A couple of months ago, a series of storms caused havoc in Kibera. Our team was taking a much needed vacation at the Kenyan coast, and while we were sipping gin and tonic and absorbing the sun and endless blue sky, the people of Kibera were battling against rather less favorable weather up on the high plain of Nairobi. As our team returned to Nairobi, we received a call from the United Nations OCHA Kenya: “We heard there was some flooding in Kibera and Mathare, and since you have a presence there, we’d like you to go and check it out.” We had no idea. So I called one of our mappers, Hasan, and he confirmed the whole thing.
The area where Kibera is located is very hilly. It’s made up of a group of drainage areas intersected by 5 streams, which eventually end up in Nairobi dam. During heavy rains the runoff water travels over the surface of the slum and ends up in the streams. These become overflowing, raging currents, grinding everything in their way, washing away houses, paths, garbage and people.
Hasan and I went to check out the damage and collect information. I was overwhelmed. This was a major incident which should trigger massive coverage, but went almost unnoticed, even by us. There were more than 50 houses severely damaged, displacing the inhabitants. One school was completely swept away. Walking calmly, I didn’t even notice anything in particular, until Hasan suddenly pointed out that I was standing where only days ago a school had been. Not even the foundations were visible anymore.
We started collecting data points of all the damaged objects, which were mostly located on the banks of the slum’s streams. In a testimony to Kibera’s obstinate spirit, many of the damaged objects were already being repaired and rebuilt. The paths inside the slum, too, were being fixed by groups of young volunteers. People organized themselves without waiting for any kind of help or intervention from the outside. Had it not been for Hasan pointing out the repair activity among the usual busy scene of Kibera, I may not even have noticed this almost organic reaction of the slum to its wounds.
We decided that we’re not going to take the position of every damaged and rebuilt object across the slum, because it would take too much time, and we had a tight deadline. We focused on the primary damage along the streams, since we could still upgrade the information if needed, depending on the feedback. In order to collect the information as fast as possible, Hasan organized his friends around Kibera to go and look around their communities and try to figure out the extent of the damage inflicted by nature’s fury. Within two days we had an in-depth map of the extent of the damage for OCHA.
This project showed me couple of things:
-The importance of having local people on the ground, trained in data collection, which can be activated at any time. Because of this, the time in which information was available to OCHA was shortened to only a couple of days.
-The information on repaired objects could be used to make a case for compensations.
-Visibility matters: Even major events with many deaths and widespread destruction can go mostly unnoticed by the outside world when they affect marginalized places like Kibera. Recording information on damage, be it on a map or through local newscasts and papers, is the crucial first step to mobilize help in support of the local community.