“There is a crowd coming.” Coolly said William, our bodyguard and community liaison, as he directed us to the side of Thousands Road. As we stood at the edge of the narrow road and the open sewer ditch, the crowd passed caring a man’s limp body. His arms were held straight out to the side and this feet and head were supported so that his body formed a perfect cross.
“The man drank poison…” explained a woman following the crowd. “We are heading to the medical clinic.”
The people of Kibera have to form these makeshift human ambulances to transport the sick because the road is so narrow and rough. This is just one example from our short time in Kibera where we’ve seen how strong the sense of community is—strong enough to try and save its citizens when all hope looks lost.
At first glance Kibera looks lost. It is the second largest slum in the world. With reports of upwards of 800,000 people living in a 600 acre space, to say it is densely populated is an understatement. With its location in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, the slum attracts a lot of attention, both from the UN Habitat, which is headquartered in Nairobi, and from a number of Non-Government Agencies (NGOs). Ironically, the slum has not been recognized by the city of Nairobi until recently, and is, therefore, largely cut off from the city’s already inadequate infrastructure. Thus, the slums do not have direct access to electricity, water and sewer lines, or solid waste disposal. This means that the standard 10ft x 10ft one room house that on average six Kiberans share does not have running water, electricity, garbage collection, or a toilet. The houses are made out of corrugated metal fencing material or mud bricks, and have dirt floors. The community has open drainage/sewer systems, dirt roads, flying toilets— plastic bags uses as toilets and thrown out of the house in the middle of the night— giant trash piles with litter everywhere, and community members have walk up to 10 km to buy water when there are water shortages. These are some of the everyday struggles of the average Kiberan: in addition to also paying for toilet uses, food, clothes, school tuition, and other daily needs, all with an average household income of less then $2 a day.
This environment made our daily walks through Kibera an overload of surreal visuals and pungent smells. It took me a strong sense of denial and finally acceptance to walk through the roads and see all of the decomposing plastic bags that I was stepping on as what they really were—old flying toilets. Just part of the experience…
Poverty is nothing new in Kibera, and neither are NGOs (non-government organizations) that decide to come into Kibera and “help.” We use quotes around help because in Kibera the common acronym of NGO does not stand for Non-Government Organizations; instead, NGO stands for Nothing Going On. So many organizations have come to aid Kiberans just to fail. So again I say that at first glance Kibera looks lost.
After spending three weeks with the people of Kibera and witnessing events such as a human ambulance, we have been overwhelmed by the spirit, determination, and sense of community that everyday Kiberans possess. Visiting families in their homes and places of work, we began to have a better understanding of their daily struggles, behavior patterns, resiliency, and entrepreneurial spirit. Peter coined the term “Hustling Kiberans” which we all think fits this smart but struggling group.
I have to admit that visiting the slums almost every day was emotionally taxing. Each of us had moments of pure awe, sadness, acceptance, understanding, and joy. For me seeing the sense of pride on mother had of keeping her 10×10 mud brick home clean and elegantly decorated— for example she used lace tablecloths as wall hangings dress up the mud brick walls—helped me understand that even though Kiberans lived with next to nothing, they were as prideful and ambitious as anyone else. This may sound like American arrogance, and it may very well be. But, spending time with people like Mary pictured below, was a humbling and enriching experience that none of us will soon forget. To see these people struggle for clean drinking water, a basic human need, encouraged us and discouraged us at the same time. It inspired us to put in the consistent 14-hour days, and go beyond our project scope to try to help our client succeed.
On the lighter side, our project revolved around basic needs like water, toilets, and shower access; thus, the team became very comfortable talking about poop. This extended from talking to the community about their usage patterns, to our IBD team informing each other about our own patterns. At one point we got the play-by-play from a member of our team that was battling a nasty case of food poisoning.
As an aside, it was interesting to see the team dynamic when dealing with the sick member. He assumed the role of a sick kid, while other members assumed roles of concerned parents making soup, checking his temperature, and dictating what he should eat. An actual conversation we had went something like this…
“How are you feeling? We made you toast.” Sympathetically stated the IBD parents.
“But I want Pringles…” exclaimed the sickie.
“That’s not a good idea. I think you should eat your toast.” Forcefully recommended the IBD parents.
We also had our fun exploring Kenya, a magnificent country with truly awful roads. (An aside, we spent around 4 hours in traffic each day, and roads seemed like a collection of potholes where the game of our drive was to find the least bumpy path across the entire road.) We explored some of the local clubs, taking in the UEFA Champions league final in a local sports bar. Drogba! We visited a giraffe sanctuary where giraffes kissed Minnie and me both, and we stopped by an elephant orphanage were Alicia tried to adopt an elephant. Very cute. And of course we ventured outside of Nairobi with a safari trip to Maasai Mara.
Amazing! Maasai Mara is amazing. Seeing a pride of lions walk up to your safari van is pure awesomeness with a side of wondering how high they can jump. Baby baboons hanging on to their mothers, elephants knocking over trees, a cheetah hanging out in an afternoon thunderstorm, and lions going for a morning walk were just some of the highlights of the trip. It was also a much-needed break from our daily grind and immersion into slum life.
This week we met privately with our client and went through many of our recommendations. The meeting was originally scheduled for 2 but didn’t happen until 8; that’s Africa for you. Sitting around a dining room table and using two of our MacBooks to present, we went through our insights and recommendations. It was a very informal “final presentation” but it was exactly what we and the client needed—a heart to heart with charts. There is a lot on the line for this NGO. It wants to break the mold of the “Nothing Going On” stereotype, and it has made may promises to the community. We hope that our findings and proposed plan helps the organization, and more importantly, the community.
As I think back on the human ambulance, I find it to be a moving metaphor for Kibera. The slum is sick, but all is not lost. The strength and resiliency of the human spirit wills Kibera back from the brink. Coordinating that strength into a community wide human ambulance with partners such as our client NGO, the citizens of Kibera can break out of poverty. This is what I’ve come to hope for the community that will continue to inspire me for years to come.
The best of luck Kibera.
We believe in you.
HNP IBD Team
Postscript: Read Alicia’s daily blog about our trip at http://goodo.blogspot.com/