In the bustling metropolis of Nairobi there lies an area that is often dubbed the “largest slum in Africa”. This area is called Kibera. Several companies sell tours of Kibera for around $30 per person. You can easily visit the slum independently for free. No guide is necessary. This guide explains, step-by-step, how to tour Kibera slum for free. We’ll cover transportation, costs, things to do, staying safe, and much more. Hopefully, this guide makes your visit to Kibera as smooth and safe as possible.
A Bit of Info About Kibera
Kibera is a division of Nairobi. The area sits around 4.1 miles or 6.6 kilometers from the city center. Kibera is considered to be the largest urban slum in all of Africa. It covers an area of around 2.5 square kilometers. The area is divided into a number of different villages. The Uganda Railway passes directly through the center of Kibera.
Depending on the source, population estimates range from 170,000 to well over a million people. There are estimates that as many as two million people live there. Most live in extreme poverty on less than $2 per day. This makes Kibera the poorest slum in Nairobi. Most of Kibera’s population is living well below the poverty line. Many families living in Kibera cannot afford food.
Most of the shacks in Kibera have mud walls with a corrugated tin roof and a dirt or concrete floor. They measure around 12′ x 12′. Up to 8 people can live in each house. Rent costs around 1700 kes or $12 per month.
Even though Kibera is part of Nairobi, it is considered to be an informal settlement. This means the government is not obligated to provide services or build infrastructure there. The Kenyan government does not provide schools, sanitation, clean water, clinics, etc. The residents also have no rights to the property where their homes are built. The land where Kibera is built belongs to the Kenyan government. Kibera isn’t the only slum in Nairobi. It’s just the largest.
The neighborhood suffers from a multitude of problems. Mostly stemming from poverty. The unemployment rate is around 80%. Drug and alcohol addictions are common. Education is also poor. Most Kibera residents can’t afford to send their children to school. There are also many young orphans living in Kibera.
Diseases from unclean drinking water and poor sanitation are also common. There are few toilet facilities. Garbage collection is also an issue. Trash piles up on the sides of the streets. The infrastructure is poor as well. Only around 20% of the homes have electricity. Most do not have running water. They collect water from polluted streams that pass through the area. For many years, Kibera residents sourced water from Nairobi Dam.
HIV and AIDS rates are also extremely high. It is estimated that as much as 20% of the population is infected with the virus. Healthcare options are limited.
Violent crimes including robbery, rape, and assault are a serious issue. There are even cases of organ harvesting in Kibera. Crime is a serious issue here. It is a dangerous place to live.
Even though education here is generally very poor, most people living in Kibera speak fluent English. While you’re walking around, you can interact with pretty much anyone in English. Even the kids. This makes it easy to get around and have a cultural exchange.
Currently, it is estimated that around 900 million to 1.6 billion people or around 1/4 of the world’s urban population lives in slums or informal settlements like Kibera. This lifestyle is a reality for millions of people around the world.
History of Kibera
The land where Kibera is located has been occupied since the city of Nairobi was founded in 1899. In the early 20th century, during British colonial rule, Nubian soldiers, who were loyalists to the British army, were allocated this piece of land as a reward for their services in the King’s African Rifles (KAR).
Originally, Kibera was a forest located on the outskirts of Nairobi. This area was originally referred to as ‘Kibra’ meaning ‘forest’ in the Nubian language. As the city grew, the transformed from an expanse of woodland to a bustling settlement.
With time, various ethnic communities from different parts of Kenya migrated to Nairobi in search of better opportunities. They rented land in Kibera from the Nubians. This resulted in the area evolving into a melting pot of diverse cultures, languages, and traditions.
Over time, the population grew. Kibera experienced massive population growth from births as well as migration. People moved from rural areas of Kenya into the city to look for work. Many people moved from neighboring developing countries of Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda. Makeshift houses sprouted up, shaping Kibera’s unique landscape.
The city of Nairobi also grew to surround the informal settlement. Originally, Kibera was on the edge of Nairobi. Now it’s near the center of it. Currently, around 15% of Kibera is occupied by Nubians who originally migrated from the Kenya-Sudan border. The majority of the shacks are owned by Kikuyu (these are the Majority tribe in Nairobi).
During the 1920s and 1930s, proposals were made to relocate the families living in Kibera and demolish the slum. Residents objected and the slum remains to this day. More recently, there were proposals to build high-rise apartments for the urban poor to move into.
How to Get to Kibera from Nairobi
The Kibera slums lie just 4.1 miles (6.6 km) from Nairobi CBD. The neighborhood is easily accessible from anywhere in the city. The main road leading toward Kibera is Ring Road Kilimani. There are several ways to get there including:
- Uber- The ride from downtown costs just a few dollars. Your driver will drop you off right in the center of the neighborhood. This is probably the most stress-free way to get to Kibera. My friends and I took an Uber from our hostel on Milimani Road. Our driver seemed to think we were crazy for going and didn’t seem too happy about driving us there, but he did it anyway. The roads entering the slum are rough and crowded. He gave us his number so we could call him to pick us up but he didn’t answer when we wanted to return.
- Taxi- You can simply flag down a cab and tell the driver that you want to go to Kibera. Be sure to bargain hard with the driver. Some drivers won’t budge on price and some simply don’t want to take their cars over the rough roads in Kibera. If that happens, just find one that actually wants the fare.
- Matatu (shared minibus)- There are matatus running on the main roads alongside Kibera. I’m not sure of the exact route, but you could easily find your way by asking around.
- Walk- Because Kibera is so close to the city center it is possible to just walk there. After our Uber driver didn’t answer when we wanted to be picked up, we decided to just walk back to the hostel. It took just over an hour. We were staying a little bit west of the CBD so the walk wasn’t so bad.
What to Do Once You Arrive in Kibera
Kibera is kind of built on a hill. It extends out in all directions. The slum sprawls over a pretty huge area. The first thing I recommend you do is to walk to the highest point and take in the view. The size of the slum is really impressive. It’s sprawling. This will also help you get the lay of the land. The area is kind of a maze. There is no urban planning here. It is pretty easy to get lost if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going.
Next, you can begin just wondering around. Dirt roads and paths wind throughout the whole neighborhood. Some are busy and full of people, traffic, and businesses. Some are quiet and residential. You’ll see children playing with homemade toys and people going about their lives doing laundry, cooking, etc.
Make your way to the low point in the slum where you’ll find a small stream. Here, you’ll see slum dwellers washing their belongings and collecting water. Several rickety old wooden bridges cross the stream. Watch your step when crossing.
Tip: While wandering around, try not to be too intrusive. People are just living their lives. It’s best not to bother them. Try not to take too many photos or loiter around too much. The local people don’t like it, which is understandable. I don’t like random people nosing around my home either.
The final place that is worth checking out is the Uganda railroad. It runs directly through the center of Kibera. I am not sure if the line is still in use. Here you find some shops with people selling all sorts of items. I saw everything from food to ancient looking electronics.
While wandering around, consider buying a drink or snacks from one of the vendors. Small convenience shops can be found all throughout the area selling a variety of items. We bought some sodas. One of my friends bought a can of beer. This is also a nice way to support the local community.
Is Kibera Slum Safe? Avoiding Crime and Scams
Kibera is not the safest place to visit. At the same time, it’s not as dangerous as you may assume. There is some rule of law here. You’re unlikely to encounter any issues if you take some basic precautions.
That said, the crime rates in Kibera are high. Theft, mugging, murder, pickpocketing, assault, kidnapping, rape, and organ harvesting are all crimes that exist here, unfortunately.
Theft is extremely common in Kibera. If anything is left unattended, there is a good chance that it will get stolen quickly. For example, building materials cannot be left unattended here. This makes improving the infrastructure incredibly challenging. If a home is damaged, the owner has to camp on the remaining materials so they don’t get stolen.
As a visitor, your biggest risk is pickpocketing or theft. Someone could snatch your phone or camera while you’re walking around if you’re not careful. Mugging is also a risk but the likelihood is lower. If you’re here after dark, the risk increases substantially.
Kibera is safe enough to spend an afternoon walking around. I never felt in danger. To limit your risk of becoming a victim, you will want to take a few precautions.
How to stay safe while visiting Kibera Slums
- Don’t visit Kibera at night- During the day, Kibera is relatively peaceful. After night falls, things change. Most crime happens at night. You become an easier target for criminals. Multiple people including our Uber driver encouraged us to leave well before dark.
- Go in a group if possible- There is safety in numbers. It’s harder for a criminal to victimize a group of people than an individual. I visited Kibera with two friends that I met in the hostel where I was staying in Nairobi. Even though I would feel comfortable enough going alone, it is best to be in a group if it is an option.
- Don’t carry any valuables- Just bring your camera and enough cash for transport and some food. Leave your passport, jewlery, expensive electronics, and other valuables locked up at your hotel. Carrying valuables can make you a target for thieves.
- Never accept an invitation into anyone’s house- It might be tempting to take a look inside someone’s home if they invite you in but this is extremely dangerous. You could be robbed, assaulted, or worse. Only go inside someone’s home if you visit Kibera with a reputable guide who knows the people who live there.
- Don’t stay too long- The longer you say, the more risk you expose yourself to. You can get a good feel for the area in just a couple of hours. There is no need to spend a full day here.
- Respect everyone- Don’t go around pointing a camera everywhere and acting like a stereotypical tourist. Treat the area like any other neighborhood. Generally, the people living here are friendly but they could get aggressive if they feel that you are invading their privacy. Some people are embarrassed to live in the slum. They do not want to be photographed.
- Don’t hand out anything- Don’t hand out money, candy, toys, pens, etc. Giving stuff away attracts attention and can create chaos. You could attract a group of people, which can get dangerous. It also teaches the people that tourists equal gifts, which is dangerous for future visitors. If you wish to make a donation, donate to a reputable charity.
- Watch where you step- The roads and pathways are not paved. Some are very steep and treacherous. There is garbage blanketing the ground in places. There could be broken glass or rusty pieces of metal that you could step on. There are also deep potholes, trenches, and ruts. This makes walking difficult in some places. When it rains, the streets also become muddy and slippery. Be careful not to fall. To stay safe, wear closed tow walking shoes and watch where you step.
- Don’t get lost- There doesn’t seem to be any urban planning going on in Kibera. Streets and paths go in all directions. It would be pretty easy to get lost if you aren’t paying attention to where you are going. If you do get lost, try to walk uphill so you can reorient yourself with the land.
- If you want to take a photo of someone, ask first- Many people here don’t want to be photographed. They are not exactly happy to be living here. Also, I have found that people in this part of the world generally don’t like it when you take a photo or video of them. Kenyans are extremely friendly and welcoming but they are suspicious of cameras. If you take a photo of someone without asking, they could simply ask you to stop or they could get aggressive.
To me, the best argument for taking a guided tour of Kibera rather than visiting independently is safety. You are safer with a guide. The guide has a better idea of where it is safe and where isn’t safe to walk. They will also have friends and contacts living in the area if something goes wrong. If you are alone, you may not feel comfortable walking around Kibera. It is a lot to take in and is a bit risky.
Just a few days after my visit, one of my friends found an article online about a recent crime in Kibera. Five mutilated bodies were found near the railroad tracks. It is believed that they were victims of organ harvesting. Check out the article here.
For more general information on safety, check out my guide: Is Travel in Africa Safe? Avoiding Crime, Disease, Injury, and Scams
Taking a Tour of Kibera
If you’re not comfortable visiting Kibera on your own, there are tours available. A couple of companies offer tours of the slum.
Kibera Tours: This tour delves into the community’s daily life and culture. They try to focus on the positive sides of Kibera. You’ll visit a typical Kibera home, a bread factory, the biogas center, an organization for women with HIV, the railway line, and various markets and shops.
Explore Kibera Tours: This tour visits all of the main points of interest in Kibera including the main commercial area, markets, the Kenya-Uganda Railway, local breadmakers, a school, an orphanage, and more.
Tours cost around $30 and last 2-3 hours. You can also hire a guide and take a private tour if you choose.
Why Opt for a Tour?
Venturing independently is great, but taking a guided tour in Kibera does offer some advantages. Most guides either grew up in Kibera or spent a significant amount of time living there. The guide can offer insights that only a local can provide. For example, they can tell stories of their experience living in Kibera. They can also take you to places you wouldn’t discover alone.
A significant concern for many is safety. With a guided tour, you don’t really have to worry. Walking alongside someone who knows the area and the people provides security.
In addition, taking a tour helps to uplift the local community. A portion of the funds goes directly into local projects. For example, Kibera Tours donates a percentage of each tour to the Hope and Shine Center. This is a school for the children of Kibera.
You’ll also learn more when you take a tour. The guide can share some history of Kibera, explain some local challenges, and talk about plans for the future. This can give you some more appreciation for this unique Nairobi slum.
The Ethics of Touring a Slum: Is it Ethical to Visit Kibera?
Slum tours have become pretty popular for adventure tourists over the past decade or so. You can tour the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, townships in South Africa, and Kibera in Nairobi. Those are the main slum tours that I am aware of where organized tours are offered.
Some travelers hold the belief that it is unethical to visit a slum for tourism purposes. The argument is that tourists are exploiting the people living in the slum and treating their home as a zoo. Basically, they are viewing someone’s misfortune for the purpose of entertainment. Slum tourists may gawk and take photos of people who are suffering. This is a valid argument. Slum tourism is a type of dark tourism.
On the other hand, touring a slum can benefit the people living there. Slums have their own economy. They are full of shops and restaurants. By making a purchase, you are adding to the economy and helping out in some way.
In addition, most organizations that run slum tours give back to the community in some way. When you pay for a tour part of the money goes toward some type of charity. For example, when you take a tour of Kibera, your money may go toward providing education for children or building infrastructure to improve the lives of people who live there.
Slum tours can also be educational. Visitors will learn about the lifestyle of the people living in the slum. People may be inspired to make donations or help in some other way. These visits can also raise awareness about the issue of poverty.
Another argument is that slums are just parts of cities. They are neighborhoods. Taking a stroll through a slum is no different from taking a walk in the city center. These are public areas where, legally, you have the right to walk, although it may not be safe in all cases.
Personally, I see no ethical problem with touring a slum. The people are not being exploited or harmed in any way by tourists visiting. Most tourists are simply interested in learning about the lifestyle of the people living there. They aren’t trying to exploit anyone or earn any money.
Of course, you should be respectful of the residents just as you would in any other neighborhood. Don’t vandalize their property or invade their privacy by shoving your camera in their face.
One thing that you should not do is give money to people who beg. While walking around Kibera, most likely someone will approach you and ask for money. In the long run, it does much more harm than good. If you wish to make a donation, there are legitimate charitable organizations that can put the money to good use.
For more info, check out my guide to dark tourism ethics and criticisms.
Volunteering or Donating Money in Kibera
Visiting a slum like Kibera can be a profound experience. This may be the poorest slum in the world. If, after your visit, you have the desire to volunteer or make a donation, it is possible. Several nonprofit organizations do work in Kibera. For example, UN-Habitat and a few other agencies are working in Kibera.
I am not familiar with any of the specific organizations but one piece of advice that I can give is to be very cautious of which organization you decide to work with or donate to. This is true not only in Kibera but in all of Africa.
Most volunteer organizations are corrupt or simply not efficiently run. There are cases where less than 5% of donations actually go toward helping the people in need. Officials pocketing donations while the needy starve is a real problem. Some of these organizations operate as businesses where the volunteer is the customer. Oftentimes volunteers end up accomplishing nothing or in some cases do more harm than good.
With that being said, there are charitable organizations do a lot of good in the Nairobi slum. The most reliable way to find legitimate volunteer work in Kibera and in East Africa, in general, is to travel there and seek it out. By actually being there you can see with your own eyes what the organization is accomplishing
My Experience Visiting the Kibera Slums
When I arrived in Nairobi, I didn’t even know Kibera existed. A guy I met at the hostel told me about it and invited me along to check it out with him. In the afternoon, we ordered an Uber to Kibera. The driver wasn’t very keen on going there and didn’t understand why we wanted to go but he took us anyway.
During the drive there, our driver warned us that it was a dangerous place to go. He gave us his number and offered to pick us up in a couple of hours.
When we arrived, the first thing we did was walk uphill to get a view of the area. The view was pretty incredible. There were rusty corrugated metal roofs as far as the eye could see.
Next, we started wandering through the slum. We walked through some quiet residential areas. We saw some kids kicking around a homemade soccer ball made from string and garbage. There were also some people hanging their laundry to dry.
Next, we walked down to the stream and walked across a couple of wooden bridges. There were some kids playing near the water. The water was absolutely filthy.
We then wandered along the railroad tracks until we found a market. There, we looked around at some shops and bought some drinks. I noticed a guy selling old electronics such as TV remotes and random cables.
After that, we walked back to the main road. We tried to call our Uber driver but he didn’t pick up. We ended up walking back to our hostel. If we wanted to, we could have taken a matatu or called another Uber but we decided to walk instead.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Kibera
While it is incredibly heartbreaking to see so many people living in such extreme poverty, it is, at the same time, fascinating to see. As you walk through the narrow streets of the slum you that life here can be pretty normal. People run small businesses such as convenience stores and barber shops. Children run around laughing and playing with balls made from nothing but trash wrapped in string. People are just living their lives the best way they can under the circumstances. People can live relatively happy lifestyles with very little.
It’s also interesting to note that not everyone living in Kibera is there out of necessity. Some people live there by choice. People choose to move to a Nairobi slum from other parts of Kenya while they’re looking for work in the city. Some young people choose to live there to save money. Not everyone is living in extreme poverty.
of course, there are plenty of people suffering in Kibera. There is crime, disease, poverty, and malnutrition. Many people are unemployed. Many kids aren’t receiving any education. The area has many problems.
How do you feel about the ethics of touring a slum like Kibera? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below.
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