Smiles, Hard Work, and Hope May 20, 2011 by Carolina For Kibera
Guest writer and recent visitor to CFK, Robert Gorman, reflects on his visit to Kibera with students from the College of Wooster:
Kibera left a lasting impression on our group as we travelled from the heartland of the United States to Kenya. Eighteen of us ventured from Wooster, Ohio, over the spring break at The College of Wooster. The group included 12 college students, their professor, and five community members. The trip was part of a “People and Cultures of Kenya” college course and was designed to give us a close-in look at the people of Kenya. Prior to traveling to the Western Province for four days in two small villages, a great deal of emotional firepower was packed into a relatively short visit to Kibera and the Carolina for Kibera offices.
The eighteen of us — 16 white, one black and one of mixed race — felt very conspicuous as our bus rumbled down the dirt road as we entered Kibera. The physical appearance of the slum was not a complete surprise to us, as we had spent some time studying Kibera in our class. Nevertheless, driving into Kibera felt surreal.
Although the poverty was overwhelming, my first thought as we drove through the slum was, “There is a lot of entrepreneurship here.” We saw day care centers, butcher shops, pharmacies, key-making shops, umbrella repair shops — even an internet café. We could tell that while people were desperately poor, they were engaged in their communities.
We joined four MIT graduate students who also were visiting Carolina for Kibera that day and spent perhaps an hour with about 10 CFK staffers who took turns telling us of their specific jobs and the programs that they ran, and who patiently answered our questions. We then split into two groups. Half of us headed to Tabitha Clinic. The walk to the clinic was something — the smell of the slum, the lack of street signs, the little children greeting us with a loud “How are you?” — as we tracked between structures till we got to the Clinic. The Clinic is a beacon of hope in a distressed place. We were blown away as the health care workers took the time to explain the Clinic to us. My notes from the day called the clinic “staggeringly impressive.” As a member of the board of a local nonprofit free clinic in Wooster, I was inspired with the technology, the teamwork of the staff and the passion of the workers.
We returned to the CFK offices and met up with the other half of our group who not only visited the recycling center, they got to go inside a small home in which the head of household was a 10-year-old girl who was in charge of three siblings. She was receiving a scholarship from CFK and was proud to show off her home, unlocking the door to the 120-square-foot “home” she shared with her siblings. The people from our trip who visited that home were clearly shaken by the thought of a 10-year-old girl running a family, and they were astonished at her maturity.
The emotions our group experienced from Kibera were driven home further by our afternoon activity. We boarded our bus and drove about an hour to a tea plantation which was a holdover from colonial times. We had a lovely lunch on linen tablecloths on the lawn of the plantation house, saw some beautiful gardens, had our first encounter with monkeys, and heard a lecture on the growth, harvest and processing of tea. It was an experience that was as troubling as it was lovely. It is very difficult to reconcile the poverty we saw in the morning with the comfort and relative luxury we saw in the afternoon. To the planners of our trip, this was no accident. One of the goals was to make us feel discomfort with the unequal distribution of wealth in the world and to ponder the fortunes of birth.
From two months’ hindsight, it is still hard to get our heads around Kibera. Poverty and destitution were extreme, but unhappiness did not appear to match the conditions. We saw many smiles, some hard work, and a lot of hope. Most, if not all, of the people on our trip were very deeply impacted by Kibera. A couple have referred to the visit as a life-changing experience. One cannot help but to be moved in several ways — inspired by the tenacity of the people at CFK who work every day in the face of despair, and motivated to do something, somehow, to make a difference in the Kiberas of our lives.