First Week in Kibera June 13, 2013  by      

[A bit of background: Every year, CFK selects undergraduate and/or graduate students for our Peacock Fellowship program.  Candidates work with CFK staff for a full year in order to develop projects that they will later implement in Kibera.  Upon their return to campus, CFK Peacock Fellows help tell the story of Kibera to other students and faculty.

This year, two students were awarded fellowships.  You can read more about them here.  Below, we’ve included a blog post from one of our Fellows, Kai Schwartz.  In the post, Kai vividly recounts her first week in Kibera.  If you would like to learn more from her about her time there, be sure to follow her on her personal blog.]

By: Kai Schwartz, 2013 CFK Peacock Fellow

Since my arrival I’ve only seen two parts of Kenya: the slum that I’m working in, Kibera, and an adjacent middle class neighborhood where I live, called Jamhuri. Despite the limited number of places I’ve been, I’ve managed to accumulate pages of notes and observations.

DSC_4622The majority of my time has been spent becoming acquainted with the various programs Carolina for Kibera (CFK) is involved in. I’ve been assured, on several occasions, that the education program I’m working with (called “Angaza” – which means “to shine light on”) is an “exit strategy” for other programs. I’m not entirely sure what that means. Kenyans and I both tend play a game where we nod and smile when we don’t understand each other. I play a lot. As much as possible, I try to ask people to repeat things or to say them differently, but sometimes the social situation necessitates a large smile, a nod, and an enthusiastic “sawa” (Swahili for “okay”), and we change subjects. I’m figuring it all out slowly.

Almost everyone I’ve met speaks English, but the sentence construction is slightly different and often, people speak in almost a whisper. I lean in closer and closer. “Could you repeat that?” I ask for the third time as my ear hovers inches from their face, struggling to hear a tiny voice. In the United States, someone would back away and roll their eyes. However, personal space seems smaller and patience greater among the people I’ve met.

People also hold hands more. Men with men, women with women, and men and women. It’s something I’m trying to get used to. At home, I never touch people I’ve just met. If we’re being honest, I don’t really enjoy publicly touching people I know all that much. The first time someone just grabbed my hand as we were walking, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do.

I’ve seen the Binti Pamoja girls program, which promotes leadership skills, addresses gender-based violence, and hopes to prevent teenage pregnancy and drug use while encouraging girls to stay in school. It has some thousands of girls who have gone through the program. I missed the exact number, but the number of “Safe Spaces” (groups of girls who had graduated) was in the dozens.

I also visited the Tabitha Medical Clinic, which provides medical services and a pharmacy. It should be noted that to get there, one must traverse Kibera’s notorious 3-foot wide corridors between mud hut homes. The plastic bags and trash are imbedded so completely in the dirt that sedimentary layers have been created, with deep rivers of pungent black water cutting through to create putrid canyons. To navigate the corridors is less a “walk” and more a combination of wide leg hopping, leaping and balancing. Consider also the intense population density of Kibera. One must also side-step women balancing large baskets on their heads and children who run by in the opposite direction.

The Clinic is clean, and the people who work there seem proud of the services they provide and passionate about helping those who come in. I note the long line and marvel at how every piece of equipment they have was carried—by hand—through the corridors to the clinic.

Newly opening next week is a nutrition center to help severely undernourished children below the age of 4. The staff excitedly tells me about the new model they are using—from India—rather than the traditional “African” model for a nutrition center. The African model usually has the children come to the center, where they are served a meal and then given some food to take home. The India model provides more contact between the center and the children. The children stay at the center all day, and they receive two meals and preschool instruction. The staff have been very busy preparing age-appropriate teaching materials and gathering all the necessary equipment. On Saturday, a truck of brightly colored miniature chairs and giant cooking pots arrived at the main CFK building, which is on the road. We all helped to carry the water drums and patterned mattresses on our heads to the new nutrition center buildings deeper inside the community.

I don’t have any pictures for these things. Kibera as a slum seems novel to foreigners but to the people here, it is their community where they live. And overall, Kiberans are exhausted with foreign tourists coming into their community and taking pictures of them going about their daily business. I can only imagine that if I was trying to go to work, meet a friend, or go shopping and some foreigner was always there taking pictures of me, I would be very frustrated. So, in an effort to not treat people as spectacle, I don’t have any photos right now. Perhaps later, once I have a real relationship with some of the people, it will feel appropriate to ask them to take their picture, but not yet.

Perhaps the largest program at CFK is the Sports Association. The goal of the program is to improve tribal relations between the different tribes that exist in Kenya. Each team must be made up of kids from different tribes with the hope that the diversity will alleviate tensions. Hundreds of boys teams exist, along with a similar number of girls teams. Four players on the current Kenyan national football team are former CFK players, something that the staff is very proud of..

I had not seen a game yet until Saturday, when a CFK staff member invited me to watch some younger boys play. I met “Allan” (name changed because I have not yet asked him if I could use his name on the Internet) in the afternoon. After moving the nutrition center equipment, we set off to the fields.

Allan asked if it was okay to walk. Kiberans seem very concerned that foreigners cannot walk long distances. I assured him it would be fine. I asked him how far he walks every day. He told me it takes him about an hour to get to Kibera every day. His skepticism about Americans’ ability to walk long distances seemed more and more rational. I learned later that he used to live in Kibera, though his home was destroyed in 2007 during the ethnic violence following the election. His family was forced to move somewhere else. I’m not sure where. He expressed disapproval of tribalism.

To get to the fields we followed one of the paved roads, which comes with its own set of challenges. Cars, buses, vans and motorcycles all share the entire width of the road and lanes seem like a forgotten suggestion. Occasionally, oncoming traffic stays on the left (they drive on the other side here); however, more often, if the car in front of another vehicle is slow or stopped—or just because—drivers will swerve anywhere on the road. Additionally, “pedestrian right of way” is a non-existent sentiment. The attitude seems more like, “They’ll probably get out of my way.” The sidewalks are consistently overcrowded, and walking in the street with the cars, buses, vans, and motorcycles is the norm.

Keeping up with Allan goes like this: 5 feet on the sidewalk, dodging people (who also don’t have an assigned side of the sidewalk), three steps in the street. Step back onto sidewalk as a bus whizzes by. Back into street. Jump between two people into a clearing on the sidewalk. Walk under a board someone is carrying on their head. Back into the street for a while. And so on. Allan expertly weaves in and out of people and I hustle to try to keep up.

The field is a large patch of dirt, and about 20 boys have accumulated. They have one ball, and most of them wear worn-through cheap plastic sandals, crusted with mud. I meet some CFK coaches and community outreach officers. We’re waiting for the referees. I sit down with the CFK staff, who I guess to be between the ages of 16 and 20. They ask me about the differences between Kibera and America. I say that the level of poverty is one of the most obvious differences. However, Kiberan’s creativity, work ethic, and community resilience are also strengths I’ve noticed as well. We discuss for a while how best to encourage a community to maintain its strengths while eradicating poverty.

The conversation turns to politics. The recent election is still a common topic and the young men debate back and forth, switching between English, Swahili and Sheng (a language only found in Kenyan slums that deserves its own blog post entirely). The fluid transitions have become something I’m accustomed to; however, it is another challenge to my understanding of any given situation. Every once and a while, one of the young men will stop and look at me and speak solely in English. He throws out statistics and poll numbers and refers to regions I’m unfamiliar with for about two minutes. “See,” he concludes, “that is how the results cannot possibly make up 51% and so a commission should be held.” I determine that a smile, a nod, and an enthusiastic “sawa” seems appropriate. And another boy laughs and shakes his head. “No, no, no,” he says, as they tumble back into their debate.

During a pause, I ask Allan about his life goals. He wants to be a surgeon. With the way schools work here, if he can get all A’s and pass a very difficult national test, the government will pay the majority of his University fees. However, a major obstacle for poor Kenyans is high school fees, which many families cannot afford. I’m too timid to ask if he is in high school, knowing that many good students cannot come up with the funds (approximately $150-$300) for a year of high school.

I watch the boys on the field for a bit. Despite their bare toes and the dirt, they dribble the ball up and down the field energetically.

The game finishes and Allan suggests we go to another CFK event in Kibera. I agree, despite not knowing where we’re going or what the event is. My uncertainty has become routine.

Clean-Up_Kai Schwartz

We walk back past the CFK office and turn to go deeper into the community. We go through the corridors, over the putrid black water, balancing on scraps of wood laid down as treacherous bridges. We come to a clearing where there are some railroad tracks, used as a foot traffic thoroughfare. While trash is omnipresent in Kibera, at a clearing, a waist-high pile of garbage is being picked through by featherless chickens and starving dogs. We stand next to the trash pile after we run into another CFK staff member. I shake his hand and make an introduction and we small talk. None of the people around me seem even aware of the heap of garbage we are literally a foot away from. I pretend not to smell the decay.

I follow the CFK staff some more down unfamiliar roads and corridors. Suddenly they stop and indicate that I go through a curtain into a mud hut.

A nod, a smile and an enthusiastic “sawa.” Again, it seems the most appropriate response.

And suddenly I’m in a room of about 25 children sitting on rows of crude 4-inch wide boards, perilously held up by sticks. The gap between the mud walls and the tin roof is supported by Styrofoam from electronics packaging. Holes in the mud walls let in the small beams of light.

After my eyes adjust to the dim room I see another CFK staff member in front of the group, talking about hygiene. Allan and I take a seat in the back. Allan occasionally translates what I assume is Swahili, though it could be Sheng. I don’t know. Everyone here seems to speak at minimum 3 languages, though more commonly, they speak 4 or 5. Suddenly, the CFK staff member is waving to me. And says, “Now you come up. Tell them what you’re doing.” A smile, a nod and an enthusiastic “sawa.”

I try to adapt my dry, conceptual, very adult project description for the young audience. They smile and laugh, though I can’t imagine I’ve made much sense or been very interesting. I hadn’t really prepared any material. “Ummmm…..any questions?” I ask, eyeing the CFK staffer to see if I can exit the stage.

There are lots of shouts from the audience. “Where are you from?!” “How old are you!?” “What is your favorite food?!” I answer a few simple questions when suddenly the questions take a turn and halt on “What are your talents!?” I’ve got nothing. “Can you dance!?” they shout. “Not really,” I respond. “Can you sing!?” they shout. Again, I insist, I am a horrible singer. “Dance for us! Dance for us!” It’s a chorus that won’t stop as much as I try to redirect them. “I like to be out in nature…” I try, hesitantly. “DANCE!” they keep shouting.

So I dance. It involves some index finger shaking and some knee bending. It’s pretty bad. They laugh. “Sing!!” becomes the new chorus. “Oh god,” I think. I suggest they sing the Kenyan national anthem instead. They like this and in high children’s voices they sing. Finally, I’m relieved from my impromptu performance.

I take my seat again and a different CFK staff member gets up to give a presentation on rape. Topics include: “What causes rape,” “What happens to people after rape,” “What you should do after you are raped,” and “How to prevent rape.” To encourage audience participation, the presenter asks questions and the children respond. “What kinds of rape are there?” the presenter asks the crowd of kids who looked like they could be in elementary school. Hands shoot up “stranger,” “incest,” “sodomy,” “familial,” “date,” they answer easily. I’m surprised with how much they know about all the rape-related topics. Laughing persists throughout the session, and I sense that some aren’t exactly sure how to respond to the material.

And then it is off for soft drinks. The whole experience causes me to reflect on the fluidity with which topics flip between levity and seriousness here.

On our way to get Fantas and Coca Colas, one of the CFK staff grabs my hand as we walk. I’m more awkward than I would like. I tell her I am impressed with her presentation because I don’t think in America we usually talk to children so young about rape. She comments on how alarmingly close the topic is to their daily experience.

On some levels, their perception on types of prevention and the causes of rape irk the feminist in me. However, the openness of the discussion is admirable and the engagement with youth ambitious. The CFK staffer explains how Kenyan parents are reluctant to talk about rape with children, but gender-based violence among the young is common.

As the children have sodas, I bid the staff goodbye and thank them for inviting me to participate in their Saturday activities. I turn the corner from the soda shop and step onto a main street towards home. It’s on a hill and I can see in the distance a wide street, packed with people, cutting through the endless tin roofs.


10 responses to “First Week in Kibera”

  1. Baptist says:

    Hello, I am a student from Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I was wondering why don’t Kenyan parents discuss rape with their children? Rape is a very serious thing, and I believe it best if everyone is educated about it and about ways to prevent it, so why don’t they discuss it with their children?

  2. Jonathan says:

    Hello, i am a student in Hillsborough NC. currently going to orange high school enrolled in a global issues class; We have learned much about the slum life all over the world, and recently Kibera as well, I really admire the way you respect their customs and way of life, and how you don’t want to feel like that annoying foreigner taking pictures of them doing their everyday thing.

  3. Gabe says:

    I’m a student in Hillsborough, NC, and I think that it’s great that you could go to Kibera and learn more about the culture along with trying to figure out ways to implement a program in order to help out. We’re learning about Kibera in our global issues class and I think that what you’re doing would be really cool. You said that people seem more patient there and don’t have as much a need for personal space, what other ways do you think their culture notably differs from our own?

  4. Jonah says:

    My name is Jonah and i am a student in Hillsborough, NC. This passage I just read showed me how young kids are when they learn about rape because it is all around them all the time. Also I thought it was interesting how small space does not bother them and how they hold hands all the time, even with strangers. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this.

  5. Lisa says:

    Hello, I am a traveler who has been to the Korogocho and Mukuru slums in Nairobi. I love your accurate and compassionate descriptions of the slums and the people who live there. Please keep sharing your stories.

  6. Manny says:

    This is more than enough to show how bad the slums are, these people are literally living in the garbage because they cannot do anything about it.

    A very inspiring story, thank you.

  7. Mr.Paul says:

    Its great that students are working in slum area of kenya’s different area and first week in Kiebra.

  8. Danny Craigs says:

    This is awesome, I actually am thinking about going to Kenya in the next few weeks to help people build homes.

  9. Lucy says:

    Great article

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