Recent activities among radical Islamic groups in Iraq, Nigeria, and other places have spilled into Kenya (once again). This got me thinking about my time in Kenya in 2005 and 2011, which is documented in my Projects section. I thought I might re-post something I wrote a decade ago about my experience in Kibera, which is the large slum (or informal settlement, as the Kenyan government officially likes to call it) outside Nairobi.
I wrote this piece while sitting in a hostel in Johannesburg on my way back to the States after my first trip to Kibera. The Oscars were on in the background.
* * * * * * * *
Step outside your hotel and leave behind your running water and flushing toilets. Leave your map behind, as well, because you won’t find it on a map. Go out to the large hyper market, right out near Carnivore restaurant, the westerner’s meat paradise. Then do a quick U-turn back towards Nairobi.
You won’t see a sign for it, but turn left as soon as you see the squatters’ land, the matchstick tin roof houses covering the hills up to the horizon, behind which you’ll see the city skyline through the dust and haze.
Most will likely turn their heads, for officially the rusted, suffocating wasteland of mud and tin you see does not exist. Does not belong. But you will know you’re in the right place.
Drive down the rocky hill and see the middle class housing to the left, surrounded by a ten-foot wall and razorwire. When the road stops, see the man selling buckets of coal and the men holding a handwritten sign saying, “Yankee tyres fixed.”
See the lonely men and women emerging from the footpath. Perhaps children will be kicking around a deflated basketball on the rutted slope. Go to the nearby store to purchase your own water, for where you are going has none that is safe for western stomachs. Set off down the footpath that begins where the road ends, for the road does not enter this place, this place which does not exist.
Make your way through the sugar cane reeds and look not for shade to protect you from the Kenyan sun, for trees rarely grow in this soil. Look down as you walk, and begin to smell the human excrement and waste water that provides the nutrients for the cane growing in the not-soil. Begin to smell.
Look up and see stretching out before you the thousands of tin roofs spread before you in tight-packed grievous disarray.
As you come upon the bridge spanning the toxic river coming down off the hill and feeding the sugar cane bog, do not be wary. Though made only of warped limbs and broken 1-by-4s, it will hold you so long as you keep your balance. Do not be shy to accept a kind hand extended to you to help your crossing.
Look down at the river and see the trash – manmade in many ways – and be hit with the steamy hot fetid smell of waste and disease. As you move beyond the bridge, step over the short broken wall, trudge through the trash piles, and round the corner to the right.
Then be greeted by handfuls of small children with dusty clothing shouting, “How are you? How are you?” See them reach out their hands, not for money but for a loving touch from the stranger. Hear some of the younger ones fuddle their only-known English phrase by saying and answering, “How are you I am fine!”
Welcome to Kibera.
* * * * * * * *
It was a squatter camp, a shantytown set up by Nubian mercenaries hired by the British colonizers during the early 1900s. As many Kenyans moved to Nairobi for work, they found their way into Kibera to pay rent to Nubian now-slumlords.
Kibera is a place where there is no running water, save the human waste and wash water running through the pathways down the hills. A place where there is no electricity. Where heat is provided by coal in the winter. Where houses are tin-roofed and mud-walled and require yearly repairs after the rains.
A place where there is no sewer system below ground – only above ground, fed by latrines set up among clusters of houses and padlocked to prevent use by outsiders.
A place where AIDS has struck nearly one of three adults, leaving over 50,000 AIDS orphans. Where homes house six or more people in one room and are stacked up with only two- to three-foot pathways between them. Where children are often forced out at age 12 to make room for more to live in the house.
A place that the Kenyan government does not recognize or support with funding.
Kibera is a place that does not exist on paper because it can only exist in the shadows between stark reality and suspended belief, where the hardest to stomach of all things reside because most people don’t want to look at them and can’t look at them won’t face them honestly because it’s too hard and gritty and painful and guilty.
A place where the ugliest of what man can endure day after day cannot snuff out a strange hope and happiness that cannot help but endure despite itself.
A place whose name, in the Nubian language, means “jungle,” or “to be silenced in a bad manner.” Both fitting.
A place where plastic bags go to die. A place of roughly a million people.
* * * * * * * *
Watch your head as you go, for the overhanging tin roofs are jagged rusty and threatening. Reach out to stabilize yourself as you walk on the edge of the sewage-filled pathway and notice the clay mud and stick walls supporting the rusty roofs. Feel them crumble in the dry heat and expose chinks and stick framing, and be thankful there is little wind in Nairobi.
Let the smell hit you again, the oppressive, warm, moist smell of the sweat of a million people and their waste that has no place to go – a smell at once musty and ripe.
Pass by the discolored ducks that waddle through the sewage and drink, and find yourself confused that the ducks are indeed there. Listen to the chorus of “How are you?” See the mucus-dried stare of children too young to speak holding out a sticky grubby hand begging to be clasped – and clasp it.
See the mothers nursing in their doorways and staring at you, not rudely or aggressively or with anger, but with the caution that comes from a troubled history.
Duck beneath an overhang connecting a house to a pen for goats. Goats bred for meat and milk. Fill your nostrils with dust and dirt and skin and mud and everything that fills the suffocating dry air of the place. Cough and inhale some more. Debate over whether to clear your nose or leave it clogged to let it do its job. Feel the small beads of sweat form on your forehead as you feel the suffocation and claustrophobia of the place, but walk on.
As you walk, see the dogs dying from lack of food. See children crowding the lanes on top of heaps of shoe leather and plastic bags and old batteries and food waste. See where all plastic bags find their rest lining the streets, unable to decompose and merely accumulating with time.
Smile at these children. Test your Swahili and say, “Habari” (“How are you?”) and hear the reply “Mzuri sana” (“Very well”) from the children with distended bellies and watery eyes. Begin to sense the torturous goodness and hope of this place.
And do not cry. This is not the place to cry. Tears will only make canals through the dried sweaty dust on your cheeks like the Kibera rivers through trash-filled alleys. There are enough of both. Do not cry until you get home.
Round the corner to the left and leap manly over the next stream, for it is wide and muddy at best, mired with waste and muck at worst. It could claim your shoe if you miss your landing.
Pass the women frying dough to sell for a few shillings. See the men as they pass to go catch a ride to the city to earn a few shillings a week to pay the rent of their families’ mud homes.
In a brief clearing, stand up and look out at the fortified suburban houses you passed at the entrance, and see the packed sardine tin and mud you see in the foreground and embrace the realness of this place, even if they do not see it. Pass along a straight path that is a mound of bags and mud and turn left.
* * * * * * * *
The church you will arrive at is a place of hope, a refuge in the Lord for people in central Kibera. Meet the pastor who has invested twenty years of his life helping the people in slums. Meet his wife, with her warm sense of humor and her very serious hope for the church and the girls of Kibera.
Meet the young men in the “Pastor’s Army.” Delightful men with a love for God that spills over into selfless service to the children and courage to get an education and do great things.
Meet the young women who run the school and health department and the affectionately named Department of Stomach Affairs. Hear them sing with joy songs of praise to their God.
See them smile. See them try so hard each day to reflect light into the dark pathways and rooms and latrines and goat pens and trash piles and dark eyes of the beautiful people who dwell around them looking for a hope to hang on to, get them by, fill their stomachs, make them whole, ease the pain, make them believe even Christ and his love can enter the mud and tin and dung and disease of Kibera.
See their humility. See that they are the heroes and bear the hope of hundreds but do not realize it but do it anyway and would regardless because it isn’t them carrying the burden but their Lord – isn’t them seeking the glory but their God.
Welcome to Kibera.
* * * * * * * *
Inside the church, grab a tissue to blow out your nose and see it bleed due to the heat and dryness. Begin to smell again.
Hug the children as they play and see them laugh. Forget where their hands may have been and lift them up above your shoulders and hear them giggle. Put one of them down and see the others push for position to be next. Snap a photo and hear them scream boisterously and give you a thumbs-up sign. Listen again to the chorus of “How are you?” as they hug your legs and arms.
See the quiet, not happiness, but not desperation either, but frustration laced with desires for contentment – yet even joy – in the eyes of the mothers who out of love and want bring their children for medical care. Anything for the rashes and infections and fevers and congestion and sores afflicting their children who they love.
Give de-worming pills to all of them. Know in your heart that the diarrhea will be back in two days anyhow because there is no sanitary water to drink.
Grimace as you see children without shoes, but smile when you hear them singing and laughing in school. Sense a glimmer of hope.
See a woman burned by her husband, near death, being cared for and protected by women in the church. See the child with a lame leg, orphaned by the AIDS death of his parents. See a child with HIV near death, and realize that he was the only child you could not get to smile at you. Know that he will be dead in two weeks. Hear that a similar child died just before you arrived.
But do not cry. Be strong for them.
Delight the children by blowing up latex gloves into udder- like playtoys. See the relief and thanksgiving of the mothers and hear the Amens as you pray for them to hold on to faith in a place so hard and so arid and so dusty that faith is and must be the only thing that can get them by.
Go inside their houses. See the bare dirty mattresses, stick furniture, paper ads covering the walls in a dual duty of wind protection and decoration. Feel the oppressiveness of the tight space filled with only you and the host, but at night filled with a family of warm coughing bodies. Move quickly outside for air that is not fresh but is at least uncontained, and realize upon walking away that there wasn’t even a window cut through the mud walls.
There was only a door.
* * * * * * * *
As you turn to leave, remember the faces, the stories – for that’s all you have. For Kibera doesn’t exist, at least not on paper . You w on’ t read about it in the newspapers or magazines or books.
It exists in the space not seen by the indifferent by only by the hearts that cry and the people that long for something better for the future – but a piece of bread and a kind word from a stranger for today.
Some might say it is a God-forsaken place. But God could not forsake a place like Kibera. He has planted too much good and love and faith and hope in this place to leave it now. He promised to heal the sick, not the healthy, and he will. However, as is often the case, the redemption is a long time coming.
But as long as the Pastors’ armies and volunteers and those who confront its existence continue to take the long walk into Kibera, we’ll know visibly that God is there doing great things.
You won’t get there by map. You’ll only see the swamp of cane and a rickety footbridge over the fetid waters and graves for plastic bags. But you’ll also find hope.
Then you’ll know you’re in Kibera.