Bottom-up hustling in Nairobi’s slums

Prevailing thoughts on slums stress their transitory character, but the complexity of everyday life in slums, including how people manage survival, is lost in the way they are understood from the outside.

Image credit Magdalena Chulek.

According to United Nations data, one in eight people in the world live in a slum. In Nairobi, which has nearly four million inhabitants, the percentage is much higher—60%. These people function in nearly 200 slums, which make up less than 5% of the city’s living area. The vast majority work in the so-called informal sector. The 2017 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey shows that this sector provides as many as nine out of 10 jobs in Kenya.

Slum dwellers’ day-to-day activities create a functional (although insufficient) economic system, which makes it possible for them to exist like this for years. In an upcoming article, entitled “Hustling the mtaa way: the brainwork of the garbage business in Nairobi’s slum,” in the African Studies Review, I delve deeper into how stability of life in slums is built by the inhabitants’ everyday, bottom-up hustling practices.

One of my informants, Merry, lives in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s slums. When I met her, she was a picker working with a group of women in Dandora, the city’s largest landfill. In very hard and dangerous conditions she picked and selected waste for recycling. Merry often said she dreamed of a formal job which would give her a sense of stability. She was happy when she found work as a housekeeper. Yet after three weeks she said she “quit” and was “independent” again. At the same time, on the other side of town, in Kibera, an iconic slum, Fredrick looks for ways to make money. He spends part of each day talking with friends and chewing miraa leaves, and making a living as a middleman for various kinds of transactions. Frederick doesn’t look for work outside of the slum: “I won’t be able to make money outside. Kibera gives me the opportunity to get money … If I’m not here, the opportunity passes.” He also stressed “the need for autonomy.”

For people who do not live in slums, such decisions might be hard to understand, because the complexity of everyday slum life is lost in the way it is portrayed from the outside. Media portrayals focus on the uncertain and sometimes transient nature of slum dwelling and economies, characterizing lives dominated by overcrowding and lack of planning. Yet, slums are lasting spaces, very much a part of the city’s topography. What’s more, they also constitute permanence and home for generations of people. Understanding the behaviors of slum inhabitants must also comprise the wider realities that influence their everyday practices. These cannot be understood without understanding the patterns governing their relationships and how slum conditions impact their decisions.

Paradoxically, hustling often allows slum inhabitants to combat uncertainty on their own terns and in accordance with their abilities. For Merry, the landfill is a stable source of income, one that is compatible with the rhythm of her life. Similarly, Fredrick incorporates making money into the specificity of life in Kibera. Here, what is of note is the organization of time and space in which work and personal life permeate each other. Lack of an imposed schedule allows Merry to take care of her children and gives Fredrick a sense of power and dignity.

For hustlers, what is of key importance is not just making money but above all being part of a network of relationships which make it possible. Although their earnings are irregular, as they themselves say, “they exist.” Therefore, it’s important to find one’s place within the network of economic interdependencies, just as Merry and Fredrick have. Merry is “located” between other pickers, those who buy waste to be recycled and those who sell valuable wares recovered from the landfill. Fredrick, on the other hand, positions himself as an indispensable element in the dealings between shop owners and officials. This is a kind of interdependency in which various people ensure they have the opportunity to act.

Understanding the conditions of hustling in slums is important because, although these are small-scale practices, they concern thousands of people like Merry and Fredrick and significantly impact the reproduction space and community. Everyday routine behaviors to do with hustling, such as walking or sitting in given locations, create local spaces.

Hustling allows slum dwellers to survive but it doesn’t enable them to overcome poverty. A Korogocho inhabitant summed it up by saying: “hustling allows us to survive but not to live.” For slum dwellers stability is ambiguous. It has a certain quality in which slum conditions become the norm, and very difficult to overcome.

Further Reading