Kibera

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Happiness does cripple the art. Still, I want to tell you a story. It’s about a place. It’s about a grand place.  It’s about a place that has managed to make its voice heard despite efforts to stifle it. It’s about a place that has the stature of the prince when he was masquerading as a pauper.  It’s about a place that knows how to keep its nose held high, and not just in order to incline it from the odour that steals out from all its orifices.

Our object of interest is Kibera.  Our host is the Umande trust. Umande is an NGO which aims at encouraging the exploitation of available resources for economic and social welfare. We arrived at mid morning.  I don’t know what time exactly for sure because I, like many other Kenyans, sometimes have that distasteful habit of starving time of the respect it deserves. We start with the Umande offices. They are not part of the slum. They are close, yes, but the area looks and feels like a lower middle class estate.  The kinds many of us are used to anyway. The kind that knows what it feels like to live under the shadow of the city council, the water company and the electricity parastatal- where they can’t see you most of the time, but once, when the lighting is kind, the umbra becomes penumbra, and you benefit, though for a split second, from their services.

Umande’s spokesman has a luo man’s English. The kind that makes you think the first cry that sounded out of his body as a new-born was English. He speaks to us confidently, yet you can sense an anxiety in his voice.  The anxiety that befalls a man who feels short of words to articulate his passion so his audience can feel as he does. When it comes to relaying the program for the morning, he looks to his partner for assurance, discussing the matters not meant for his audience in luo.

A few preliminaries (a quick tour of the place and being divided into groups) and we are out. I am part of the group that is to walk around the slum rather than be driven around.

Our tour guide is a twenty something year old girl. She is a black beauty- stunning. The kind of girl whose father shies from denying her anything because she is the apple of his eye, and maybe he irrationally fears that many would be willing to provide for her. She has a humble aura about her though- lets you know she is reasonable with her wants, and knows how to embrace the word no with grace. Most importantly, she is intelligent! The girl knows her stuff inside out.

From the word go, you can tell the sewer system has gone to the dogs. The “neater” parts of the slum, the outskirts, are reeking of sewage waste. Plus, growing up in Embakasi means I know only too well that dark colored, sedimented, paste-like substance that is peeping out at the sides of the road.

A friend I had made, a Nigerian girl studying in South Africa, bought a leso in a roadside kiosk to take home as a keepsake. She was hellishly disappointed when she read “made in Tanzania” on it. I told her it wasn’t a big deal really, and Tanzanian lesos are just as good anyway, but I understood her tantrum.

We start at a curio shop. They are selling ornaments like bracelets and earrings and necklaces- the kind of stuff that you would buy at Maasai market. They are handmade by women from the slum and are their source of income. I thought they were pricey for a student, but a friend of mine who took Art in school, after sleepless nights trying to complete her final project, told me never to complain about the price of something that was made by hand. Hence, I tucked my tail and kept silent as a few people shopped.

I saw the railway!  The one that Kibera inhabitants vandalise when they feel the government can do a better job listening to them. You stand on it and on either side you see a sea of rusted iron sheet roofs to rusted iron sheet houses. A man hurled insults in luo to an international participant who tried to take a photo of him. I am peaceable. I believe in rainbows and unicorns and candy. Still, I feel I too would be offended if someone took a photo of me, perhaps to exhibit it to his friends at home, without asking my permission. I wouldn’t insult him, but I would be offended.

We go deeper in. Everyone is shocked. For some reason, I’m in a “same old same old” state. I feel for the children. As the sewage flows more boldly, no longer shying away, I see many a dream flow away with it. You can tell out there man is boss, but in here, the sewage reigns supreme.

Umande runs biocentres in the slum. It’s a place where people pay 10 shillings to answer a call of nature or to take a shower. Also, they use the human waste to make biogas which fuels a kitchen in the biocentre. A lot of science is involved, and the geek in me is tempted to break it down, but something tells me not everyone is a fan. It costs 10 shillings to cook anything there. They have one problem though- they don’t know how to safely dispose of the final solid waste.

We met a woman hard at work with tins the size of a 1kilogram tub of Blueband. She was mixing crushed charcoal with loam soil. A tab the size of blueband in a charcoal stove lasts as long as the 40shilling tin of charcoal would. Yet hers cost 3shillings. The science behind it still baffles me though, but I think it’s something to do with the carbon being combusted slower when it’s mixed with soil, hence just enough heat for cooking is produced at a go and little is lost to the surrounding.

We view a few more projects- biocentres, health centres and housing projects.  (Important note: the houses the microfinance group Umande guided built were brought down by the rains.) We ended up in a biocentre on a side of Kibera I seemed to recognize. I was sure I could get to Adam’s Arcade from there.

We had tea made from biogas (in exchange for a small donation towards the projects). We waited for the other group to finish their ride. It took A WHILE, but I was happy, and people who are happy don’t care about “a while”… ok maybe a bit. It was worth postponing a date with the Mister for. Err who am I kidding, it was ALMOST worth postponing a date with the Mister for.

Also, someone needs to start discussing why there are a million NGOs operating (and funded to do so) in Kibera, and it looks worse than it did 10years ago.

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Love does make the world go round.

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Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.-The Bible 

It doesn’t take a lot to make a new friend. It doesn’t take a lot to spend a few hours of the day with someone new. This coming from someone of rank in support groups for the socially awkward, should be proof of how much truer it must be for “normal people”.

We are a collage- all of us; of tall and short; of poor and rich; of healthy and unwell; of scientists and creatives; of happy and sad. We are each of us a refreshing change from one to another. One thing binds us though- that we are human. If we were to all make a circle and take a photo of our hands outstretched towards the centre of the circle, we would not be able to match the hands to the owners thereafter. We… are all human.

We didn’t do things better to deserve what we have. We didn’t do things worse to deserve what we have. We are all weaving our stories on a mat. We are all carving our lives on cave stones. We are all dancing the greater dance.

We are all of us stars, and we deserve to shine. Since everyone has a story to work on, and everyone knows how hard it is to get it done, it follows that our goals would be more easily fulfilled if everyone took it upon themselves to catch the falling stars.

I want to approach this zeroing in on the less privileged in society, and my personal point of weakness, soft spot you could say, is orphans and mentally challenged children.

These are children who are trying to weave their stories, but they lack one thing- company. The main thing that makes the struggles we go through in life bearable is human company. When we lose someone, when we work hard and fail, when we don’t work hard and fail, when we fall sick… Company balms our troubles, brings to our attention the beauty bestowed the eye of the storm. Sometimes we recover so well we laugh in adversity, and at adversity.

Children in children’s homes have only each other. They are working to weave their stories but they have only each other. Yet we can change that even if not all of it, little by little we can change that.

It doesn’t take a lot to decide to go every now and then to visit a particular home. You can go alone and help with chores. You can go with friends and hang out with the kids- the more the merrier (and the less financially intensive a bit of shopping will be on the individual). Children are cool. They get along with whatever your person may be. They laugh with you. They tell you stories. They give you an excuse to play the games you have missed since your childhood without raising eyebrows. They make you feel young (that is a selling point for the ladies I hope).

Most of all, and this despite sounding slightly psycho is the truth, there is something that happens to your soul during your experience with children. There is a calm that creeps up on you and rests in your bossom. There is a clarity that illuminates your affairs after your experience with them. Most of all, there is contentment, not necessarily joy or happiness, contentment. You feel like you can get back to writing your story. You feel like the chances you’ve lost will not be held against you. When you visit children there is only one direction the curve under your nose can face.

Masala with mangoes

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The world of science needs more women, but from a young age we girls are encouraged to care more about the way we look than the power of our minds. – Dr. Amy Farrah
Fowler.

“They’re sending me to school in the city,” I said. My eyes were trained on the ground. They flattered the dried leaves from the mahogany under which Kim and I were seeking shade.

“Finally! No more walking with you eating masala with mangoes,”

“You mean you’ll miss me. And it’s mangoes with masala.” I insisted.

“You put so much masala I was convinced it was the former. It was bad for my reputation. Perhaps now the girls will talk to me.”

“Kim, the girls don’t talk to you because you make every conversation about Africa and its need for salvation.”

“They don’t understand me.”

“It doesn’t fascinate them.”

“You make every conversation about women being better than men. ”

“Equal to men.”

“That’s why the boys don’t talk to you. If you talk to the city boys like that no man will bring cows to your father.”

“If it’s about cows then I can get my own and give my father.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

Silence.

“What if the city kids are better than me in school?”

“Then you catch up. Biology sent mail. It says there’s no more kryptonite in their blood than yours.”

“I’m scared.”

“You worry too much. I’ve never met a girl more intelligent than you.”

“Haha.”

“What?” Interjected Kim.

“Nothing. Just you specify that it’s a girl. The boys who left for the city weren’t more intelligent than girls in their senior year, just spent more time reading than playing mothers to their siblings.”

“There you go again.”

“And I’ll keep going. Even when I get back I’ll keep going.”

“If you’d spend the energy on Africa’s salvation…”

“Africa does not need salvation. Humans do.”

“Don’t get married to the men from the hilly lands.”

“Ah but Kim they’re so handsome!”

“Quit teasing Abby. You know it’s for your own good.”

“Biology sent mail. There’s no more kryptonite in their blood than ours.”

“I care about you Abby.”

“Kwaf! I call bullcrap. You don’t like me even. You just hate them more than you don’t care about me.”

“I like you.”

“No. You just would hate for a boy from the hills to have me. You think they’ll take me the way “they” took everything, and your ego may not recover.”

“Our people need salvation.”

“No. Humans! Humans need salvation!”

“Have a great time in the city.”

That’s how Kim always ended arguments. I was too proud to let it ennerve me, but before it used to make me boil inside. I hugged him. It was cold. Our conversation had left a bad taste in my mouth. The hug was only protocol. I walked away. I loved and hated that our conversations could provoke so much anger and passion from me at the same time. Once we mistook that passion for love. Now we knew. At least I did. If all that burning in my stomach that birthed ulcers  was about love, then hail celibacy.

I got home. The mattress looked thin, the sheets dull. Msechu had described to me what my room in the city would look like. It sounded like heaven and still I wished I could carry my own to the city. Because it felt familiar, and safe. Yes, safe. God knew I needed that!

I opened the book I was reading. It was about the success story of an African business woman. I didn’t know which it did more- motivate me or scare me. She was perfect! A small paper slid out from where my bookmark was. “I will miss masala with mangoes,” it read.

I cursed Kim and turned over a new page, hoping to haze out the mixed feelings I felt for him.

Geek side note:
There is no conclusive evidence that ulcers and stress are actually related.