When I stepped out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the smell. We had driven through streets that were mostly unpaved and past homes and shops that were made of wood with tin roofs. I noticed all of these things on the way to Kibera, Africa, but the first thing that struck me when I stepped out of the car was the smell.
I thought to myself, “How can these people live here?” That question lingered for the rest of the morning.
We walked through the streets of the slum, on our way to a new health clinic. I was wearing a skirt, as we were advised that it would be culturally insensitive for the women to wear pants or shorts. I was also wearing flip-flops.
We were not prepared for what awaited us on the fifteen minute walk to the clinic. I held my skirt up and paid attention to each step as I walked over the visible waste that was part of our path. I watched in shock as I saw residents dumping waste from buckets into the crowded street/sewage system. I had never seen anything like this.
I felt sure that the only pale-skinned people they had encountered had been what are known as “do-gooders,” either trying to bring the message of God or telling them how to live a cleaner life.
We were doing neither.
We were there to observe, to learn and absorb the current state there.
As soon as the kids spotted us, they shouted loudly and often – “How are you? How are you?” If we answered them, “I am fine!” they would laugh; delighted to hear English spoken from a native English-speaker.
It was the children who changed the course of my morning. They were happy, and smiling. It was hard for me to believe that children in this type of squalor would be able to smile. And yet, here they were, as polite as can be, greeting strangers into their neighborhood.
The children in the slums were all smiles. But, how? Perhaps, because they are alive, most of them probably have parents, they probably have a place to live, and they just enough food to survive.
It could also be because they don’t know any better. We could attribute their happiness to the innocence of the child’s mind. They are not yet aware of the “reality” in Kibera.
What is that reality?
Although 1.5 million people live in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa, Kenya’s government does not acknowledge its existence. The government contends that the massive population is illegally squatting on government land, and thus refuses to provide infrastructure: schools, hospitals, or sanitation. Women are left especially devastated in Kibera as men control existing scarce resources. In Kenya, 33% of women trade sex to survive by 16; in Kibera, 66% of girls trade sex for food as early as 6. Women in Kibera contract HIV at a rate 5 times their male counterparts: Kibera has one of the world’s highest HIV rates. Only 8% of women ever attend school. 1 of 5 children do not live to see a 5th birthday. 7 of 10 women will experience violence. No statistic ultimately captures the severity of Kibera’s human crisis.
There are many members of my generation and younger that take many things for granted. When their iPod breaks, they get very upset. It could possibly mean the end of the world – until they get a new one. Maybe, just maybe, if they spent a day with happy children, children who have less “stuff” but just as many things to be happy about, they would get a little tug on their heartstrings. Maybe it would put things into perspective. Maybe.
I can’t say that my life has turned upside down after visiting the slums of Kibera. However, I can say that my life has changed in many seemingly insignificant ways.
This month, I start my first year as a high school teacher, and I have already written lesson plans that revolve around my experience in Kibera.
I am grateful that my mom, Pam Prather, and her boss, Murali Bashyam, let us tag along on their trip to Africa. I have told others of my experience, in the hopes that they will be inspired to visit. I have started looking at children differently – where does consumerism begin and creativity end? The most important end I hope to achieve is the education of my students; education about other cultures and other people.
That is something that we all need to be aware of.