Few things in life have truly left me stumped for words, unable to describe what I have just experienced: the feeling of despair when Boro got relegated last season, the feeling of awe when I heard ‘The White Album’ for the first time and the sense of shock of disbelief when the planes hit the Twin Towers. Now I can add my visit to one of the world’s largest slums to that list.
I really did not know what to expect when the bus pulled up on the dusty, pot-hole laden roads of Kibera; this being my first visit to Kenya and indeed Africa, my only ‘knowledge’ was what I had seen during the time of year when Comic Relief roles around and the endless stream of print-outs that I was given prior to setting off. We met up with our guides for the day Mohammed and Judith, whom we had met earlier in the day at our briefing, and split into four groups each helmed by one of the leaders of the trip and set off wading amongst the masses of Kibera.
One truly valuable aspect of visiting the slums of Kenya was learning about what people like Mo and Judith are doing to combat poverty and empower people to gain the assets they need to improve their lifestyles. It’s all about looking at the long-term goals; as the old saying goes “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a life-time.” If we give people living in Kibera and other slums around the world the tools they need, they can build a better life for themselves. One of the most astounding projects we visited was the (toilet/methane place) which used all of the methane gas that was rising from the human waste in the latrines mixing with the natural bacteria as a source of sustainable energy. They used the gas to heat water, cook and as a source of heating their homes. This is a prime example of sustainable development in these communities and is incredibly environmentally friendly. The people who maintained the project were extremely knowledgeable and keen to tell us about their work and it gave me a great sense of optimism and extreme admiration for the people of Kibera, and these good feelings would continue to flow as we ventured deeper into the meandering roads of corrugated iron and crooked pillars.
One thing that I found truly remarkable about Kibera was the people. This was a community living in unbearable, dehumanising poverty with little to no earthly possessions and whose lives are a constant struggle against disease, famine and economic despair. Yet we were greeted with smiles, thumbs up’s, high fives and a sense of warmth and compassion that one would struggle to find in some of the most ‘cultured’ cities on the planet. A group of white charity workers, a notion in itself alien to many of Kibera’s inhabitants, traipsing through your home in the middle of the day pointing cameras at you ad asking menial questions would be to many something of an irritation, but instead children were running up to us arms stretched out while they cheeped ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ and showed us the type of warmth you would expect from a loved one. They were all too happy to pose in pictures for us and to shake our hands as we braved the rain-soaked swamp that lay beneath our feet. It was not just the children but men, women, fathers, mothers, workers and merchants would lean curiously out of their doorways to throw us the thumbs up or a cheeky smile. It was a humbling experience to witness a community that despite all their hardships and tribulations harboured a sense of community towards not only passing travellers but also one another. It was an experience that I will be telling my children’s children in years to come.
The smile on my face was huge; it stretched from ear to ear. I wanted to spend all day meeting people and sharing stories with them however being pushed for time, we were ushered rather hastily through the mud-filled streets and back to the bus in time to meet with the other group. A journey that lasted little more than 90 minutes will stay with me for a lifetime.
The brand new world that was thrust upon me was exciting and shocking at the same time; I particularly noticed the mix of traditional Kenyan qualities and Western influences. For example stalls that sold the basic tools needed for daily survival where pitched next to stalls selling counterfeit football shirts bearing the names of icons from around the world. I found it amazing that the same attention was paid to these football shirts as the stalls that sold food, toilets and hardware which for me exemplified that despite their hardship, these people are simply striving for a ‘normal’ life much like me and that someone in the labyrinth of strife and struggle, simple pleasures like shopping for a good football shirt are prevalent. I was even tempted to buy one.
I found the lack of advertising and globalisation refreshing; obviously there wasn’t going to be a Gregg’s on every corner and I’d have been genuinely shocked to see kids in Jack Wills hoodies listening to iPods and drinking a caramel macchiato. But entering Kibera I did see a lot of Coca-Cola kiosks on street corners selling drinks and snacks which made me wonder how far these big cooperation’s have spilled into the slums of the third world. Apart from a sign for Fanta, which incidentally was simply used as part of the wall fixtures, I did not see any evidence of commercialised retail instead every stall was simple and run by a resident of Kibera. I found it rather sad that we had to come to one of the poorest districts in the world to see a total lack of globalisation.
From a personal perspective, the one thing about my time in Kibera that stunned but also surprised me the most was walking along the train tracks that carved through the centre of the slum. The line was not dormant, I was told by Judith that 6 trains a day come through here with little to no warning; “they make some noise, but everyday people die due to the trains.” What made this even scarier were the stalls that lay parallel to the tracks, which were less than a hand span away from the lines. This showed the absolute crippling over-crowding issues in Kibera, people are being forced to essentially put their lives in danger just to keep their livelihood going. This demonstration of human determination was quite a humbling experience; I couldn’t imagine Topshop opening a branch a few inches away from the Jubilee Line.
So what will I be taking away from my time in Kibera? I hesitate to feel sorry for the residents; don’t get me wrong I would have to be made of stone not to be moved be the utter dehumanising poverty that these people faced on a daily basis and I was indeed a little disturbed seeing how trivial my problems were to theirs. However, more than anything, I feel a great sense of admiration for the people of Kibera. They demonstrated an extraordinary level of human compassion and spirit towards our visiting group and witnessing first hand how strong their sense of community was and seeing how they are working to combat poverty and their personal struggles was truly an amazing sight that I will be telling people about for years to come. I really hope to visit Kibera again one day and I encourage others to do so.
La La Salama peeps