The Elephant

peter.varnum

In his book about a Marine’s dual journey to Iraq and Kibera (It Happened on the Way to War), Kenya, the slum where I am working this summer, Rye Barcott talks of seeing the “elephant” that is war. This summer, I wanted to go on my own journey into the heart of the elephant, but it was of a nonviolent sort for me – the slum of Kibera.

I have now seen the elephant of Kibera, and with the initial culture shock period passed, I can now make some more molded observations. Of course, it has only been a week, so they will continue to take shape as my summer continues. But my initial impressions leave me optimistic.

To give a sense of Kibera’s  standard of living, you have to forget that the term even exists, as it is so far left of the bell curve that it shouldn’t even qualify to be on it. Sewage is rampant and putrid, dokas – makeshift storefront shacks – sell buckets of charcoal, avocados and mangoes, fly-infested fish or chips for 25 bob or less, the equivalent of about .27USD. Young children who have not yet learned much English see a mzungu, a white person, and chant, together, “Owahyou? Owahyou?” and look as if a miracle has unfolded in front of them if you respond, “Mzuri,” Swahili for “I am fine.”

To me, the saddest part of the conditions are the living shacks themselves, as small as 10×10 feet and housing up to seven people. But from my experience, Kibera residents are the proudest not of the school system they have created, the sports leagues to organize their youth, or the small businesses that keep them fed, or even the health clinic that is locally sustained – no, they are proudest of these shacks, where they raise their families and invite you in if you are considered a rafiki, a friend.

I had two such invitations in one week, and got to talk about bigger-picture problems instead of just how they were going to get the maize flour to make ugali for lunch. One of the women who helps run the children’s home I’ve been teaching for – St. Catherine’s – talked of recently having help to open an email account and having some help navigating the computer. This, she professed, would allow her to connect more with the outside world and perhaps share some information about St. Catherine’s to foster more awareness.

In the home of another worker, a long-time member of the St. Catherine’s community who volunteers his time by handling the school’s accounting, he talked about other ways to be more financially sustainable. Immediately wanting to help, I voiced a willingness to donate something monthly to put to their best use. I had promised myself not to give handouts, but this was a worthy cause, and I had a relationship with them now.

He thanked me for the offer, but reminded me of what I had forgotten: they cannot count on perpetual donations from outsiders to keep their home growing or even going; there had to be long-term solutions to ensure sustainability. He talked of establishing a greenhouse to feed their children and having the remaining vegetables sold to the community; he also said the home has kicked around the idea of starting a cyber cafe to bring in money. When I asked how much such ventures would cost, he replied, “It is not just about the cost. It is expensive, sure, maybe 800 or 900 thousand (about 9,500USD), but it is hard to get the proper grants  to ensure we can go through with it.”

Until then, they continue to take children - 170 in their grade 1-7 school; 22 boarding – who sometimes cannot pay (they only ask for payment for those who have at least one living parent), and employ teachers on a next-to-nothing salary. But in class, the students cannot wait to respond to questions, raising their hands and hurriedly whispering, “teacha! teacha!”, and on the soccer “field,” a dusty, stone-splattered terrain of which maybe 5% is flat, teachers play alongside kids without shoes or a care in the world.

My personal journey is still unfolding, but I have seen poverty unlike any before, and I have met people who still want to give. Who are happy to dance on a Saturday or hit a volleyball on a Thursday afternoon. I once talked with a friend about what it would be like to walk around having a cloud of credit card debt hanging over you everyday; in Kibera, the nagging feeling in your stomach is of a real hunger. In any case, there is optimism in the community, and from where I sit, that’s something.

One Response to The Elephant

  1. Jan Sidelnik says:

    Peter, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. Best wishes to you.

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