The Middlemen

Posted by | August 03, 2016 | Blog_Post | No Comments

I smile uncomfortably then I probe further, “What do you mean John?” He points to the sun-streaked café terrace, “We are seated here with a former president’s daughter, a famous political analyst and so many rich wazungu, where did we go wrong to be born poor?”

I am on a catch-up date with two young people I met three years ago when I conducted my doctoral media research in Kibera. We are in a popular Nairobi café during happy hour and the snug space is full of well-heeled and fine scented patrons sipping mimosas and wine cheerfully. In between mouthfuls of his pizza, John stares at me across the table and asks candidly, “What did some of us do to the Lord?” Susan laughs at the question, sips her Rosé and proceeds to snap selfies jovially. I smile uncomfortably then I probe further, “What do you mean John?” He counters with a disturbing question, “Why are we not like these rich people?” I chew a piece of lamb thoughtfully then respond, “Hard work pays and one day you may be wealthier then all these people!” My response is a feeble attempt to quell John’s anxiety.  It is also an attempt to affirm to myself that an adage I have grown up believing is true. Susan stops snapping selfies and cracks the uncomfortable silence that has overcome us. “If hard work paid, most people in Kibera and other slums would be billionaires.”


Kibera is an infamous area located a few kilometres away from the Central Business District of the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi. Slum, informal settlement, ghetto and shanty are words that have been used to describe the complex environment. The young people I studied in the course of my research preferred to describe Kibera as two-in-one. Kibera as slum or ghetto and Kibera as Lower Karen suburb. The thirteen villages that encompass lower income homes in the ghetto are Kianda, Raila, Makina, Kichinjio, Gatwekera, Kisumu Ndogo, Kambi Muru, Mashimoni, Laini Saba, Lindi, Silanga, Soweto East and Soweto West. The more well developed areas like Olympic, Ayany and Karanja are labeled as Lower Karen suburb. The word Karen is drawn from one of the oldest and most expensive upper income suburban areas in Nairobi. It is named after the plantation owner and Danish writer of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen. The suburb is approximately 15 Kilometers away from Kibera, so the youth draw upon the word Karen playfully because it is an aspirational area of residence close to their home.

The controversial Kibera is often described in media spaces as a homogenous land of poverty but the reality is that the complex environment is differentiated based on social and economic capital. Kibera is often described as Africa’s largest slum and one of the world’s worst slums because it is densely populated. However, the actual population figure of those who reside in Kibera remains unclear. The figure varies considerably based on the publication. At some point, the UN Habitat indicated that it was 600,000 to 1,000,000. Various media outlets such as CNN cite figures ranging from 500,000 to 1,000,000. In stark contrast to the high population figures, the 2009 Kenyan Census reported that the population of Kibera is 170,070 people set on 2.5Km2 .

Susan and John reside in the lower income village of Kianda. According to the last 2009 Kenyan census reports, Kianda has the second highest population density of 29,356 people. Kianda village sits on gently sloping land characterised by mud, wooden and concrete structures with corrugated galvanized roofing sheets. It is a vibrant and friendly space with loud pubs, small restaurants and a significant number of roadside traders. The average monthly rent is about KSH1,150 ($11.50) to KSH 4,000($40) based on the location of the structure. Rooms located in the lower and more densely populated part of the village cost less than those that overlook the main road, whilst commercial premises are rented out at much higher rates.

John orders for another cocktail. He thanks me yet again for inviting him to the exclusive mall nestled in several upper income suburbs and gated communities. We resume our conversation. “John, you sound very negative yet so many have made it out of Kibera and are very successful in their careers.” I name several local celebrities who grew up in the area. John rolls his eyes and retorts, “They are very lucky people and you should confirm how many of them come back to assist the community.” I prod, “ If you moved out of Kibera would you return to assist members of the community?” He nods enthusiastically and snaps, “We are not like Phil.” is one of the young men I interviewed in the course of my doctoral research. “Immediately he made some good money he left the slum and dumped all of us, he doesn’t pick our calls. He profited very greatly from our youth organization, got a scholarship and then a really good NGO job.”

John described Phil’s financial success and upward socio-economic mobility enthusiastically. He had managed to move out of a small 12 by 12 foot house that he shared with John and was now residing in an apartment located in a middle class suburb. Phil essentially turned out to be what I describe as the middlemen of development. They are the well-connected people who work in deprived communities that (mostly foreign) donors trust to distribute funds to various community programs, projects and some NGOs. The middlemen of development are often drawn from existent youth groups, community self help groups or NGOs. Once the donor strikes a rapport with them, they channel financial or material donations to him or her. Most of the middlemen I met were young men. They lived relatively comfortable lives. The few who were still residents of Kibera lived in the more spacious and well furnished rooms in “Lower Karen” villages such as Karanja or Olympic. Sometimes they could afford to rent a three bedroomed home in well-developed Ayany. The middlemen are often good communicators and well connected in Kibera, so donors and visitors are comfortable around them. However, most of the people they live next to regard them with distrust.


Next week the series on Social Networks in Kenya continues with an exploration of the middlemen of development.

Related Sources:

Kibere, F. N. (2016). The Paradox of Mobility in the Kenyan ICT Ecosystem: An Ethnographic Case of How the Youth in Kibera Slum Use and Appropriate the Mobile Phone and the Mobile Internet. Information Technology for Development, 1-21.

Kibere, F. N. (2016). The Capability of Mobility in Kibera’Slum’, Kenya: An Ethnographic Study of How Young People Use and Appropriate New Media and ICTs (Doctoral dissertation, Department of Media and Communication).

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Ph.D Media & Communication