Three hours in Africa’s largest slum

When fashioning their flying toilets, residents of the Nairobi neighborhood of Kibera prefer to use thick plastic bags. But to save money, area resident Wellington Nabwoba said, they’ll settle for a black garbage bag with a drawstring.

Kibera neighborhood lacks indoor plumbing and when night falls, gangs roam the area, making it unsafe to use the outhouses. With no other choice, Nabwoba said, Kiberans relieve themselves in plastic bags then throw them out the window the next morning: Flying toilets.

“We don’t have any protection here,” said Nabwoba, who runs a free school in Kibera. “Here the police can’t come. We have more criminals than they can handle.”

To walk through Kibera is to enter a world of almost surreal poverty. Reputedly Africa’s largest slum, it’s home to an estimated one million people, all of whom live in shanties whose corrugated roofs form a sea of metal sheets.

Basic municipal services many of us take for granted are nowhere to be found here: No roads, no electricity, no sidewalks, no signs. The only running water flows through a dirt gutter that snakes through almost every passageway before emptying into a ravine filled with trash, sewage and children playing.

Until I visited Kibera, I had only a sheltered foreigner’s view of Nairobi. On assignment to cover Israeli commercial and humanitarian efforts in Kenya, I stayed at a hotel for businessmen and traversed the city in taxis. Interviews took place at shiny malls, corporate compounds or at the lavish gated estates of rich businessmen whose security precautions would make Israelis blush.

The only security in Kibera, according to Nabwoba, comes from so-called “vigilant groups” armed with knives, machetes and the occasional gun. Each gang controls a district of the slum and reports to an “elder”who settles disputes and extracts tribute from the residents. If the residents can’t pay, the gangs are liable to steal their property.

On Tuesday, a group of elders sat chatting in a shanty next to a cooler filled with soft drinks. Stop by next time you visit, they said. Just don’t take our photo.

Outside the shanty is a wide dirt road lined with produce stands and small shops colored in bright graffiti advertising bread, a haircut or salvation from Jesus. Men pushing wheelbarrows or driving cheap motorbikes mix with unsupervised children whose parents can’t afford the roughly $1,200 annual fee for public school. A woman nurses her baby while selling fruit. On the side of the road, a man wielding an ax chops wood for kindling.

A few yards down, the road passes under a new highway. Goats and dogs climb up the side of the paved overpass intended to ease the unending traffic jam that is Nairobi.

In one shanty, bedsheets separate three tiny rooms that house six people — a relatively comfortable setup here. The owner is Vitalis Otieno, a pastor at a neighborhood church who lost his wife in childbirth more than a year ago. He has cared for his newborn twins with the help of a niece and with donations of formula from a wealthier Nairobian who supports humanitarian work in Kibera.

Smiling, Otieno says his own struggles help him empower his 60 congregants.

“If I say, ‘I’m never going to be a mother, so I can’t nurture these boys,’ who will do it?” he said. “I use my personal example.”

The new highway runs next to Otieno’s home. Leaving his shanty, we drove down the highway back toward the city center. Half an hour later, I was sitting in a cafe at an upscale mall, four miles and a world away from Kibera.


Explaining Hitler: An Interview with Ron Rosenbaum

By Rob Eshman, Managing Editor

If you were alive in 1918 and bumped into an undistinguished German army corporal named Adolf Hitler, wouldn’t you have been duty-bound to murder him? Just more than 10 years ago, a Jewish militant stopped journalist Ron Rosenbaum short with that question. Rosenbaum answered no, that even without Hitler, the Nazi Party would have eventually come to power and the Jews would have been persecuted. But then, Rosenbaum said, “as I said it, I realized the answer wasn’t very clear to me.” Perhaps the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened without that one man. Perhaps Hitler’s evil was unique, extraordinary. “At what point, I wondered, did Hitler become Hitler, the absolute icon of evil?” Rosenbaum, media critic for the New York Observer, began an exhaustive journey of reportage, research and writing that led to “Explaining Hitler” (Random House, $30).

Ron Rosenbaum

The book takes readers on a trek through five decades of Hitler analysis, advancing and usually dismantling theories, ranging from the legendary (a Jewish grandparent) to the ludicrous (a goat bite on his penis) to the pernicious (an inept Jewish doctor) to the dim-witted (his dad beat him) to the most incisive (see below).

The power of this book — and it works a powerful spell on the reader — is Rosenbaum’s ability to at once immerse himself in the search for the historical Hitler while exposing the prejudices that predetermined most conclusions on the nature of Hitler.

Along the way, Rosenbaum runs down what are probably the last warm leads on Hitler’s mysterious past, and uncovers a most original and poignant find: an archive of muckraking anti-Hitler German journalism, whose writers and editors told the truth to a deaf world, and paid with their lives.

The Jewish Journal met Rosenbaum for a breakfast interview — excerpted below — during the Los Angeles leg of his book tour. Imagine the anthropologist Jacob Bronowski at fortysomething — rumpled clothes, a quick mind, constantly turning over ideas and reluctant to espouse an absolutist stance — perhaps the byproduct of 10 years spent researching the cost humanity pays for the delusion of absolute truth. Rosenbaum will