Dirt to Digital World



By Job Mwaura

Kibera is dirty. It is one of Africa’s largest slums. Situated in Nairobi, less than ten kilometers from the city center, this area had been neglected for many years. Until 2009, Kibera slum was just a blank spot and regarded as part of neighboring Ng’ong Forest. Without a map meant that the area could not be incorporated into government development plans and strategies. A population of over 200,000 people in Kibera slum was neglected. Before the 2009 National Census, it was widely believed that Kibera’s population was about one million people. The reason for these varying figures, is believed, were actually due to interest by non governmental organizations who would inflate figures for purpose of securing huge amount of donor funds.

Kibera is synonymous for many negative things. Many Kenyans know it as a flying toilet zone. With open and running sewage and open man holes, Kibera is a filthy place. It is not a place you would easily walk in alone and be comfortable with it. There are gangs that operate day and night ready to pounce on anyone. Regularly, Kibera experiences many fires that raze the poorly built houses and leave hundreds of people homeless. Many of these structures are built using rusty iron sheets, plastic bags, and wood. It is rare to find a structure with new iron sheet. In fact, Kibera is regarded as a “chocolate city” from its many rusty iron sheet that cover the structures. It is a place feared for all forms of dirt within it.

The mainstream media for many years has neglected this Kibera slum. Journalists are very afraid to transverse this vast area to tell stories. As such, they only appear during disasters such as fire breakouts, demolition of structures to pave way for road and perhaps when in need of clips to depict a dirty place. In short, the mainstream media only tell of negative stories about Kibera slum. But is it realistic that no positive stories can be told about Kibera?



Amidst all this dirt, a group of young people from the nine villages of Kibera have come up to change the outlook of Kibera. They want to tell positive stories about Kibera. “Clean stories”. Map Kibera Trust was founded by Erica Hagen, a media scholar from America. She founded this group with the help of her organization, Ground Truth Initiative. Her idea was to establish an open street mapping in a place that had no map. With a group of around 10 young men, they began making simple maps from this dirty slum. Using simple GPS gadgets and after several training sessions, Erica and her group made the first ever map of Kibera.

After seeing the dedication these young men had towards transforming a society that had been neglected for many years, Erica established a video group what is now known as Kibera News Network. This group was tasked to tell stories about Kibera and its people by recording short documentaries using simple flip cameras. The young men have since then told positive side of Kibera. Their stories are about heroes and heroines of Kibera, the talent in Kibera’s young men and women, and also, telling negative stories more accurately. To ensure a wide audience, the group posts the videos on YouTube and also holds monthly community screenings because most people in Kibera do not have internet access. In addition, the group distributes the short documentaries to hospitals and public transport vehicles to be viewed by clients in these areas.

Apart from this amateurish form of video journalism, Map Kibera also established a short message reporting where a short code is distributed to residents of Kibera to report any event in the vast slum. When an event is reported, the Short Message group (Voice of Kibera), report to the scene, to get the story details and write a blog about it. The Video Group (Kibera News Network) would on the other hand tell that similar story through video. Consequently, the mapping team would store such data and perhaps make a map out of the story. For instance, they may make a map showing Kibera’s crime hot spots.


This group has transformed Kibera. Apart from winning many video competitions around the globe, it is much easier to visit Kibera now than before because there is information about the slum. The government has been able to improve security by building police stations in the mapped crime hotspots in Kibera. The city council and other non government agencies have been able to improve water access, general hygiene through provision of water and toilet/latrine facilities. We credit this to the efforts made by Erica Hage’s Map Kibera trust.

Map Kibera Trust and its activities formed the basis of my Masters research. Since I begun my research around the group activities, I have been able to train them on how to tell stories about their community in a better way. Be informed that this group is composed of young men and women who are high school graduates. Although many journalists have considered the group’s journalism as amateurish and “dirty”, while many cartographers have dismissed the maps as unprofessional, the group continues to soldier on and transform Kibera. This is truly a story of dirt to digital world.

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