Triumphs and tragedies of women in Kibagare slum

They have been through it all, from alcoholism to abortions. But now a group fighting Aids is helping them to start businesses

In Summary

• Husbands who discover their wives are HIV-positive have resorted to stealing their ARVs because of stigma. 

• Police have been accused of taking bribes from illegal chang'aa dens to allow the businesses to operate. 

An overview of Kibagare slum in Kitisuru location, Westlands.
COLONIAL FARM WORKERS: An overview of Kibagare slum in Kitisuru location, Westlands.

Like in many slums, women from Kibagare have to overcome a host of challenges in their lives. These include drugs, alcohol, abortion, poverty, injustice and crime.

Finding Sarah* (not real name) passed out in a ditch every morning was not uncommon after nights of partying hard. 

"Ask everyone here they know. I would drink chang'aa in these dens you see outside and wake up in ditches to continue," she said. 


Her daily escapades were made worse by the fact that she did not have a job or anything productive to do. 

"When you have nothing else to do here, the environment around you will consume you whole, and you will start doing what everyone else is doing," she adds. 

Located in Kitusuru location, Kibagare village was established by coffee plantation workers, who laboured on the colonial farm currently known as Loresho estate. 

Before leaving, the farm owners sold the land to private individuals, who did not need the service of the workers.

The slum is estimated to be home to more than 15,000 people. Entrance is via a tarmacked road through the Loresho estate, manned by security guards from end to end. 

Visitors are regularly warned by the guards to be careful as they approach the village because of the rampant insecurity. 



Beyond the Loresho gate, the road is narrow and dusty, with iron sheet structures on either end and an assortment of people, motorbikes, businesses and vehicles all vying for space. 


The businesses are mostly retail shops, video shops, grocery kiosks and drinking dens. The men sit on their motorbikes in small groups, chatting and staring. 

Janice* is one of the business owners who run a small food kiosk with help from her son. 

"The police car you saw as you came in was doing rounds, collecting small dues from the chang'aa dens so they are allowed to keep operating," she said. 

Janice leads the Star to a hall where she and 20 other women hold their regular meetings. 

The women are reformed alcoholics and small business owners who meet for seminars and table banking. 

Although initially reluctant to speak, the women later paint a picture of uncertainty,  desperation and hope. 

They are tailors, grocery sellers, food hawkers, shop owners and hotel owners. Their biggest challenge has been finding a sustainable market.

"We have made clothes, baskets that remain in our houses because we have no one to sell them to and our tomatoes are rotting in the kiosks because no one is buying them," Mary* said.

Before interventions from the Young Women Campaign Against Aids, the women would join men to drink chang'aa making them unable to work or take care of their children. 


Maurice Ouko, programme officer at YWCAA said they started the programme in 2006.

"The women were very reluctant at first and would occasionally ask for some chang'aa before accepting to listen to us," he said. 

Over time, as the organisation gained their trust, they began holding seminars and workshops to train the women on skills such as tailoring and banking. 

Mary says they were encouraged to start small savings in groups and, after a while, give the money to one of the members for business.

"After that, we would save again and help another woman start a business," she said. 

The organisation also chipped in to help the women with small loans. 

"They were very reluctant to take large sums of money because they did not have any jobs that would guarantee they could pay the money back," Maurice said.  

The firm changed tactic and offered the women Sh200 for periods of between six months to a year.

"With 200, they accepted because six months to a year was ample time to refund the money," he said. 

Over time, the loans graduated from between Sh500 to Sh1,000. 

"We revised our loan system to encourage more women to take up money and told them that the sooner they paid, the sooner they got a top-up," he said. 

"Soon, we were giving the women loans of up to Sh100,000 for up to a year."

Things had begun looking up for the women until a dispute over a piece of land threatened their homes and businesses. 

The dispute arose with neighbouring Nairobi School after they claimed the residents were encouraging drug behaviour among students, who would escape school to the slum area. 

"Since they started saying we were on their land, people were running away from the village and then we had no one to buy our products," Mary said. 

Wanja* says she was born and raised in the area and her parents still live there. 

"This has been our home since 1959. For more than 60 years, where have they been? Former President Jomo Kenyatta told them not to remove us from here and we have been living here in peace until they came," she said.

In 2016, Westlands MP Timothy Wanyonyi asked the Land Commission to give title deeds to residents of the slum.

The land dispute case is currently in court. 

People walking on a narrow path in Kibagare slum
People walking on a narrow path in Kibagare slum


Sarah began attending seminars by the YWCAA  and during that process, she found out she was pregnant and HIV-positive. 

She admits it was hard to decide to keep the pregnancy and at one point, thought about terminating it.

However, with the information from the Aids campaigners, she got she was able to carry the pregnancy to full term and gave birth to a healthy girl. She is currently a mother of four.  

"The seminars helped me because I was able to accept myself and started living as an openly HIV-positive woman," she said.

"If not for the seminars, I would have kept living the same life, not realising there was a better way to live."

However, most of the other women who found out they had contracted the virus lost hope.

"They started having multiple sexual partners because they said if they were going to die, they would take as many as possible to the grave with them."

To keep herself busy and fend for her child, she started a nursery school.

The only teacher at her school, she has to send the children home when it is time for her to go to the clinic for her medicine.  They receive free anti-retroviral medication. 

However, while she has managed to transform her life, most parents who bring children to her school are still sleeping in ditches, unemployed and evading responsibility. 

"Most of them do not have food. Wanja prepares porridge for us at 10am, but by lunchtime, they are very hungry because the porridge does very little for them," Sarah said. 

Sarah takes the children through potty training and basic reading skills before they are enrolled in formal primary school. 

"I saw this was better than doing nothing and spending all day thinking about the problems of this village," she said. 

She is also chairwoman of an HIV support group for women living with the virus. Despite openly living with the virus, the stigma surrounding people with HIV is still high. 

Most of the women will not even talk about the subject and have stopped taking their medication because they do not want to be the village laughing stock. 

"Here in the village, defaulters are the ones dying at alarming rates because of opportunistic diseases," Sarah said. 

Afraid to get tested and have people find out, husbands who discover their wives are living with the virus have resorted to stealing the drugs from their women. 


They all agree on one thing - the village is not safe. From alcoholism, petty theft, abortions, defilement, inappropriate sexual conduct, insecurity and corruption, the women of the village say they have been through it all. 

The women say young men are impregnating and dumping girls who have resorted to aborting and dumping the fetuses in the nearby river. 

"The other day, a four-year-old from my school was defiled, the parents are not paying attention. If I took you down to the river, we would see bodies dumped there by these young girls who choose to abort. It's all very sad," she said.

Drugs and alcohol have also stolen their children but they cannot turn to the police, whom they claim are part of the problem.

They claim the alcohol comes from neighbouring Uganda, and police warn owners before they raid the places. It sold in sachets that can be as low as Sh30. 

"They come here mostly on Saturday and Sunday to collect bribes from chang'aa dens. You told us that you met a Landrover on the way here — that is exactly what they were doing," one of the women interjected. 

The women are afraid to report any of these problems to the police because they fear retribution that would compromise their already fragile sense of safety.

"If you are attacked and you report it to the police and say you know the perpetrator, they will arrest him but if they are given a bribe, you can be sure they will be let him go," Mary said. 

"Now what do you think that person will do to you? They will come after you and maybe even kill you. We have no one, not even the chief, to turn to."

They claim children have resorted to petty crime because they never got a chance at education, and are being shot dead by police trying to steal in high-end areas, such as Westlands.  

Gigiri police boss Richard Mungwai denied the claims, saying the police have worked to eradicate the chang'aa problem. 

"I have been in constant talks with the chief and Loresho OCPD and I can say for sure the problem has been dealt with unless it started yesterday night or today. There is no chang'aa in Kibagare," he said.

The police boss added sometimes residents will say anything to paint the police in bad light.

A woman and her child at her business in Kibagare slum.
A woman and her child at her business in Kibagare slum.


Monica*, an elderly woman living alone in Kibagare, detailed to the Star how she had to endure sexual activity outside her house from two drunk men. 

"There is a pole outside my house and that is a commonplace they come to have sex. Like yesterday two drunk men found their way there. I had to remain silent, not even daring to cough in case they decide to come after me," she said. 

"We barely sleep because of the drinking dens with loud music playing all night long. Every day in the morning, we wake up to find condoms all over the place. Our children take them, thinking they are balloons, which places them in grave danger."

Women who are physically abused are silent because they are embarrassed and would be the talk of the town if other people found out. 

"We are used to it here because where do we go? When a woman is beaten in the village, she will leave for a few days but they always go back because there is no way to go," Mary said. 

They claim that men are also emotionally abusive and refuse to take any responsibility.

"They are now chasing after old women because they do not want to work. They want to have a place where their sexual needs are met while they sit on the sofa all day," Wanja said. 

Monica says a man had offered to pay her house rent in exchange for "a place to sleep when he comes home from the club". 

They want the government to eradicate drugs and illicit alcohol from the village. 

"If they eliminate these elements, other things will improve. Our children need rehabilitation because they are completely lost. We have no money because our jobs are failing," Janice said.