Davis: Hope and sorrow in Kibera


Nairobi is an African capital city that is struggling to move into the 21st century. There is some evidence of what some of the more sophisticated places in the world have such as tall buildings, ubiquitous cell phones and clothing that would not stand out in Boston or New York. But that is pretty much where the similarity ends.

Traffic lights are dark and traffic flow is mostly controlled by speed bumps and roundabouts. Diesel fumes and road dust are the perfumes du jour and if you want to get from point A to point B you need a lot of patience and fortitude.

I drove a cab for a year in Boston and I am thankful that our travel group has local expert drivers. If you could imagine that all of the traffic lights were non-functioning in Boston or New York and that there were more cars than road space, then you might get a sense of what driving is like in Nairobi.

The friendliness of the people is almost enough to overcome the horrors of travel, but travel trouble seems so trivial when you start to explore other parts of local culture. Only being here for a few days hardly qualifies me as an expert, but once you step into the world of Kibera time becomes meaningless and you realize what a privilege it is to live in a 21st century world.

Kibera is one of the worst slums in the world. It occupies an area about the size of New York's Central Park and it is home to about one million people. Few tourists ever make an excursion into this part of Nairobi, but the Guilford Community Church group that I am traveling with has made a connection to a school that is in the middle of Kibera. We were welcomed into their world as we made our way through narrow muddy streets flowing with a variety of human waste.

Corrugated tin and mud bricks form most of the living spaces and as you walk through the rivers of human detritus all of your senses are assaulted. No words are adequate to describe the intensity of immersion and shock to a person used to a more civilized life. It is hard to tell what year or century you are walking through, and it is painful to try to put yourself in the place of the inhabitants of this other world.

Kibera was a forested area until the late 1940s when Nubians from Sudan migrated south into Kenya. They began cutting down trees and, as immigration increased, the area slowly evolved into the slum that it is today. There are no police in Kibera and there are no obvious health care facilities. There is a local type of commerce, but it is clear that daily life is a struggle on a level that most of the rest of the civilized world will never come close to understanding.

Given all of this hardship, it was nothing short of miraculous to be greeted by a school full of happy young children who nearly jumped on all of the members of our group as we were given a tour of their school. They were eager to shake hands and offer high fives. After the immersion shock of a walk down a Kibera street, the exuberant joy expressed to the visitors seemed beyond belief.

Where does this joy come from? How can children who live in such a horrific world find anything to be happy about? When we met Simeon, the school's leader, we learned a lesson in hope and inspiration. Despite all of the obstacles, this man and his teachers and supporters are able to provide a quality education to a few hundred children every year and show them that the world is bigger than Kibera, that education has the potential to provide them with a path to the future; a future that they have the power to create for themselves.

When Simeon told us that some of his students needed athletic suits so they could compete in events, I asked him how much he needed. I emptied my wallet and a few of my fellow travelers eagerly lightened their wallets as well. It was like throwing a grain of sand into the ocean and expecting a tidal wave.

But, as the Chinese philosopher Loa Tse said: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." Our journey began with the toss of a grain of sand into an ocean of sorrow and hope. Hopefully, the unseen ripples will wash away some of the sorrow.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.


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