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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

Glaring class disparity gains attention ahead of Kenya's presidential election

President Obama's focus on income inequality in America resonates with many in the land of his father.

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," Obama said.

For a population that tends to view their own government as if from across a great distance — “they don’t know where I am,” “we’re too far away” and “the government doesn’t know me,” were common explanations from Kibera’s residents for the absence of any tangible state presence in their lives — this American president is viewed with a surprising immediacy by many here.

“Obama is our neighbor, he understands what we are going through,” said Rosaline Amondi, known as “Mama Fish,” who owns a modest restaurant on one of Kibera’s main avenues.

Less than a month before Kenyans head to the polls, Obama drew on his connection here in a video posted last week urging voters to conduct peaceful, fair elections on March 4.

The video calls for Kenyans to “come together” to avoid the bloodshed that marred its last election. Much of that chaos was orchestrated by leading politicians, who capitalized on the tribalism that has long plagued the country.

The question of ethnicity, though, is closely tied to economics here. Kenya has more than 40 tribes, but the largest group, the Kikuyus, have dominated business and politics since the country won independence from Britain in 1963. This sense of favoritism mixed with gross poverty makes a volatile cocktail that Kenya is scrambling to put a lid on before votes are cast and counted.

In Nairobi especially, argued Catherine Wambua-Soi, a producer for Al Jazeera, in a recent blog post, the battle lines of this election are being drawn between the rich and the poor.

“Arguably, for the first time in the history of multi-party politics here, Nairobi's county elections will be more along class lines rather than the traditional tribal blocs,” she said, detailing politicians' efforts to connect with the capital’s slum dwellers by wearing ripped clothing, handing out food and bragging about being “from the hood.”

The Junction

The Muthaiga Golf Club is an exclusive, members-only club in a wealthy suburb of Nairobi.
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

Encircling Kibera, and serving the city’s elite, are the manicured lawns of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, a handful of gated embassies, and a mile and a half down the road the upscale Junction Mall. Though named for a point of convergence, the traffic barriers and security checks make the Junction as impenetrable for Kibera’s residents as a feudal castle.

In the tasting room at WWW Shop and Bar, Christopher Muthuko is spending his Saturday afternoon catching up with a friend. Nairobi’s first wine bar, WWW Shop is one of many such swank establishments that have popped up in the past few years. They serve elaborate “bitings,” and for the deep-pocketed romantics, “precious stone cocktails” which offer one’s date the choice of a drink and a rock: tanzanite, pink topaz or diamond.

Muthuko, who owns a farm in western Kenya, leans back in his leather booth, polished glasses set casually atop a shaved head. He thinks Obama can help by bringing attention to the issue of income inequality, which until now has been seen here as “just something inevitable.”

“The politicians need to see this as a platform for unifying the country, and the more attention Obama can bring to it, the more likely things will be brought to the table,” he said.

Across the booth, Kojo Acquaisie, a political advisor for the United Nations, disagrees: “He has his issues to deal with in America, and our problems, they are for us to solve.”

This edge of survival

Nairobi is the economic heart of Kenya, accounting for 45 percent of GDP. Yet two out of three of the city’s residents live in slums and informal settlements, half of them in Kibera.

The line here between formal and informal work is not drawn neatly between planned neighborhoods and slums, but a strong correlation does exist. State investment in wealthier neighborhoods is much higher in Nairobi, even when poorer areas are much more densely populated. Access to capital is also key. Most banks won’t lend to those with nothing to leverage against a loan, often not even a permanent address.

In the shade of a makeshift awning, Kyalo Mungudi is orchestrating a rhythmic flow of water delivery. The jingle of coins changing hands, then the thunk of water hitting hollow plastic sounds on endless repeat through this narrow pathway. A lean teenager in sandals made from recycled tires, Mungudi operates this water point for its owner, who moved out of Kibera long ago.

At a stakeholders’ workshop last year Martin Mascinde, a fiscal analyst with the Parliamentary Budget Office, said that the Kenya Revenue Authority has lost more than 200 billion Kenyan shillings, or over $22 million, in three years due to the government’s inability to tax the informal sector.

“If the underground economy remains untaxed, the government will continue losing billions of shillings… it will become increasingly difficult for the government to hit its revenue targets,” he said.

For Mungudi too, the issue of taxation is central to progress.

“When the government collects taxes they can put more water points in Kibera,” he said. “We should pay so the country can develop.”

For now, the government delivers water to only a tiny portion of Kibera, leaving most reliant on hawked water from private taps, where they pay two to ten times what is paid by a Nairobi resident outside the slums.

“We are the ones helping ourselves, we’re forgotten by the government,” said Mary Okoth, who has come with three jerry cans to be filled. Scoffing at the idea of paying taxes to a government she never sees, she shrugs her shoulders: “For what?”

From her office on the top floor of the University of Nairobi, Dr. Mary Njeri Kinyanjui, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies, shares a similar skepticism.

“An industrialist will boast about his contributions to the national economy by paying tax, yet most of his workers can’t afford the goods he produces,” she said.

For Kinyanjui, though, the solution lies not solely on tax reform, but on wages: “We are a labor surplus economy so we keep our wages low, but meanwhile people are living just on this edge of survival. How can we grow like that?”

Jua kali: Swahili for innovation

in the Cana Children's Center, three classes crowd together in a single room. Three years ago, before the Cana Center was built, none of these children attended school, and many spent days without a hot meal.
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost)

The development world has long viewed the informal economy as second-rate, or simply backwards, but here in Kenya many are beginning to view places like Kibera for what they are: consummate machines of production and creativity.

“Western industrialization has failed to respect informality,” said Kinyanjui, who believes that the solution to inequality here rests not on imposing formalization, but rather in supporting the informal sector as an indigenous advantage.

In Swahili, this informal spirit is known as jua kali, which means “hot sun,” and was originally applied to artisans who labored all day in the open air.

Folding his hands together, Acquaisie argues that the jua kali needs to be better supported by the state.

“These traditional mechanisms help pull society together,” he said. “But these ideas need to be institutionalized. We need to mainstream ideas that already exist in our society, and we need government policy and legislation to back them.”

Technology has also been used as a bridge between the formal and informal economies. Following the explosion of access to mobile phones, Kenya’s Safaricom developed M-Pesa, an innovative system that allows those without a bank account to transfer funds with the ease of a text message.

On both large and small scales, such creativity is often born of necessity.

Beams of light flood into the Cana Children’s Center through holes in the corrugated metal roof. Three classes crowd together in a single room, their lessons coming from community members who are little more than volunteers. Yet three years ago, before the Cana Center was built, none of these children attended school, and many spent days without a hot meal.

“There’s just too much need, and too little being offered by the state,” said Martha Ayuma, the founder and principle of Cana Children’s Center.

“Bit by bit, though, we are building something new.”