Neighbors Across the Divide

They are the same age and both have families and the same goals in life. But Francis Mwangi lives in a corrugated metal shack while Johan Kiharu owns a mansion with a swimming pool. A look at the lives of two men symbolizing a deeply unhealthy society.

A Multimedia Story from Nairobi by Christoph Titz (Text) and Johnny Miller (360-Degree Photos and Drone Videos)

One Gate, Two Worlds

When Francis Mwangi heads off to work, his first step has to be a big one to clear the garbage and sewage flowing through a gutter in front of his door. Once outside, the air smells of burning coal as his neighbors are preparing their morning tea. The sun bathes the cool morning air of the slum in a glittering light.

Wearing his black security-guard uniform, Mwangi snaps shut the padlock on the wooden-plank door and walks up a narrow alley between the walls of corrugated sheet metal. To the boom gate where he works.

Drone Video: From the Slum to the Villa

Just half a mile away, Johan Kiharu must also take a big first step on his way to work -- into his white Toyota Land Cruiser, Executive Edition -- complete with tinted windows, leather seats, a V8 motor and air conditioning. He doesn't lock the door to his villa. After all, the security guard is there, along with the cook, the housekeeper and the family's two dogs, Toffee and Oreo. The sun sparkles on the surface of the swimming pool.

Mwangi and Kiharu are both 43 years old, are both married and both have three children. They even live in the same section of Nairobi, called Karura. They are practically neighbors, but they live in different worlds, separated by barriers.

One of these barriers is a physical one: The yellow-painted, iron boom that separates Huruma, the slum where Mwangi lives, from Runda Evergreen, the upscale neighborhood that Johan Kiharu calls home.

Mwangi is paid by his wealthy neighbors to raise and lower the gate, earning the equivalent of 4.50 euros in a 24-hour shift. He and his fellow guards ensure that criminals don't make their way into the exclusive neighborhood to break into the villas. Do such things happen? "No," says Mwangi. "But the people there feel better because the gate exists."

360-Degree Video: Where Mwangi Works

The paved road takes a sharp turn in front of Mwang's gate. There are lots of SUVs on the road here, along with the occasional Porsche or Mercedes, heading for one of the shopping malls with their Apple Stores and multiplex cinemas. Others are heading to work or to school, with children in the backseat who are ultimately destined for a university education.

Kiharu's sons are absorbed in their smartphones as he drives them past the gate and past Mwangi and they hardly even register his existence. After Kiharu drops his children off at their Indian private school in the city center, he continues onward to his legal practice.

Both men could easily walk around the boom gate which Mwangi watches over and which Kiharu passes almost every day -- it is hardly the kind of barrier that could prevent contact between the two. Indeed, Kiharu is happy to get out of his car for a photo with Mwangi if you ask him. But the two have nothing to say to each other. What, after all, should they talk about?

For Kiharu, grocery shopping is done by his housekeeper, according to a list prepared by his wife. In the afternoons, he eats Middle Eastern chicken from the grill at the Muthaiga Golf Club. As on every Wednesday, club night already begins at noon for members. He plays a round of golf with the head of a bank before arranging deals at the bar.

For Mwangi, there is no lunch on Wednesdays, as is the case on every other day of the week. A ginger lemonade will have to do. "Sugar keeps me awake. That gets me through the day," he says. He only buys meat once a year, at Christmas. On all other days, the family cooks beans and corn on a coal fire, natural gas is too expensive. Mwangi's world doesn't include any days off and he has to work on Saturdays and Sundays as well.

Two different fates, but they reflect the deep social inequality that afflicts Kenya.

New Masters, Same Old Suffering

Forty years ago, the city quarter where Mwangi and Kiharu live was a coffee plantation. Workers lived as so-called squatters among the plants. Their white boss allowed the locals live on his land because he paid them too little for a life of independence.

Coffee plantation in Thika

What was true then still holds true for life in the slums of today: Residents are condemned to poverty and must walk to work. With paltry incomes, they live hand-to-mouth. Indeed, the only thing that has changed is the masters they work for.

In the 1970s, three Kenyan businessmen bought the coffee plantation. They knew that the United Nations had acquired a large plot of land nearby for the headquarters of the UN's Environment Program and shortly thereafter the plantation was turned into dozens of valuable lots. The sellers soon became some of the wealthiest people in Kenya and the squatters had to go, driven off by fellow countrymen 15 years after their country's independence. They established the Huruma slum in the nearby Karura Forest, right next door to the new exclusive neighborhood of Runda.

Mwangi has come a long way. He has the only two-story corrugated metal hut in the slum and has bought a motorcycle on credit. He also usually has enough money for electricity, owns a TV and pays for his two older children to attend secondary school.

The shacks in the slum are small and most residents spend their days elsewhere. Mwangi's wife Salome binds their one-year-old daughter Mercy to her back, grabs her machete and sets off. To earn a bit of money, she thins out the brush in the neighboring woodland. Their oldest son, John, 18, and his 15-year-old sister Diana go to school.

360-Degree Tour: Mwangi Takes Us Through the House (please turn on sound)

In the evenings, they all come together in their tiny living room. There's a small TV in the wall cabinet, with Mwangi paying the equivalent of eight euros per month for the programs. Providing his family with pay TV is part of his parenting strategy. He has the TV, he says, "to keep them busy and prevent them from going to abnormal places such as clubs."

The clubs Mwangi refers to sell chang'aa, an evil potion distilled from millet and maize, often illegally spiked with dangerous substances that can damage eyes and the brain. It regularly kills people in the slums; indeed, its name literally means "kill me quick." Every second person here is unemployed, and chang'aa, marijuana and other drugs are part of the reason.

In addition to guarding the gate, Mwangi has a second job. On his "free days," as he calls them, he drives passengers from the slum to the main street or the market with his motorcycle taxi. On good days, he can earn about eight euros.

Kiharu's world, by contrast, is vast. His family spent last Christmas in the Seychelles. He has an office in Nairobi's fashionable district of Westlands and another in Malindi on the Indian Ocean coast. That's where the family's vacation home is also located.

You can walk from Kiharu's garden, where his children play with the dogs, past the pool into his living room. There is African art hanging on the walls along with a framed front page from the Daily Nation newspaper with Kiharu's parents on it. The newspaper published a portrait of them to mark their golden wedding anniversary.

Kiharu's parents were a teacher and a farm-owner, and were thus able to send their boys to university. As a result, Kiharu moved into the city in the 1990s and became a lawyer, while his brothers became a priest and a banker.

Mwangi moved into the Huruma slum in 1998, around the same time Kiharu was finishing law school. Mwangi stayed poor, Kiharu became rich, along with their country: Since 2005, Kenya's economy has grown by more than 5 percent almost every year. During that same period, per-capita income has risen by more than $1,000.

360-Degree Tour: A Look at Kiharu's Villa

A Kenya analyst at the World Bank, who asked not to be named, says he doesn't think that poverty has decreased as a result of this respectable growth. Statistics from other developing economies have shown, he says, that extended annual growth rates of at least 8 percent are necessary to truly reduce poverty. Five percent, he argues, is too little.

Johan Kiharu, 43, is a lawyer. One of his two offices is located in the city's fashionable Westlands neighborhood. The other is in Malindi, on the Indian Ocean coast.

Kenya, of course, has made its growth figures public. But levels of poverty and inequality in Kenyan society haven't been measured with internationally recognized methods since 2005.

Even after a decade of growth, the East African country has no social welfare, no housing allowance and no protection for the unemployed. Sink or swim -- the poor don't have any other options. But for car owners, the state is building new roads and the wealthy have marked the economic upturn by continuing to shop. State investment and private consumption are driving Kenya's growth, says the man from the World Bank.

With one government estimate claiming that one fifth of the city's 3 million inhabitants lives in poverty, hundreds of thousands of people make their homes in Nairobi's small and large slums, including Huruma, Kibera and Mathare. With the last census having been conducted in 2009, the current number could be much higher. Using data from phone connections, Kenya's largest phone company recently estimated that Nairobi's population is up to 4 million, which would mean twice as many people live in the Kenyan capital as 15 years ago. Official predictions are even higher.

A solid but not truly high growth rate, a population explosion in the city, a state that doesn't care for the needy: All of these are plausible reasons for why the poor have remained poor. Another is that the status quo is perfectly acceptable to a corrupt elite.

Most of Kenya's powerful are only interested in the city's slum-dwellers on the eve of elections. Loyalty can be bought from the poor -- directly and in cash. Small bills are often enough.

At a garden party in the upscale neighborhood of Spring Valley, a parliamentary candidate, who had not emerged victorious in recent elections, was chatting about campaigning for office in Kenya. He revealed what his audiences always demanded to know prior to his stump speeches. "Line or group? Line or group?"

They were asking whether they should form an orderly line to receive their 50 schilling bills or whether the candidate would throw bundles of money into the crowd. "I only hand out money if they line up," the candidate explained. "After all, I ran on a law-and-order platform."

He was careful to always post one of his campaign workers at the end of the line, "so that nobody gets back in line and gets paid twice." When asked why he didn't win, he says that his opponent passed out bigger bills.

A Catastrophe or a Great Opportunity?

Like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya has enormous potential. Societies in the region are the youngest in the world and 43 percent of the region's population is under the age of 15.

That can be a considerable reservoir for growth and progress. But if they have no perspective, it is a demographic that could come to represent a significant danger to the ruling class -- if millions of educated youth see the promises of capitalism but are unable to reach them.

That has most recently proved to be the case in South Africa. There are few countries in the world where income is more unequally distributed, despite the fact that high school has been free for all South Africans since the end of Apartheid 20 years ago.

The African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela's party, has been governing just as long. After two decades in power, it has been corroded by corruption and the country's youth has been turning to the political opposition. The result has been dire losses by the ANC in regional elections along with protests that regularly flare up against rising university tuition costs and corruption. President Jacob Zuma, who is also head of the ANC, is still in power. But the 2019 election could become uncomfortable for him and his allies.

Back in Kenya, Kiharu and Mwangi have understood that education makes the difference between success and failure. They may live in separate worlds, but one thing unites them: the hope that their children will learn and succeed.

Video: What Will the Future Bring?

The morning after his night shift at the gate, Francis Mwangi comes home at 6 a.m. He buys a 40 cent package of bread for a breakfast of toast. Their children Diana and John each get four slices, while he and his wife Salome get three. The two extra slices go to little Mercy. They also drink sweet tea with milk, as they do every morning.

As usual, though, Mwangi can't dawdle for long. It is time to jump on his motorcycle taxi and head out looking for fares. He bought his moped on credit for 20,000 schillings, or about 180 euros, the second-largest investment of his life.

The largest is his children's education. John and Diana attend secondary school, which costs Mwangi about 240 euros per year. In Kenya, only elementary school is free for now.

When Mwangi steps out of the door, his helmet under his arm, a little girl of about six skips down the muddy alley and he asks her why she isn't at school. She says that she forgot the money for the security guard. School may be free, but costs for security guards are passed on to the children. She needs to get 20 schillings from home before she is allowed into the classroom.

At present, only about half of Kenyan children continue their schooling beyond the eighth grade. To do so, children from poverty-stricken families need parents like Francis and Salome Mwangi, who are willing to work exceptionally hard to make it possible. Or they need a rich sponsor, like Kiharu. "Giving an opportunity to someone who wouldn't have dreamt of coming across such an opportunity. That makes me happy," he says. One young woman whose education he sponsored recently graduated from university.

By the end of the decade, the future of Kenya's youth -- those millions of children of the poor -- is to depend less on chance, less on the generosity of the superrich or of big-hearted relatives. President Uhuru Kenyatta has promised that beginning in 2019, high schools will also be free in Kenya. If Kenyatta stays true to his word, Mwangi's daughter Mercy might also benefit.

Implementing that plan will require an enormous effort requiring the Kenyan government to change course. Despite constantly rising state spending, the share being devoted to education and science has decreased in recent years.

If the country can successfully make secondary education free to all Kenyans, it could be a huge boost to the economy -- driven by Kenyan scientists, managers and engineers -- and increases the possibility of real political change.

For now, criticism in the public sphere remains limited. But there is some, particularly among high-school graduates in Nairobi who come from poor families. They complain that it is wrong for police to stop cars merely to demand a bribe, threatening drivers with a night in prison if they don't pay. They say it is wrong for people to vote based on ethnicity rather than on political platforms and criticize the practice of buying votes. They say it is a problem when an angry mob undresses, beats and sometimes lynches a thief because they don't trust the police or the judiciary and prefer to take the law into their own hands.

With all of the energy he expends on his family and his daily struggle for survival, Francis Mwangi is anything but a revolutionary. Standing at his gate, he watches the expensive cars pass by, driven by the rich who pay him a pittance for protecting them from others like him. But Mwangi doesn't question the situation.

He believes it's just the way things are in the world and it can't be changed. Plus, he has the best shack in the slum, the only one with two stories. "Where else could I have built? There is no space for me. So I built on God's land," he says laughing and pointing at the sky.

What's important for him is to not get sick, to continue to work and to have faith in God. What does he want out of life? "My wish for my children is to not be of the same standard as I am now. My wish is for them to be a little bit higher than me." And for himself? "Nothing," the 43-year-old says and laughs. "I'm at the end."


Author: Christoph Titz

Translation: Thomas Rogers, Charles Hawley

Photos and videos: Johnny Miller

Editors: Johannes Korge, Jule Lutteroth, Philipp Seibt

Fact-checking: Almut Cieschinger

Production of 360-degree tours: J├╝rgen Schrader

Video editing: Theresia Schneider und Dorothee Wagner

Photo editor: Maxim Sergienko

Copyediting: Thomas Fuchs

Programming and information graphics: Chris Kurt, Philipp Seibt und Patrick Stotz

Coordination: Philipp Seibt und Christina Elmer

This report is part of the Expedition #BeyondTomorrow project.