Saturday, January 25, 2014

Servants and Slumdogs

On January 22, our group went to the slums of Kibera. It is a famous slum known for its 12 districts containing anywhere from 120,000 to 2 million people, “depending on what propaganda you listen to.” Kibera originated as an area for Sudanese refugees, providing a temporary place for them to reside. It was never meant to be a permanent place of housing. Despite Kibera’s size, it is still technically in Nairobi. The contrast of great wealth in the city and the staggering poverty in the slums was appalling. Often times in the slums, people would use “flying toilets,” which is when they defecate into bags and simply toss them out on the street in lieu of a restroom.

            We started our visit by stopping by the Swahiba organization. The word “swahiba” means “close friends” in Swahili. The organization aims to have a holistic approach in their evangelizing. Grace, the “pastor” of the group, quoted the founder of the Swahiba organization about the group’s purpose in saying, “if you must preach to a hungry person, then wrap the gospel in a sandwich.” Swahiba has several programs geared for different age groups. They also try to educate girls about reproduction in order to empower them to leave the slums in hopes of a better life.

Pastor Grace told me that many times, people send money to the government for aid, only for that money to “disappear” into the accounts of politicians. She argued that the most effective response was from refugees who’ve escaped the slum, only later choosing to return to it. The returned refugees knew the people of the slums. They are intimately aware of the problems they face. But how could you ever fault those who’ve left the slums, the ones who tried so desperately all their lives to escape? One member of our group said that it must be a calling from God that draws these people back. Otherwise, they would never return.

            While we initially planned to have three separate groups go into Kibera with one guard each, the guards wanted to have another guard be hired. This new development, coupled with the frustration of being asked by the guards to pay increasingly higher service fees, resulted in a compromise of one group being accompanied by two guards.

            As we walked through Kibera, I would see the aforementioned bags on the road and would try to avoid stepping on them. However, there became times where the bags were simply unavoidable to walk on, due to the sheer volume of bags present. Open sewers meandered through the streets with putrid sewage. Random assortments of piping and wiring proliferated in the city. Trash was everywhere. Some children walked the slum without shoes even in this environment. As I passed by corrugated iron roofs, some of which were accidentally electrified, I could see the exposed raw branches composing the houses, most times cemented only by the clay-rich soil of the area.

            With Swahiba, we visited two households of their students in Kibera, presenting free modest groceries to the families of these households. In the first house, we crammed our group inside one small room with few furnishings. The house held a father and his three daughters. He thanked us and informed us of his job as a security guard. His words were spoken with great effort, and I could see that he was exhausted. I immediately remembered our interactions with the security guards. I was frustrated by our interactions with the security guards earlier, but then I wondered about their families they, too, had to support. Of course, they would try to hire another guard and also try to raise their wage; they need the money.

            On the way to the second house, we had to cross over a stream of filth. I could see pigs wading through the waste below. I observed that many of the street merchants who had lunch would cook only slices of potato for food. Sometimes, they would cook with spices, but often times it was plain. Usually, the oil used for cooking the potatoes would be from the generators they used.

            The second house was even smaller than the first, being only slightly larger than my hotel bathroom.  Here, a mother lived with her 13 children. She asked us to pray for her health, since she suffered from both diabetes and high blood pressure.

            We arrived back at Swahiba and hung out with its members. They are so filled with the Spirit. Though their work is tough, they take such joy in what they do. I talked with Daniel extensively about his job as a Swahiba teacher for the children in Kibera. He told me about how he once heard a 15 year old student say that they’ve killed someone. He also spoke of his joy at the chance to help impact young people. After our discussion, he asked when I was going to return to Kenya. I replied that I didn’t know.
            It has been the persistent question throughout this trip: purpose. I’ve heard of students in the past who’ve desired to return to Kenya after the trip, only to be caught up in lie when they return stateside. It’s hard to leave friends and family behind. Frankly, it’s terrifying. I want to return to Kenya, but I don’t know if I could commit to that desire.

            Daniel’s question made me think about how to address the problems of Kibera. The perpetuated ignorance of the cultures present in Kibera often times prevents people from leaving. Swahiba members informed us that when their students become educated, they grow a desire to leave the slums. Yet, there are so many other problems in Kibera besides education.

Throughout the trip, I’ve had a unique experience. Being the only non-white member of the group, I would be constantly asked if I was Chinese by Kenyans (for the record, I’m Filipino). It took me 12 years to become a U.S. citizen. Yet, it has been assumed by many that I’m not. Many members of my group have expressed uncomfortable moments where people have begged them for money. Being Americans, most Kenyans assume that we are rich. This also occurs when we barter with merchants. They start at bartering with extremely high prices. In contrast, I would get reasonable starting prices when bartering. I was foreign. I wasn’t seen as “rich.” I was able to be a part of American culture and also be an observer of it.

Besides cultural differences, there are problems with poor sanitation and infrastructure. Everything is so complex as the problems interweave and interact with each other. Many Kenyans have expressed that the police and government are corrupt, and it seems that many police swindle money in order to support their families. Poor job opportunities force people to move to cheap residence. Ignorance abounds, and so is disease. Even if we scorched the earth in Kibera and rebuilt from the ground up the people of the slum would just flock to other slums because these problems would still exist. Kibera is a rallying point; it isn’t the cause of the problems for these people. The underlying factors would not be addressed, and the problems would continue.

And yet, the people are joyful. The residents of the slum that we’ve met were so hopeful in God. Their faith was astounding. With the little that they have, they feel so blessed for every day. They have friends, family, and God. In chaos, there is harmony.

And yet, America has problems, too. Despite our staggering wealth and opportunities, we still express dissatisfaction and frustration in our lives. We “have it all,” yet often times we still don’t find peace.

What is Kibera missing? What are we Americans missing?

-Jerome N.
Photo credits: Emily

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