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Take a walk through Kangemi slum, where Nairobi's poorest fight to survive

Unemployment is high, addiction is rife, and most women are victims of some form of violence – but somehow they find the strength to carry on.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

THE STREETS ARE littered with waste, the tiny shacks that line them packed together like tin cans.

The Kangemi slum is bustling with people; some cooking outside their huts, others burning charcoal to sell or busying themselves with their food stalls.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

Life each day is a battle for survival. This place, which is home to more than 100,000 of Nairobi’s poorest people, offers no access to running water – and water in the city is not cheap.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

Often, families are forced to choose between using what little water they have for cooking or for hygiene.

Unemployment levels in the slum are high. Drug and alcohol addiction are rife. And many of its residents are also HIV positive.


When visited Kangemi at the start of this year, we met Herbert, who shared the nightmare he went through when he was told he was HIV positive.

Herbert, who received support from Uzima after his HIV diagnosis. Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

“I was so scared because there was so much stigma,” he said.

People used to say if you have HIV, you’re just going to die so you should go off into the countryside and die there. But I didn’t lose hope.

He was referred to the Uzima programme at the local parish of St Joseph’s, which is supported by Irish charity Trócaire.

“I was so scared, even to tell my wife I had HIV Aids. Since [joining] Uzima, I underwent counselling and was able to tell my wife,” Herbert explained.

His wife is also HIV positive.

“She could not believe it, she cried all the time, but as time went by she was able to be strong and continue with life positively.”

As one unit, as a couple, we were able to talk our issues out and counsel each other, give each other hope.

Holding families together

For some families, the prospect of a happy future is bleak. One community leader told us alcohol addiction is such a big problem that you can see people lying drunk in the streets at 8am.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

Substance abuse in these confined and overcrowded conditions often leads to abuse in the home.

“Women moreso are affected because, if you look around, the women are the ones who are holding their families together. They are single parents or have partners, but their partners are drunk, on drugs etc,” she said.

The burden a woman has to carry in Kangemi is a burden of being a provider, a protector, being the one to care for the children, being the one to care for the whole family.

“She will resort to anything – casual sex to get money to buy food, being misused.”

Margaret’s story

Margaret, centre, with two other women who are part of the Uzima programme. Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

In a classroom at the local primary school, a small group of women gathered to tell us their stories.

The most harrowing was that of 48-year-old Margaret Abukusi, a mother of three.

“I’m HIV positive, my husband is a drug addict, he assaults me,” she began. “All the time he beats me.”

Margaret’s husband is also HIV positive, but has refused to accept it. His addiction means he has also shirked his familial responsibilities. His parents have died and there is land for him to claim, but without an ID card, which is required in Kenya in order to own land, he cannot.

Much as she tries, Margaret said she has not been able to convince him to apply for this card, which would allow their family to leave the slum and try to make a living growing crops.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

I didn’t know his character. You pay rent, you look for food, you are pushed into marrying someone you don’t love. That is how it works in Nairobi.

Like so many other women living in Kenya, she often goes without meals so she can ensure her children eat. But for Margaret, this is particularly damaging to her health as her HIV medication requires she eat regular meals.

This woman’s world was further turned upside down just two months before we met her. Through tears she revealed her two young sons, aged just 8 and 11, had been sodomised by other children in the slum.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

We were later told the offending children were coaxed into carrying out the abuse by a man in the community who has a mental disability.

Child abuse is a huge problem in Kangemi and community activists involved in the Uzima programme said girls as young as eight are being recruited into gangs who rape them and force them to steal.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

My life is very difficult. Whatever he [her husband] gets, it goes on drugs. I live from hand to mouth. Sometimes I do laundry for people to make money, but this is the biggest stress I have. I’m just tired.

Violent sexual assaults

Unfortunately, Margaret’s story is just one of many abused women in Kangemi.

One of Uzima’s community leaders, affectionately referred to by the community as ‘Mama Kenya’, told stories of women who have lost limbs, cut off by their husbands with machetes.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

“The sexual assaults are severe – some of them have bottles put inside their vaginas,” she said. “There was a woman the other week whose husband stabbed her with a knife in the side of the head.”

Per day we address six to eight gender based violence cases a day. That’s domestic violence and sexual violence. Between the ages of 14 and 40, all of the women here have been victims of two to three forms of violence.

Gender-based violence is now Uzima’s main focus and activists work hard to coordinate a rapid response when they hear of abuse in the slum. Women’s lives depend on it.

Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

They use Facebook and Whatsapp to alert volunteers when a woman is being assaulted so they can address it as a group.

“We’ve identified women who have big hearts, and even in their small home, they will spread a blanket down to rescue someone. We have been able to help a lot of girls, a lot of women.”

Margaret, second from the right, and some of the other women in the Uzima programme. Justin Kernoghan Justin Kernoghan

With such a heavy burden on her shoulders, Margaret still, somehow, manages to have hope for the future. The Uzima programme has been working to help her with the land issue and has provided counselling for her and the two boys.

“I believe I’ll go up in my situation. I have very high hopes for life.”

All through Lent, Trócaire has been running its ‘Fight for Justice’ campaign. The money the charity raises will go towards supporting initiatives like Uzima and empowering people like Herbert and Margaret to change their lives for the better.

Related: On the streets of Nairobi: Where children aren’t children for long>

More: Blind in one eye, crippled by pain, Teresina does without meals so her kids can eat>

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