The Safe Answer to an Open Flame

By Angela Rizner


Diana sits quietly washing dishes by kerosene lamp. In the middle of the day it is dark in her home. One small window sheds a slice of light, which is just enough to make out her sister, on the floor, cradling a newborn. Her home is about forty square feet, the floors and walls are mud and the ceiling is corrugated metal.

“This is where my family lives,” she says as she brushes past us, tossing dirty dish water outside into a drain. “My sister and her children, my sons, and my daughter.” In total, that is seven people who share a space the size of a typical foyer.

The types of energy that are often the cheapest, and thus the most used, are terribly noxious for both humans and the environment.

Diane’s dirty dishwater joins the rest of the human waste outside, which flows into open drains towards Nairobi Dam. Along the way, the water intersects with flimsy, perforated rubber hoses that carry drinking water back from the same source. In this closed loop; water is simply not safe to drink. Most people boil the water – if they can afford to pay for the volatile charcoal that fuels their fires.

“Life here is hard,” explains Diane, in a matter-of-fact way. “We do our very best with the life we are given.”




Energy poverty is one of the biggest challenges faced by those who live in Kibera and other parts of the developing world. Paying the electricity bill is secondary to getting food on the table. In the event a community does have power, it is subject to frequent blackouts. Additionally, the types of energy that are often the cheapest, and thus the most used, are terribly noxious for both humans and the environment. 

Kibera’s electrical lines are haphazardly woven together in chaotic bundles that resemble bird nests. Kerosene lamps, which are the most common source of light, are seriously dangerous in the maze of back-to-back wood and mud huts – not to mention expensive. The frequent fires that break out are difficult to tackle, particularly given the persistent lack of water which is needed to extinguish them.


Any way you slice it, clean, safe light is a tremendous asset to the people of Kibera. “The light comes from the sun!” she said with muted excitement, “It is free. It is good.” With Luci, Diana is no longer beholden in the same way to anyone, or anything for light.

So much of what seeds change is the reestablishment of a sense of dignity within the psyche of those who have been cast aside. It is entirely possible for Diana and others to be liberated from the shackles that bind them. Together, we can change our story. Together we can change the face of energy in the future.

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