NAIROBI (Reuters) - “I have lost a lot of people I knew to crime,” says George Kiru, nursing a drink at 2 in the morning in a bar on the edge of Nairobi’s Korogocho slum.
Music blares as he lists childhood friends who joined gangs, many of them now dead or in jail.
“Personally I always said no to crime,” says Kiru, who buys and sells second-hand goods and picks up occasional work as a minibus driver to feed his two daughters and send them to school. “It never ends well if you choose to become a criminal. Eventually, you will get killed.”
Around 2 million people have made their homes in the shantytowns packed in around Kenya’s capital - Korogocho, its bigger, equally infamous near neighbors Mathare, Mukuru kwa Njenga, Kibera and others.
The neighborhoods are bustling and bursting with energy. Churches are packed, young men hang out at neighborhood gyms and friends gather at roadside stalls serving chicken. But crime and unemployment are high. Basic services and sanitation are scarce.
People in ramshackle dwellings of wood and corrugated iron describe a daily struggle to eke out a living. Some turn to prostitution and other crimes.
Alice, 20, says her partner was killed in a shoot-out five years ago. Left with no means to support herself and her newborn baby son, she started working as a prostitute. Claire, 17, said she has been a sex worker since she was 14.
Four policemen have died in shoot-outs in the past two years, says one officer on a night patrol in Korogocho, Dandora and Makadara, declining to give his name.
“We need to be tough or the situation will get out of control ... Every week there is a shooting, a robbery, and a murder. Every second day some criminal here commits a serious crime.”
But residents say it is they, not the officers who face the brunt of the violence.
One Korogocho man says his 20-year-old son was killed during a police operation last year. The government has urged residents to report corrupt or violent police officers. But the man asks not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Drug and alcohol addiction is a common problem. An illegal brew called Chang’aa is prepared over open fires in oil drums in Mathare.
In Huruma, Stanley and Saaid are heroin addicts. Stanley, 36, is a rubbish collector and Saaid, 32, gathers unused metal to sell for recycling.
“It is a hard life here,” says Kiru, nursing his drink in the Korogocho bar. Across the room, staff serve drinks, separated off from customers by a grid of metal rods.
Click here for a Reuters photographic essay on life in Korogocho and other slums - here
Reporting by Siegfried Modola; Writing by Brian McGee; Editing by Andrew Heavens