Kibera. First impressions: dirty, loud, crowded, hot – and this is winter. Then there’s the smell. The smell of raw sewage, rotting mountains of trash and burning plastic. Butcher’s shops with flanks of meat hanging in the windows. Dried fishes – tiny and large – out for sale in the sun with flies buzzing all around. Lethargic dogs lie sprawled on piles of rubbish. Small children peeking out of dusty doorways, smiling, waving, shouting at the tops of their lungs “Our are you! Our are you!” Adults either glance at us briefly or make no acknowledgment of our presence at all. They go on with their business as usual. Women sit cutting slivers of sukuma wiki, men sit chatting in groups in front of their stores. Women walk past with large sacks balanced on the tops of their heads, men walk past with planks of wood balanced on their shoulders. When the narrow, filthy road does make a dip, you can see out over the tops of the houses – rows of tin roofs as far as the eye can see.
I went in mentally preparing myself to be shocked, and so when we first exited Kenya’s largest slum, I thought to myself It’s not that much different than Fez (a city in Morocco). It took a couple of hours for me to digest. Now that I’ve had a full day and a half to process, I’ve come to the conclusion that in fact, Kibera is nothing like Fez. Sure, once you enter the slum, just as when you enter the old city in Fez, you feel like you’re entering a labyrinth of narrow, dusty, wandering footpaths with no hope of finding a way out again. And in each setting, you can find vendors selling fruit, vegetables, shoes, and cell phones. But in Kibera, there is no sewage system. If you don’t watch where you’re walking, you’re likely to step in a pile of shit.
Even though we were passed by several vehicles, I was always surprised by the random car that would come barreling down the dirt road towards us, its wheels barely skirting the troughs that run on either side of the main street carrying all kinds of waste to who knows where. At one point, a woman dumped a bucket of waste (and I’m almost positive it was human) into the trough just behind us. The smell was so overpowering I gagged.
But amidst this poverty, people carry on. Though we certainly saw many people – mostly young men – just sitting around passing the time, we also saw many people hard at work. There’s a lot of economic activity going on in Kibera, and though it may be small scale buying and selling, it’s a type of livelihood. I’ve also met several community leaders from Kibera, and they’re all very involved and working to better the human condition. We were shown a garden – right next to a dumpsite – that had been a part of that dumpsite just a few years ago. The community members had cleared the mounds of trash, brought in soil from central Kenya, and started an organic vegetable garden. When we visited, they were growing corn and eggplants with the aid of a drip irrigation system.
I really struggle with how to characterize Kibera… partly because I’ve only had a glimpse of it, and partly because I’m trying to consider the ethics of describing someone’s home as squalid. Basically, I want to highlight the fact that Kibera isn’t necessarily a place of hopeless despair. Just because the conditions there are inhumane doesn’t mean the people living there are inhuman. The living environment seems appalling sure, but in saying it’s appalling, do we somehow offend the residents who live there? The school kids we met were just like school kids from any other country. They laugh, they joke, they flirt and shout. The people who make their living in Kibera are just like people from any other country. Does pitying them do any good?
Jamie and I went in with our friend Aaron who knows a woman named Jamia – a community leader in Kibera – who allowed us to come observe her class on HIV education. Jamie and I have been asked to go back to Kibera and teach a short program on conflict resolution and mediation. Hopefully, we can follow through with this because I’d love to go back and learn/ponder more.