kibera," Yusuf says. "Nubians are the original in Kibera. Some other tribes wanted to move us from here. They came and burned the houses. I was living in my own place, I had my own things. I lost everything."

Yusuf says she stayed with relatives for a short while, but when they found out that she had HIV, her family threw her out of the house, fearing they would become infected as well. United Nations agencies estimate that anywhere from 16 to 50 percent of Kibera's residents have HIV/AIDS, compared to seven percent in Kenya as a whole. Despite the prevalence of the disease, Yusuf says HIV and its transmission are still largely misunderstood.

"The stigma [around HIV] with our people is very high," Yusuf says. "People are ignorant about how you get infected. My family wouldn't even take food with me. They wanted to have nothing to do with me."

The past five years have been a constant struggle for Yusuf. She has been unable to find stable work. She makes much less than the 20 cents a day that the Centers for Disease Control estimate as the per capita income in Kibera. Because she can't afford to buy the food she needs to support her body through anti-retroviral therapy, she is often bedridden for days or weeks.

That is where Hamza's organization comes in. Although the group has no funding beyond the little money Interfaith's members can donate, the organization brings occasional food and support to Yusuf and other women in Kibera.

Just as important as the food, Yusuf says, is the moral support she gets from the group's weekly meetings.

"They just give us hope, courage, support and counseling," Yusuf says. "When you meet with others, you discuss your problems, some people give you ideas. Women always have problems. When we meet together, discuss, you give yourself courage because you say, "mine is a bit better than Mama Hamza. Mine is a bit better than so-and-so."

Thanks in part to the women's group, Yusuf says she no longer harbors any hard feelings toward the Luo people. She says she knows that it is women from all tribes who have come together to help her family since 2001.

After a short visit with Yusuf, Hamza Ahmed heads back to central Makina for a meeting with three members of Interfaith Women for Justice and Development. They gather between the glass counter and the dusty assembly of hair products on the shelves of Mary Kemunto's one-room cosmetics shop.

At 24, Kemunto is the youngest member of the group. Today she is hosting Hamza, Teresa Gichuki and Agnes Kariuki. Kemunto is a member of the Kisii tribe. Gichuki and Kariuki are Kikuyu. Hamza is Nubian. Despite being raised in different cultures, with different customs of dress and different languages, Hamza says they have more commonalities than differences.

She says women in the slum are more vulnerable than men. They tend to bear the brunt of poverty. They are more vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence. They struggle to raise money for food and school fees for their children.

Mary Kemunto is a single mother to her 18-month-old son. She says her child has helped her to understand that, although tribal customs are important, cultural differences are learned, not innate.

"When you see children playing together in Kibera, they have no tribe," Kemunto says. "They understand each other as children."

Women, she says, understand each other as women.

There are 20 core members of Interfaith Women for Peace and Development. They come from all 12 of the villages within Kibera. They are Luo, Luhya, Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii and Nubian. When they sit together every week, they put aside their different ethnicities to talk about their common problems.

"If you look only to culture, it will divide everybody," Hamza Ahmed says. "We have a common agenda as women. We are going to stay together as friends, as family. When you are living in Kibera, you don't have a Luo sister to cry for you. It is only your neighbour. We have to build peace together."

Although the group is small and self-funded, Hamza and her partners work to curb conflicts across Kibera. Every week women bring reports from the slum's 12 villages. They talk about people who are struggling, about a community's conflicts and needs.

Together, the women come up with a plan to address those conflicts. Often pairs of women will go to where there is a disagreement and work with the residents to try to resolve the dispute.

Hamza says part of their work is informal community policing. She estimates there are only 150 police officers for all of Kibera. Many of those officers, she says, are corrupt. When an issue is very serious and can't be resolved through peer mediation, members of the group will act as representatives for women, taking their concerns to the local district office or the chief.

Sometimes they petition for food or money for a family, Hamza says. If no money is available, they will reach into their own nearly-empty pockets to pool a few shillings for maize meal, sugar or cooking oil.

Over the years, many women have come to meetings of Interfaith Women for Peace and Development but most do not return. Hamza says because there are so many NGOs and aid agencies at work in Kibera, people often expect an organization to dole out money or goods. When most women hear that they are expected to give a few shillings to help other Kiberans, they do not come back to meetings.

Kemunto says, although her business brings in just enough money to feed and house her and her son, she continues to take part in the group's work because, in the end, poverty makes all women equal.

"When trouble comes, it doesn't know whether you are a Luo or a Kamba," Kemunto says. "A woman's problem is a woman's problem."

Hamza says she believes that women are in a great position to bridge the longstanding tribalism in Kibera and in Kenya in general.

"Women need peace; their children need peace," Hamza says. "Who is going to give a woman peace? Who will give a woman power? It is you, yourself, and your sisters."

Sara Nics is a freelance journalist working out of Nairobi, Kenya.