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They tell you "peace", but you know you are living in a warzone. You know it from the start ; you’ve sensed it ever since you were a very little boy or a girl. You wake up every morning, not certain whether you will witness another dusk, whether you will experience another sunrise. A bullet can hit you at any moment while you are walking down the road. If you are a woman, you can be ambushed and dragged into a dark back alley or filthy shack along the way, then raped. The police are very hard to find, and are hopelessly corrupt. You prefer not to seek their "assistance". You are really on your own : you own no gun, you don’t belong to a gang, and you are extremely poor. You are exposed.
Around where you live, there are bullets flying and fires burning. Once in a while a gasoline truck explodes, or an entire gangway of some miserable hovels bursts into flames. Loud salvos of sub-machine guns often penetrate the night. But they tell you "peace". Europeans and North Americans, all those people that are making great incomes running their countless workshops in your dilapidated villages and towns… They are talking about "teaching you" and your fellow slum-dwellers. They are talking about educating you, so that you can continue "living in peace". The companies and Governments of these "noble men and women", those that are teaching you about peace, are all over your bleeding country. They even use it as a base to invade neighboring lands. They are actually doing many things, while you are eating shit. Well, maybe not literally, but stuff that you aliment yourself on is not really much better.
You have no access to clean water. You stink. If you are a man, you stink. If you are a woman, you are dying from shame, but there is no escape : you stink as well. Chances are you are functionally illiterate. Maybe you can read a few separate words, but the meaning mostly escapes you. You vote for those who are offering you more "bob", and then you feel proud when you are told, again and again, that you live in a flourishing democracy. You scream at night. Not every night, of course, but most nights you scream. You are considering ending it all, you often wish you could die, to depart from this world, but you do not dare to kill yourself. The more desperate you get, the more you are being told that you live in a "peaceful" country. While everyone actually knows that you live in one of the biggest slums on earth. You don’t resist. Foreign governments and companies hail you. You are their favorite subject. You are patient and submissive, as almost all people around you are. They kill each other instead of those who drag them into misery : foreign colonialists as well as local elites. You are constantly publicized as a good example to others, all over the world, especially to those who are opting to fight for justice, dignity and a better society.
Kariobangi is a shantytown, near an enormous slum called Mathare, in the middle of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Through the narrow gangways and filthy roads with open sewage, I am being led to a meeting with “Fire”, a fearless gang member who has spent ten out of his thirty years, in various notorious Kenyan jails. “Fire” is robust, pensive and humble. He left the high-security prison just recently. He wants to start from the scratch, once again, as he did so many times before. We sit down on a concrete block. Soon there is a crowd of onlookers, mainly children. “Do you think people here live in peace ?” I ask. “No”, answers “Fire”. “Here people die every day. All my friends are already dead. Men here die before they turn seventeen ; most of them die when they are sixteen”. “How does it feel ?” I ask him. “How does it feel to be alive ; to be the only one who managed to survive ?” “I am scared !” He looks at me. I know what he means. I have heard similar stories in Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, and Uganda, in so many other places. He knows that I know and that is why he speaks. He is not afraid of bullets hitting him, of daggers cutting him to pieces, of police torturing him ; he is not afraid of dying. But he is scared of staying alive. Alone. He is not a coward ; he is brave. He is bright. He may be a gangster, but he has plenty of dignity. His fear is not animalistic ; it is existential. “How does it all begin here, in Mathare ?” “Here we start very young ; slowly. We start by stealing at home, little by little. Then it gets big. Snatching phones and necklaces, buying guns. Eventually we get caught because we are young and have no experience. We go to prison and prison is both the hell and the university of crime. You enter, you know nothing about crime ; you leave and you know everything. You encounter people of all races and trades : bank robbers and serial killers. They tell you : it is better to die robbing a bank than snatching a wrist watch”. “How bad is the prison, Fire ?” “They rape you. There are no women, so if you are a young boy, you have no chance. Young kids get sodomized. To survive, they have to prostitute themselves. In prison, men rape men. Some marry each other. You get beaten and humiliated ; by inmates and by police who are extremely brutal and sadistic. You learn how to get tough. If you survive, you are ready…” I see a knife, sharp like a razor, shining in the sunlight. I point at it : “Tell me about this”. “Bila”, he says. “It comes from Somalia. They are made for killing. The way they are shaped, look ; you lose so much blood and you die. Here we call them wambe, which in Swahili means razorblade. But no matter how sharp it is ; it is still a knife. “What about guns ?” I ask. “All over the place. They are very cheap. Guns come with the refugees, and the refugees arrive from Somalia and Ethiopia”. “How do women survive here ?” “It is tough for them. Some are forced into prostitution ; many join criminal gangs. Their boyfriends force them. Many women are submissive to "their men". They do what they are told. They are told to have sex and they succumb ; they get into prostitution, and they even join the gangs. Whatever "their men" order them to do. Women here are scared of losing their men”. At some point, “Fire” gets quiet. His eyes are fixed at some point in the distance. “Talk to me” I say. “What is it ?” He looks somewhere else, but eventually he continues speaking. “My generation… I told you… All my friends are dead. All of them… All died… I feel a chill. But I can’t leave the slum… It needs me… I need it… I can’t run away from it, as I can’t run from myself. The slum is the microcosm… it is…” “Your Kenya ?” I suggest. “Yes”, he nods. “I tell stories… I tell how I survived until this advanced age of thirty. I always tell stories, even to the government people. I tell them how lucky I am to be here… to be alive… I want to be good, but sometimes you can’t sleep three nights on an empty stomach”. “We both tell stories”, I say. He does not hear me, anymore. “I wasted so many years… so many years”, he repeats.
Those men of the slums, those boys ! They play with guns, and they kill and rob. Like in the battlefields, their faces are resolute, serious. Even as they are doing the most insane things, even as they are ravishing and plundering, they look purposeful, as if their actions would have some deep meaning. Here and in wars, the acts of pillage have an almost religious connotation. Living in slums is like living in a war zone : day after day, year after year, until one is hit, stabbed, burned ; until one falls.