A Fellow’s Reflections on Kibera February 23, 2018 by Krista Park Berry
Last fall, 2017 James and Florence Peacock Fellow Jeff Walker, spent eight weeks with our nutrition and community wellness team on the ground in Kibera. As a graduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health, Jeff was very interested to experiences his academic work in practice with the community. Keep reading to hear Jeff share more about his experiences in Kibera and what made the most impact on him during his time with CFK.
In your own works, what is Kibera?
Kibera is a hustling, bustling community of hard-working people and friendly families who live in a slum so they can seek out the opportunities available in Nairobi.
How did your perception of Kibera differ from your expectation going in?
I have been in slums and informal settlements before and thought I was prepared. However, Kibera is just so massive and dense that the living conditions were harsher than I expected. The lack of sanitation facilities and working with malnourished children left no doubt about the poor quality of life. On the flip-side I was impressed by the entrepreneurship and hard work of people in Kibera – I even met a man from another informal settlement in Nairobi who came to Kibera Town Centre to people watch because of all the famous musicians, politicians, and business people he heard had lived there before they became famous.
During your visit, what did your typical day look like?
A typical day for me started with some exercise – occasionally a run with a co-worker, eating breakfast, and then walking twenty minutes to CFK’s main office. From there I usually caught up with everyone, used the internet to respond to emails and read articles about malnutrition and early child development, and looked forward to mid-morning chai tea! Then I would either go with my preceptor Esther to Lishe Bora Mtaani, where we would measure and weigh kids, or we would go to an event in the community focused on nutrition. Usually, I would interview one or two people or conduct a focus group two or three days out of the week for the nutritional case study I was working on.
At the end of the work day I would typically walk back to my homestay and chat with my host mom so I could ask questions about what I had heard and process some of the cultural things I didn’t understand. After that we’d sit down to dinner in the living room and watch the English news broadcast, which prompted conversations about politics every evening. No matter what happened each day I did a lot of walking, which was a great way to get familiar with the community!
Which program did left the most of an impact on you?
The program that resonated with me most was Lishe Bora and the other malnutrition treatment and prevention programs at Tabitha Medical Clinic and in the Community Wellness initiative. Since I just finished my studies in public health and nutrition, these programs let me see a lot of what I learned at UNC in practice. I think the biggest aspect of these programs that I appreciated was the level of integration between CFK and the community. The number of community health volunteers involved in promoting breastfeeding, screening for malnutrition, and helping families in other ways was staggering and inspiring.
Pick a powerful moment from your visit. Why does this moment stand out to you?
As part of my work with Lishe Bora, I wanted to learn more about why people in Kibera choose to eat the foods that they do. When one of the Community Health Volunteers I worked with offered to take me on a few home visits so that I could see conditions there and ask questions about the foods people purchased and ate I was ready to go. In total, I visited six homes and each visit was powerful because most were with single parent families of children enrolled at Lishe Bora.
On the first home visit I met Gladys. The biggest struggles she faced included finding a stable job to pay rent, school fees, and buy food. I found this to be typical – mothers I spoke to often discussed cleaning houses when the work was available and skipping meals to feed their children while staying in budget. Most families also only ate corn or potatoes with greens, which was concerning due to the lack of protein. I also got acquainted with the fact that people in Kibera usually live in one or two room structures. Gladys used sheets to divide her room in half, one half for sleeping a family of five and the other half as a living and cooking space. I also noticed there was no water hose in Gladys’ home, all their water had to be purchased and carried to the house. Though I’d walked through slums before, it was more touching hearing Gladys speak about her family’s obstacles in her home. And the fact these discussions were repeated at each home visit was frustrating.
What was one thing you wish you would’ve known about Kibera before you had taken this position? Asked another way, what do you hope to communicate to people in the US about Kibera and Kiberans that might cause a shift in someone’s perspective?
I wish someone had told me Kibera was like New York City. It seems like an odd comparison at first. The living conditions in Kibera are much worse and families often struggle to buy enough food for their families while keeping the light on. But, I think the mindset of a lot of people is similar.
Over half of the people living in Nairobi live in slums and they choose to do that because jobs and educational opportunities are nearby. In most cases, the people I spoke to in Kibera had ties, family, and some even had land in rural Kenya. However, they brave tough living conditions because they decided to chase opportunities in Nairobi. While I was there I met business owners, activists, college graduates, footballers, teachers, and many people working to join the middle class. Kibera is like any place full of motivated people, there are struggles but tremendous potential as well. It was humbling and exciting to see how CFK is building Kibera up to be a healthier, safer, and stronger community while also connecting individuals to opportunities for success.
From the team at CFK, thanks so much Jeff, for your time, commitment and work in the community of Kibera. Congrats on completing graduate school and becoming certified as a registered dietitian. Good luck and come see us next time you’re in Kenya!