After originally posting this I received a bit of backlash from a few residents in Kibera via twitter. I decided to add a little buffer to this post so that you, the reader, can understand where I am coming from. This was my first experience traveling to Kibera and was only one day of my time spent in Kenya - not a summation of my entire trip. As you can imagine many of my emotions and thoughts were quite scrambled as this was quite a unique experience for me. In my personal journal I tried to organize and write down those thoughts as best as possible. This is not a post about the condition of Kibera or its people. I would never claim to have that knowledge as I have not done much research in the way of understanding it, nor did I spend enough time or meet enough people there to get a full picture of the beauty Kibera has to offer. As surface level as it may seem to some readers, the text used in this post is from my journal and is my most honest expression of trying to understand perspectives of those who live there.
Understanding the perspectives of others is certainly not an easy task and as you may read below I am still left wondering, not claiming to have the answers. All I know from this experience is the way I felt, the things I saw, the commonalities I had, and my few thoughts left over after the day was through. If you continue viewing this post please know that all the writing comes from the bottom of my heart and is not meant to offend anyone. My only hope is to share my feelings and inspire others to visit Kibera and connect with those who live there first hand. I appreciate your interest and if you have questions please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
TUESDAY NOVEMBER 27, 2012
Today, we had the opportunity to visit the Kibera slums. This inner-city slum is a city of its own. Over 800,000 people live in the seemingly never-ending shantytown that clings to the heart of Nairobi. What an unreal & beautiful sight it was.
Upon entry to the slum, armed guards who resembled G.I. Joes, but were actually Kenyan policemen, escorted us. The tin roofs and dirt streets of the slum went on for miles. It was a sea of scraps. As we kept walking, my eyes began to open to the mass amounts of garbage (mainly plastic) that crowded the edges of each walkway and paved the floor beneath my feet. As the street we were walking on narrowed, the plastic kept piling up.
What are these photos about?
Smells of burning charcoal (wood), rubber, and plastic were the norm until the stench of a black river cut deep into my senses. I’m not sure what the contents of this little black river that ran through the middle of the slum were. My best guess would be a mixture of feces (both animal and human), oils, dirt, rotten food, and other sludge run-off from piles of garbage. The combining force was a highly contaminated liquid run off that weaved between houses and storefronts and streets and walkways. We never saw the end of the little black river, perhaps it pooled up on the edge of the slum to form a little black pond.
In some places the walkways and streets were narrow enough that two buildings were shoulder-length apart. The shantytown was certainly complete, though, with countless stores and businesses from butcheries to barbershops. Even medical clinics that advertised “minor surgeries” were scattered about the slum.
The hand painted signage made the movie-like set complete. Children with running noses and missing shoes seemed to be perfectly placed in the scene. It was so big and real that I couldn’t believe one bit of it.
We arrived in the middle of the slum to our friend and local, Thomas’, school. The small school was made up of two rooms sandwiched between houses and other buildings. Apparently, over 300 children attend the school. At the time of our arrival there were about 100 students packed in the tiny space. They were singing loudly songs of cheer and worship. Like a morning exercise they recited verses from the Bible and welcomed us time after time. I found it difficult to think of how they could believe in God. I don’t understand their perspective and probably never will. The concept of a simple blessing is something so far removed from my understanding. My vision is enormously different. I can’t place that picture in my mind no matter how hard I try, and I can’t understand a faith that exists in their condition.
What are these photos about?
I’m so far removed from their condition, and yet I found myself standing in the middle of all of it, breathing in the toxic fumes of burning trash. My mind and life is so far from the struggles, theft, possible murder, rape, and abuse that are most likely normal occurrences for the people of Kibera. Still, I’m standing here, in front of a group of children who are playing soccer on a dirt field. They’re cheering for their teammates who just scored a goal. Our commonality for a few seconds is that both of our minds are focused on the game in front of us. In a few more seconds my mind will return to the Pringles in my backpack and theirs will return to God knows what in the slum that is their home. I don’t belong here, and yet I’m here. I don’t see it, but the pain is right in front of me.
I’m not sure if the sights will ever truly sink in. Will these photos be a constant reminder of the way of life in Kibera, or a trophy of what I saw when I came to Africa? I’m not even sure if there’s a way to fix this. I’m not sure if the citizens of the Kibera slum want a fix. The government is currently building housing, but the slum-dwellers don’t want to leave. Perhaps this is their safety net? Maybe this is their comfort? Maybe the smell of charcoal and burning plastic is a sweet scent of home. Maybe that’s why I don’t understand.
Has the fear of the unknown plagued them as much as it plagues Americans? Is suffering subjective to one’s environment? Are the people in Kibera just fine, wondering, “Who the hell are these white people and why are they taking my picture?” Maybe they want me to put my camera away…. So I do… I sit and stare, confused at a people whose world is confined (from my perspective) to dirt, mud, diesel fumes, burning charcoal, plastic bags, tin roofs, a black river and everything they’ve ever known as home.