she-files

Her Stories: Growing Up Female in a Nairobi Slum

NAIROBI—My name is Emily Onyango and I grew up in Korogocho, one of the largest slums in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Most of the stories told about slums are one dimensional and lack the essence of what life is really like.  But I want to share a different view of our lives, one that captures the nuances, especially of women and girls who grow up among the laughter, violence, rubbish, disease, desperation and joy.

My father wanted a boy but then I showed up in the Pumwani Maternity Hospital in 1992. He already had two daughters and my birth was a disappointment to him. My arrival on this planet was the end chapter of my parents’ marriage and soon after, my father left my mother to find another woman who could bear him boys. Mom had no option but to move to Korogocho with me, leaving my two siblings with my father and new stepmother.

I was in school until Class Seven (the equivalent of seventh grade in the U.S.) but I had to drop out because my mother’s new husband refused to pay the school fees for me. In Kenya, school is technically free, but families have to pay for school uniforms, books and other amenities. My mom had tried to raise the money, selling fish on the streets but in the end, it was too much for her.

I left home and went to live at the Boma Rescue Center, which is normally reserved for street children. Though I had a family, I pretended to be one of those kids because I knew I could get food and be looked after with access to education programs at the center. And I could not take the violence anymore at the hands of my stepfather.

After a tough year there, I was “rehabilitated” back home and started going to school again, though it was still very hard as girls are often the targets of violence, rape and overall abuse.

Even inside the gates of my school, I was not free from the violence that permeates Korogocho; a number of students were from rehabilitation centers like the one I had been in and there were often incidents of fighting, teachers being threatened by pupils and some kids even carried guns. But I had friends in school and we shared a love of books and we competed to be the top of the class against the boys.

My friends and I also bonded over the daily struggles we faced at home—I had issues, still, with my stepdad who did not want me in the house. My friend Seraphine lived with her difficult stepmother–her father was working in Uganda–while my friend Zuleika’s stepdad wanted to marry her off. During the school year, the police, the teachers and priests tried to intervene on Zuleika’s behalf. But whenever school shut for vacation, we worried we would not see her again. A fighter, Zuleika managed to stay in school and graduate, despite all the struggles at home.

My friends and I often had to fight off advances from boys in school or men who lived in the community, and I once had to defend myself against a school thug by taking a chair and hitting him. Life was very hard at times and looking back, it was not much of a childhood. One of the most horrific incidents was when my older sister was kidnapped and gang raped.

We could not find her for a number of days and when we did, she was forever traumatized. The awful culmination of incidents left her unsettled, violent and ill with AIDS. My beautiful, troubled sister died in November 2015. The only positive thing to come out of that was my lovely, smart and motivated niece who I now help to raise.

Korogocho is the home to an estimated 200,000 people who are pressed into 1.5 square kilometers. In that small space, a large number of rapes and assaults take place on an almost daily basis. But often those incidents, like the one that eventually took my sister’s life, are unreported because though the police will arrest the perpetrators, often they are freed immediately because their families pay bribes to the police.

Consequently, it is estimated that the vast majority of rapes and abductions are never reported. There are those who argue that fixing the houses—many just corrugated tin huts— in Korogocho will solve a number of issues. While it might help on some level, the endemic problem is that of corruption; misogyny is also a huge problem, with many men viewing women as second class citizens. Most people have embraced corruption and law enforcement authorities cannot or will not help. Justice is a foreign concept here.

Education could be one solution but there are huge school dropout rates. Once students drop out, they don’t have the necessary skills for the workplace and often they feel they have little recourse other than engaging in criminal activities. We have elections in August and I fear a spike in violence this summer, as politicians often pay unemployed youth to engage in violence and create instability in order to sway the electorate to vote in a certain way.

Women and girls in Korogocho have to deal everyday with the challenges that at times seem insurmountable. They lack access to good education and forums where they can share their issues with local community leaders and government officials. Out of frustration, women often become violent in response to their tough surroundings—infanticide is not unknown here in the slums. I fought hard to stay in school and complete my education, but many girls don’t have the inner drive to do so. By the grace of God, I somehow do.

Despite living in these conditions, there are also moments of happiness and hope. For me, that happiness has come in part thanks to classical music. It may seem an unlikely thing, finding Strauss in the slum, but thanks to a community music program called Ghetto Classics, I have found a sense of calm and stability. I have learned to play the violin and it has not only helped restore inner peace in me but it also has presented me with different platforms to meeting new people from all across the globe who come to mentor our music. When we are all together performing, I forget all my problems.

The majority of these musicians—who have included everyone from Branford Marsalis and Salif Keit to Arun Ghosh, the Nairobi Horns Project, Jorge Viladoms and The Hazelnuts—when they come to our orchestra they don’t just play for us but they impact us with advice and strength to carry on not only for our music but education in general. This summer, Polish producer and conductor Jimek, who has produced for Beyonce, also paid us a visit.

What they have emphasized is something that has lost value in my community and it is amazing to think that music not only makes us all feel good when we practice and perform, but it has lasting effects in terms of the giving us goals, improve our lives and belief in our worth as citizens of Kenya, Korogocho and the world.


Emily Onyango is a member of the Ghetto Classics orchestra and is studying to be a  journalist. She has worked for local NGOs in Korogocho and has served as a fixer and translator for international media.


Photos: 1st, Nairobi slum; 2nd) Emily Onyango, courtesy Ms. Onyango; 3rd) Korogocho road, courtesy Ginanne Brownell Mitic; 3rd) Ms. Onyango with her borrowed violin

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