Two weeks after the Sinai pipeline explosion, life in Nairobi’s Sinai slum hasn’t changed much.
By Nairobi’s standards, the accident had enormous consequences, resulting in at least 82 deaths, many more burnt or injured, and a still-unknown number of displaced families. As the number of reporters and photographers begins to dwindle, life in the slum is slowly resuming its former rhythm. Ample evidence of the fire is still strewn through the Sinai slum: charred sheets of tin that once served as walls, animal carcasses still unclaimed by their owners, shreds of burnt cloth and other explicit reminders of the tragedy. It will be months before the debris is wholly cleared. But the factors that enabled the fire in the first place – leaky oil systems just under the ground, barely-buried electric cables, and open sewage ditches – are still flagrantly in place.
To the residents of Sinai slum, these structural dangers are normal; it’s been like that for decades, and they hardly expect anything to change, even after an accident as serious as last week’s explosion. The sewage running through is an unfortunate but ordinary danger. These tributaries are regularly laced with fuel as the sewage drains downward from the Kenyan Pipeline Depot. One Sinai elder named Joseph Mugo claims that he’s witnessed this free-flowing fuel on four occasions in the last year alone. He says that there’s always a market for oil in the slum, even when the oil is diluted by sewage. And in an environment of such destitution, Sinai residents have plenty of incentive to pilfer the oil – one jerry can of decent fuel can be sold for more than a month’s wages.
Irene Wangari and Jack Makau, historiographers who have spent several years working in and around the Sinai area, give us a graphic glimpse of Nairobi slum life: “The full motion picture of slums is only available for those inspired to wander down twisted, slippery, narrow aisles, jump over open sewers, take in the smells of one-year old garbage, taste stewed chicken beaks or roasted fish gills, and share in the fear of being bulldozed in the middle of the night.” It’s a life that we don’t like to observe too closely – and one that we’re forced to acknowledge only during times of great tragedy, as in the recent explosion.
Despite the squalor and hazards of Sinai slum, its population has mushroomed over the past few decades. Workers moved to Sinai in order to be closer to the Industrial Area, even when the locale was structurally dangerous. In recent years, many outside parties have pushed for relocation of Sinai residents – activists, environmentalists and perhaps most notably, the Kenyan Pipelines Company itself. Just as many have staunchly defended the “rights” of Sinai squatters to remain on the restricted land, including several Kenyan politicians and another strain of activists. It remains to be seen whether last week’s disaster will have any influence upon the relocation debate.
This week, the government donated 40 million KSH to Kenyatta National Hospital to treat burn victims from the Sinai fire. Although thirty-five burn victims have already died in the hospital, many more are well on their way to recovery . A hospital spokesman, Simon Ithae, told Kenya’s national newspaper that the response from local blood-donors has been “overwhelming.” In the past week, the hospital collected 2,553 pints of blood from generous Nairobi residents. These anonymous displays of solidarity and empathy are one redemptive pinprick of light in the darkness of last week. Continued support from their fellow citizens will be so important to the residents of Sinai as they try to move forward from last week’s tragedy.