Thursday, August 17, 2006

Dignity in the Face of Poverty: A Day in Kibera

In our search for a possible new project with the CDC, we sought to explore the second largest slum in Africa, Kibera, located on the outskirts of Nairobi. Some friends that we had met in Mombasa worked as volunteer nursery school teachers in Kibera and put us in touch with one of their colleagues, Judy.

We met Judy outside the Olympic Primary School, surprisingly the best performing primary school in the country in one of the most impoverished settings. Judy was a well-spoken, well-dressed 22 year old teacher who gave a friendly welcome to the group. When we told her we just wanted to take a quick look around Kibera, she said she would have no such thing. We were to take a walking tour, visit her school, meet the people in her community, stay for lunch, and hike to the hills overlooking the area for a view of all of Kibera. It soon became clear that we were not taking a quick survey of an impoverished slum to find how we could improve health, but instead we were getting a welcoming invitation into the home by someone proud of and active in her community. And by someone we had never met.

The walk through Kibera is what John and I had come to expect after seeing similar situations in the Philippines. However, having seen similar slums before does not make the experience any less shocking and powerful. A sea of tin roofs covers the mass of houses cramped together to accomodate the 1 million people thought to live there. A mix of trash, dirt, and feces make the base of the passageways between houses, broken only by rivers of sewage which trickle down hill to a river at the base of the slum.

As we were lead through the hear of Kibera, we amazed at the ease by which Judy gracefully and nonchalantly hopped over heaps of rotten garbage and crevaces of waste. Upon reaching Judy's community within Kibera, we were greeted by smiling and respectful children, not asking for candy or money as in other commmunities, as well as welcoming elders busy at work outside their homes. There was a general sense that these people were quite happy and proud to have visitors into their home.

When we arrived at the small tin shack where Judy's family lived, we were welcomed into a cramped, but tidy common room. We were introduced to her jovial brother, Joshua, and her noble father, who was now disabled and unable to work. In the center of an enormous urban wasteland, we sat for an hour in a peaceful oasis sharing a well-prepared meal of meat stew and avacado salad with a family, who taken out of their suroundings was not too different than any of our own.

I am not trying to paint the picture of the bogus "happy but poor" argument that minimizes the inequities caused by abject poverty. There indeed are gross deficiencies in the provision for basic human needs of proper shelter, sanitation, and healthcare. However we have read account after account of the repulsive and disgusting nature of Kibera and other urban slums. What we witnessed that day in Kibera was dignity in the face of poverty, resilience in the face of despair; a group of people that have learned to survive and do their best to lead dignified life in the most minimal conditions.

In speaking with Judy while overlooking vast spread of Kibera from atoop the hillside overlooking the tin city, we gained an appreciation for the respect Judy had for her community. Judy asked me, "So, what do you think of Kibera?" Not knowing what she was expecting as an answer, either: "It's one of the most repulsive settings I've encountered and it angers me that people are forced to live in these conditions", or "You have such a nice family and community, thanks so much for welcoming me into your home"--- the two sentiments I was feeling at the time.

"It's interesting," was my response, followed quickly by "What are your thoughts on Kibera?" now really curious about how she viewed her surroundings. She describes that she viewed Kibera as "a nice place to live." It's safe, most of the time, as the inhabitants self-police the area through vigilante "mob justice." Police don't dare step foot in Kibera. If someone is caught stealing, "they might as well start building their own coffin," she stated. After being raised there, she stated that she doesn't even pay notice to the filth of her surroundings anymore. Her one complaint was of her high rent the Nubian landlords charged, around 500-700 KSh/month (the equivalent of 8-10 US dollars).

It is difficult to process how someone could view such a place as "home", and a "nice" one at that. Is it because she has never traveled outside the Kibera/Nairobi area to see what else is out there? Is it because she has resigned herself to accept the place she will likely live the majority of her life with the difficulty it takes to escape? Or is it because of the amazing family and great sense of community she and her neighbors have salvaged in the face of their difficult situation? All told, this was an incredible learning experience for us and we will never forget the perseverence, strong will, and dignity of Judy and the people of Kibera we met that day.

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