Kibera.(Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
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Map Quest

For a new Torah cycle, stories inspired by the weekly parasha. This week: a Nairobi slum, and the power of making the world known.

Liel Leibovitz
September 29, 2010
Kibera.(Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

Having completed another Torah cycle, Blessed Week Ever will now abandon the haftorah and return to look at the weekly parasha. Rather than offer commentary, however, the column will look at the theme of each week’s Torah portion as it manifests itself in the real world, telling stories and arguing that the same spirit that infuses the Hebrew Bible is still very much relevant to our lives today.

Not too long ago, in Kibera—a slum in Nairobi, Kenya—the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Even though it is, by most accounts, the largest slum in Africa, no one is certain precisely how big Kibera is—the Kenyan government, different ethnic groups, and a host of international organizations have been quibbling over its exact borders for years. Nor is anyone certain how many people live in Kibera: The numbers range from the Kenyan Census’s figure of 170,070 to the White House’s estimate of 1.5 million people. You wouldn’t find Kibera on a map; at least, that is, until the kids came along.

There were 13 of them, young men and women, most of them still teenagers, all of them residents of Kibera. They knew that Jamhuri Park, with its thick foliage and its perpetual shade, was a favorite hideout spot for rapists, that the area in the shadow of the Nairobi Dam was rarely free of marauders, and that, come payday, robbers roost along Karanja Road and assault those foolish enough to try and take their salaries to the bank. With the HIV infection rate in Kibera 50 percent higher than Kenya’s national average, they also knew which local clinics offered affordable treatments. They knew all this and more, but many others in Kibera were not as aware of their sprawling surroundings. With living conditions so rough, a recent U.N. document argued, there was little by way of communal awareness in Kibera. Survival left no room for solidarity. Nor did the numerous NGOs scattered around the slum do much to alleviate the suffering: The best intentions notwithstanding, the machinery of charity often put its own needs above the most pressing ones of Kibera’s residents, hiring local men and women for short-term tasks and leaving them without any real skills or a sense of empowerment. What Kibera needed was a rebirth.

Such was the genesis of the Map Kibera project. Organized by three Kenyan organizations, the project engaged the 13 young activists, equipped each with a GPS device, and sent them out to the field. There they collected over 500 data points, documenting anything from lighting posts to language schools. Their goal was to create a thoroughly detailed map of Kibera, one that would provide the slum’s residents with all the information they needed to stay safe and healthy. They uploaded the raw data onto OpenStreetMap, a free, open-source, online mapping application, and asked the blogosphere for help. Within days, thousands of volunteers responded and began to input the data onto the map, with each location falling under one of four categories: Safety/Vulnerability, Health Services, Informal Education, and Water/Sanitation.

Intrigued by the project’s potential, UNICEF got involved. Rather than mere mapping, the organization—the United Nations body entrusted with the welfare of children worldwide—sought to turn the project into a community-building opportunity. When the data upload was complete, the amateur cartographers printed their work on cheap paper and distributed copies in the community, arranging for a series of meetings to discuss their effort and its implications. Seeing their neighborhoods mapped out for the first time—given concrete shape, drawn out in detail—Kibera’s residents added their own bits of knowledge, laying tracing paper over the map and marking up more spots. Many signed up to receive SMS updates: Lacking access to computers, Kiberans use cell phones to be updated every time a new entry is added to the map or a particularly relevant piece of information becomes available. The organization’s immediate concern is to focus on GBV, or Gender-Based Violence: In meetings, more than 60 percent of Kiberan girls expressed a concrete fear of being raped, 40 percent said that they were afraid of a specific person or persons in their neighborhood, and only 25 percent said that they had a safe space to which to retreat if threatened. The mapping project, UNICEF hopes, will not only give young girls the knowledge they need to keep out of danger, but also put young women in touch with community leaders, leading to changes in policy and heightened awareness.

“This is a pilot,” said Gerrit Beger, chief of the youth section in the division of communication at UNICEF, “and it is using innovations and new forms of technology to empower the most vulnerable. We know it works, and I wish it could be replicated in many more communities.”

For now, it has remade Kibera into a safer, more hospitable place, and it has given its people the power to believe that their actions have meaning. Like the first Man and Woman in this week’s parasha, Kiberans acquired their wisdom through suffering. They still have a tough road ahead of them, but now it is neatly mapped out.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.