How to possibly put Kibera into words? Everything in it is worlds away from my usual reality, yet after five weeks spent in this largest urban slum in Africa it feels like home – warm, rewarding and welcoming.
If I was writing this during my first week volunteering in the slum, the tone would have been different. It’d be one of shock, fear, guilt, disgust and, underlying it all, sadness. On my second day in Kibera, a group of high school students picked me up at the safer, gated area where the NGO I was about to start volunteering with is located. We walked down “to the tracks” and from there through a maze of endless alleys and passages that would be impossible to draw on a map. We walked for nearly an hour, but I barely remember anything. It felt like exploring a new universe in a feverish half dream, the pictures your eyes see being too much for the brain to process fully. Before you can follow up on a thought triggered by one scene or fully feel the emotion it caused, a new, still more unreal and disturbing picture pops up from around the corner. All I remember clearly from that first walk are the students’ huge smiles and the loud laughter everywhere. And the pure, unfiltered reality, so intense that it drains you.
Later, I walked around Kibera much more. As with everything else, I got used to it. Sights became less overwhelming and there was more time to properly observe. Some things were clear on the surface – Kibera is basically built on trash which accumulates everywhere. The shacks in which people live grow almost organically from it – walls are made of mud mixed with trash and covered with corrugated tin roofs. To understand some other challenges, you have to stay longer… An average of 4-5 people live in each house, which is basically a single room of about 15 square meters. You will also learn that shacks are not free – they are rented from slum landlords. Each typically owns dozens and has long ago moved out of the slum. There is no running water in Kibera – it has to be bought from the “guy who sells water” and it is not cheap. Electricity is stolen from the grid by stripping the protection from the main line and extending it to your house using a metal wire. If you’re unlucky (or if it rains too much) you get electrocuted. Showers and toilets are shared between dozens of houses andnot free either. Toilets are basically holes in the ground, cleaned by the children once they get full. Finally, there are issues you read about – 20% of the population is estimated to be HIV positive, corruption is wide-spread at all levels starting with schoolteachers and policemen, violence is always feared.
And then there are the students’ stories. Stories of violence, abandonment, hunger and every other imaginable and unimaginable challenge squeezed into barely just over a decade of life. They are told factually, without any self-pity or surrender. Too often I have hoped that they will keep talking so that I will not have to speak. I wouldn’t be able to.
At the end of that first walk through Kibera we stopped at one of the students’ home. The inside of the walls were draped in spotless white sheets which glowed with the neon ambiance lightening. The five of us squeezed on the two couches and got a pitcher of water from around the corner. When the door closed and lights were switched off there was complete darkness. It was movie time! We watched Zootopia on a DVD player that had its casing removed so that we could manually turn the disc every time it got stuck. The electricity went off a couple of times, but that didn’t stop us from restarting the movie each time and finally seeing the whole thing. And at times there were tears. How wouldn’t they be – the movie was hilarious!
If I was writing this two or three weeks later, this post would be different still from today’s. By that time, I was well into my volunteering with ROCK, an NGO that provides scholarships, academic support, counselling and a support network to at-risk youth in Kibera. They currently support about 40 high school students. You can read everything about them on the webpage (www.rockkenya.org) that the students and I have just recently updated.
Every afternoon when school is over, the students who are not in boarding schools, stop by the ROCK center to work on their homework and study for a couple of hours. It is also the time to speak about any issues to Dan, a Kibera-resident who founded ROCK more than a decade ago and who is today running its day-to-day activities. My primary role was to sit with the students and help them with any questions they had about the topic at hand. We did lots of trigonometry and flipping equations left and right. It reminded me how much I loved maths. I also managed to fake my way through lots of chemistry. But as time progressed, I realized that my help with specific points was not the most that I can give them.
In the following weeks, we focused on the more basic skills that they will be able to use even after I leave. We started using the donated laptops and iPad much more. We discovered Wikipedia and were surprised to learn that youtube also hides videos of experiments in chemistry and physics. We also learnt that books are not always right (No, democracy does not “necessarily lead to corruption”.). We learnt, with a bit of fear in our eyes, that even the teachers are sometimes wrong. And we learnt that there is sometimes no answer and that you should just move on.
We flipped dozens of triangles upside down to see if the answer was easier to get to from the new perspective.
I also tried to convey some of the attitude that those of us who were supported and nurtured in everything we ever did find so easily. We practiced speaking loudly and confidently even when you are not sure about what you are saying. We indulged in being wrong, not knowing, asking stupid questions. We now shake hands firmly.
This was just as big a lesson for me as it was for them. Maybe for the first time, I accepted with patience and without judgment that people can sometimes be slower, imprecise, uncertain or simply not yet capable of reaching some pieces of knowledge. Understanding their backgrounds and seeing their efforts, it was impossible for me to judge as quickly and mercilessly as I would back home.
Whenever the day’s work was done a bit earlier, the most interesting questions and comments started pouring on me. How is it possible that you do not have slums in Belgium? What can we possibly do to end corruption and become like Europe? How can Trump be president if no one likes him?
There were tougher discussions too and they mostly touched upon religion, which the students are soaked in. Some answers appear clear-cut to them and are readily recited. No discussion on those was ever needed or encouraged. It took me a good 15-minute chat to convince the last of them that the World did not start when the Bible was written. They saw my shock when they told me that the only people they can think of who are not Christian are the gays because “they have no soul and therefore cannot be religious”. It only took a couple of simple questions for them to realize how absurd and inhumane their proposal was. And it didn’t take any questions for them to realize that there must be something wrong with the view that they were told to hold on people who do not believe in God. All it took was for them to spend time with me.
I was surprised by and proud about how quickly they updated their views on all these topics. It seems that if a young mind is asked to think for itself, it invariable reaches a fair and gentle solution. It is the people feeding them this trash that are truly unpardonable.
So if I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, it’d be full of positive feelings and hope. The students convey great energy and are full of drive, persistence and plans for the future in face of all the adversity. After a day of Nairobi craziness on all fronts, going to Kibera every afternoon was a most pleasant, cheerful, hopeful and fulfilling experience.
What struck me most was the students’ feeling of community and care for each other. Each acts like a loving parent to all others, supports and believes in them and fears for their wellbeing. It is right there, on the surface, expressed by daily acts of kindness. I have not seen a single fight, any jealousy or taking the little that they are given for themselves before sharing with others. I never thought I’d ever see teenagers so mature.
During my five weeks in Kibera I learnt more about the environment that the students live in. As time progressed, my initial optimism was coloured with a few strikes of realism. I am no longer certain that, if given a scholarship to attend high school and the right support, these kids, no matter how talented and determined, will necessarily be fine. The state seems so far from being able to offer any meaningful help to these children. And then there are all the personal stories, the deep scars of childhood, the lures of every day life – how much simpler would it be to drink and hope life’s over fast – the lack of opportunities and the goals that might simply be out of reach. It adds up!
But even as I worry about whether all the students I have worked with will have a bright future, I am convinced that giving them a chance is important, necessary and never in vain. And who knows… supporting these children either financially or by spending time with them might end up also giving us a chance to do something humane and meaningful with our lives.