Saturday, May 16, 2009

kibera A Special Place, A special People

Kibera, Africa’s Largest Slum

The residents of Kibera are all financially poor, relative to Kenya and world economy. However poor is a word you do not hear in Kenyan conversation. Poor is word used for a person without family and all Kenyans have a family. The reports I researched invariably speak of the residents in ways that could leave the average person without hope for the children, their families or their future. Most who know of Kibera, know of it through the many photographs that are easily found in online web albums or attached to articles. This essay details a different view of Kibera. Admittedly, as described in an October 2002, BCC article, Life in Kibera, by East African Correspondent, Andrew Harding, Kibera smells; “Wood fires, fried fish, excrement, rubbish - the rich stench of 800,000 people living in a ditch.” The history of Kibera is the history of displaced people who despite the lack of government investments, and a physical environment that would render the majority of the world’s population hopeless. It is not a large area about one square mile with tin roofed, mud floor homes no larger than 12 feet by 12 feet. Ngong Road a major thoroughfare brings you quickly from an adjacent affluent neighborhood to the Kibera within a mere 10 minutes. Though in close proximity, I am told that a majority, guessed to be about 85% of Nairobi residents have never entered Kibera. It is a busy place, with several markets, Makini Market being the largest. The markets are tight clusters of boards and benches and small shops, with interesting names, many handwritten. Everything the residents need to survive can be purchased right within Kibera. The children attend one of many schools, large and small. Toi, Moi and Kibera Primary Schools are the largest most prominent campuses. The economy is based on the extremely low incomes of the residents.

The Community Service Group in Kibera website, speaks of Kibera as residents experience it, “ Kibera “ However, despite the demanding lifestyles we face in Kibera, we have created our own community – that is sound and functioning. Businesses of all sorts and driven entrepreneurs are found in all areas. Indeed, we are not unlike much of Sub-Saharan Africa, which receives 75% of its services through the ‘informal sector.’ In Kenya, we call this part of our economy the ‘Jua Kali’ sector (Or ‘Fierce Sun’ sector).”

Kibera Through A Different Lens

According to Dr. Julia Amayo, there are no experts on life in Kibera other than those who live there and work there. People who live outside of Kibera, or come once or twice thinking they will have a Kibera experience miss what makes Kibera a place of hope over dispair. When writing the notes for this essay, I wrote that Kibera was violent. She told tells me to remove that, “Kibera is not violent, though like in any community there might be those who violate.” Tell her that much of what I read is that Kibera is a violent place. She challenges me to see Kibera without a learned bias, or prejudice. Then reminds me that this is why we are writing about our experiences as we “reconnect to each other as African American and Kenyan women doing our work. Our writings need to be different than those published by the people who see through a different lens. I spent four days in Kibera and I saw no violence among the people, to the contrary, I saw and met some of the most kind, friendly, industrious people I have ever met. I was humbled by how safe and welcome I felt among them.

So with a swab of Watkins Menthol salve under my nose, to mask the smells that are unfamiliar and unpleasant for me, a stranger to Kibera, I traveled throughout Kibera with Dr.Julia Amayo as my guide and mentor. With Dr. Amayo I am able to view Kibera and the people in ways that Harding, either missed or chose not to report. Who she is and how she views humanity is key to my orientation to life in Kenya. She tells me that she did not pick Kibera, God gave it to her. She used to be one of the Nairobi residents who never went into Kibera. She is a caregiver to two grandsons. She has buried two daughters and granddaughter victims of the two primary takers of life in Kenya, AIDS and road accidents. They attend private schools, through hard work and smarts, she is a woman of independent means . She lives in Upper Hills Estate a 10 minute drive along Ngong Road, past Royal Nairobi Golf Club to Kibera and her SACODEN offices. Dr. Amayo established this NGO after being taken to Kibera by a friend and meeting an orphaned girl, Damaris, who had been abandoned by her family. She knew she could and needed to make a difference for her and the many children by her.

Being in Kibera with Dr. Julia Amayo was a privilege and gave me a different view of Kibera and the children and caregivers who live there. Feed the Children infomercials display images of Kenyan children with fly filled eyes, and women idle and helpless. These images help them raise millions of dollars. I was privileged to be in the homes, schools, shops throughout much of Kibera, on several occasions over a period of three weeks. During the many visits I saw children with faces full of hope and women working together to create self sufficiency for their families. I saw children who are in need of medical care, and women who are struggling, but I did not see any who were sitting idly waiting for anyone to arrive to save them. Dr. Amayo makes me understand that all Kenyans do not have AIDS, that the help from international humanitarian aid, some are living with AIDS not dying. A poster prominently placed announces that the majority of Kenyans are not dying from AIDS even though most Kenyans are impacted by HIV/AIDS in some way.

Organized Chaos

Kibera is noisy, I think of it as organized chaos. Jua Kali ( hot sun) It is the industrial areas where welders, electricians, carpenters, and crafts people work outside in organized work and training. Without the introduction, I might think Tom Onyongo, the man who sits outside a small shop, might be just an man sitting on a bench all day watching others work. Mr. Onyongo is the Chairman of the Makini Market, the go to person, nothing gets past his observation. On one day Dr. Amayo drives her car carefully and expertly through the narrow pathways (it is difficult to associate them with streets) the respect she has in Kibera is shown by how people move to the side and greets here as she passes. She returns all greetings in kind. It is a meeting of USAID/CARE funding recipients. The topic is the new Monioring and Evaluation (M and E) reporting system. Dr. Amayo is a clear leader among her peers who are all associated with NGOs responding to the travesties associated with HIV/AIDS pandemic. On another day, I met the women who are part of SACODEN’s GSL and IGA organizing project. All are caregivers, most are living with HIV/AIDS and each are contributing 50 KSH a week. They all dressed up for this business meeting, those with outstanding loans are paying them back with a small interest. Eunice Okoth and Mzee are relatives of Dr. Amayo, this commitment to Kibera is a family affair. The women run their own meetings, and both support and hold each other accountable for the funds they share for startups and expansion of micro businesses.

Kiberans are finding and applying solutions that have positive outcomes. An example is home testing and counseling. The lower cost and better outcomes than other more costly approaches has made the solutions applied in Kibera a replicable method for combating HIV/AIDS. In a Standard Newspaper report, we are told that while only 40% of the general population of Kenya knows if they are HIV affected, 85% of Kibera adults know their status. Dr. Amayo has written extensively about HIV/AIDS impacts and solutions including what occur for the girl child.

Investing in SACODEN is an investment into the lives of 200 Kibera children, a small number if you consider that Kibera is home to an estimated 400,000 children. There are no census takers in Kibera, so no one really knows exactly how many there really are. During our time there, we were able to review impeccable reports and documentation of the outcomes of every dollar donated to their various projects. Through SACODEN the children and caregivers in Kibera receive school uniforms, shoes, sanitary napkins, meals, sweaters and blankets all the things that make it possible for them to attend the free public schools. The caregivers receive free training in business management, micro loans, and child care. I possess no romantic ideas about Kibera and the people there. They lack most things that we in the United States take for granted and what human development researches say are necessary for all humans, such as space, clean water, toilets, medical care and healthy environment. Likewise we learn that people adapt to their environment, create civil societies within these environments. Kibera and its residents have existed until recently without notice by much of the world until recently. Some work their way out, most do not. The solutions will come from looking deeper into the abilities, the contributions and the resiliency of those who live and work in Kibera. Those who are privileged to form relationships within Kibera should seek to find mutually beneficial outcomes. I am a better person for seeing life as it is in Kibera through their lens

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