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.