Monday, March 14, 2011

Kibera & Mathare

Where over 2 million people live in the Kibera slum 
The past two weeks I have spent in Nairobi visiting and learning about two large slums called Kibera and Mathare.   Kibera is supposedly the largest slum in Africa. I initially learned about Mathare when I was looking for women's empowerment volunteer opportunities from home. I was told about an opportunity to work with women's groups in a slum of 300,000 people that just felt way to scary to start out in and instead I told myself, yikes girl let's go to the orphanage first, a homey, loving environment and see what I think I can manage from there. Since I completed my commitment with the orphanage, I started to think about Mathare again. I emailed the original organization that needed help and they didn't get back to me. I looked into some other things and nothing seemed easy to access so I tried word of mouth instead. 

St. Catherine's School
I ended up meeting a guy named Sequoyah who was staying at my hostel and had visited Kibera a few months back. He was going to start teaching at a school/orphanage called St. Catherine's and he invited me to join.  A man from the school came and picked us up and showed us the way by bus to the slum so we would know how to get their ourselves the next day. After a short tour of the tiny school, I was pretty much thrown into teaching English, Social Studies and a little Math for 6th graders. The kids were the most well behaved, intelligent kids I've ever worked with. The teachers, earning only around $300 a year were incredibly enthusiastic and the kids were fully engaged. They stood up to answer questions I asked, raised their hands and excitedly said "teacher, teacher" to try to get me to pick them to answer. They share 2 books for  every 12 kids. Despite the lack of resources and space in the tiny classrooms they are incredibly bright, in part because of the small student/teacher ratio.  They also know education is thier only way out of the slum. St. Catherine's school was started by a pastor who hated seeing so many street kids and orphans not going to school. He started by adopting one child himself and teaching kids in a tiny one room school with the kids sitting on the dirt floor. Things progressed as he received small donations from well wishers who have provided desks, and monies to build a very simple school house and kitchen for the kids to eat. If my last orphanage was simple this is the simplest set up you can have, with still alot of good going on. Most of the kids are still sleeping on the floor upstairs. 
bathrooms in kibera

In both Kibera and Mathare and the 5+ other slums around Nairobi there is no proper sanitation or garbage removal services and women are often raped in the middle of the night when they go out to use the squattie style bathrooms in the middle of town. Thousands of people use 10 bathrooms, slum dwellers have to pay monthly to use the bathrooms that can be miles away from their homes. Prostitution, AIDS violence and other diseases are quite common, but I found alot of good work and hope in these horrible conditions. People are gathering and trying to help each other rise up together as a community. Conditions are still harsh and seeing them has been overwhelming for me over the past two weeks.

Though it wasn't exactly what I hoped to get involved with, I was learned a ton just by being in Kibera and seeing what life was like there. Things also started evolving. It seemed they actually had enough teachers there and I didn't have enough to do, so I left and tried to find another project. I then met up with another man named Leo, 45 from Canada who had been working in Mathare for 5 years and was now filming his second documentary. I tagged along with him to learn about the group in his film called Bunge La Mwanchi or "women's social movement, " also known as The People's Parliament. 

Simple class rooms at St. Catherine's
The women started meeting several years back to find solutions to change their circumstances in the the slum, and just now are expanding to try to help other slum communities and people in other parts of Kenya.    I got into extensive conversations to learn about their work and the conversations became so extensive,that Leo began filming and who knows if that conversation will end up in the documentary!

Kids learning in the dark, when electricity frequently goes out
Even know I asked directly if they needed help at St. Catherine's before I left, it turned out there were some miscomunications and  they thought I was still going to teach there. Though I was no longer able to teach, now having other committments (I agreed to set up a computer class for the women's group and go to other meetings to learn more and support where I could) - I went back to try to mentor a young man Lukas, another volunteer teacher who had started to beg me for rent money. I don't like to give hand outs, I rather try to help people help themselves. I went to learn about his situation and offer to help him work on his resume. In addition I had an idea to discuss about employing him as a guide/security guard to help me find and meet other organizations in Kibera, hoping this talented young man might learn something and maybe get a job later. Turns out his situation was much tougher than I thought.

Houses along the river/outdoor bathroom/garbage dump.
He's an orphan, who was fortunate to find an American aid organization to feed, school and house him through high school.  A requirement of the school is that he must do 6 months of community service before going on to a fully paid university with room and board. Sweet deal, right? Yes mostly, but while he is volunteering he can only make 200 kenyan shillings a week. The equivalent of $2. He has to volunteer 6 hours at one school where he teaches, then he volunteers another 3 at the school I met him teaching,. He wants to continue there because it's likely they will offer a job at the end of his 6 month volunteer commitment. So he has little extra time to work to pay his rent. His older brother was paying his rent until he recently left to take a job outside the slum and left him to fend for himself. He lives in his one room corrugated metal shack on the second floor with his cousin also going to university but a 2 hour walk away, so he also can't work much because they didn't have any more room and board. Their combined rent is only $20 a month, which he needs for the next 3 months until he's hopefully offered the job. Through Lukas and James, the head of the school, I met many other organizations some that set up microcredit programs for people to start businesses, youth football programs, arts and technical schools, though most were run by male religious figures and few helped women.

I've been having a hard time figuring out my role as I learn about these projects and download all the information I am hearing and seeing. I'm finding that I can make the most impact by creating connections between people and groups. 

Boys dorm at St. Catherine's
So this is what I'm trying to do now. I'm going to connect the women's group with some of the organizations I met with while walking around with Lukas. And remember the Turkana refugee women's group? I've been pondering and trying to figure out what to do about that and it's been weighting heavily on me. I think the best way is to connect them is through the passionate and powerful women's group in Mathare. They have started  several 9 week sessions for young girls 12-22 and older women in various slums in Nairobi. I am starting conversations with several of the leaders of these women's groups about traveling to Maralal to meet up with the Turkana women's group to teach and empower them to gather, discuss their issues and find solutions, just like the women are doing in the slums across all of Nairobi. They have proved to be excellent leaders and I think developing the relationship and just supporting the connections and future connections might be most effective. I plan to fund the trip up to Maralal for 3-4 days for the women to meet as well as set up meetings with aid organizations and governement officials to see who else can get involved to help. This will all have to be done with some interpreters because of the three different languages Turkana, Kiswhailli and English. I'm curious to see what comes of it, hopefully a small microcredit program or similar for the women that I can fund though a generous donation I just received from this blog! Hooray - you know who you are, you are awesome! If others want to support this effort please let me know!

Meeting location of Women's group in Mathare
I am happy because I feel I'm finding my voice and how to use my strengths.  I'm building the confidence I've been looking for and finding my place and connection to other people on this earth. I've been able to find this a little through some humbling conversations, the supporters of this blog and connecting with these amazing women, men and children in of all places -  the slums of Nairobi. Who would have thought that I'd find what I've been looking for in part in the slums in Nairobi?

I'm a bit mentally exhausted after these last two weeks, and am going to take a few days to go to see the coast, dive in the ocean. Then I think I will be ready to head up with my crew to Maralal to see what kind of connections we can make for the Turkana refugee women. After that the tentative plan is to come back and teach the basis computer skills class, then head to Uganda.

In the next few days I have to decide when I"m coming back to the U.S. because of a flight requirement and some summer/fall job opportunities. I feel like time has been going so fast and I don't want to make that decision. I don't have all the information I need either to decide so it's stressing me out a little. Hopefully the beach, a little solitude and some calls for info will do the trick.

I miss you all and thank you dearly for the support and kindness you have shown toward my crazy efforts in Africa. 

Kids swimming at Watoto Wa Baraka for a birthday celebration 
P.S. The teacher at the Watoto Wa Baraka is almost a go! - please tell your friends to contribute a few dollars and help these  wonderful little ones have a better future. Oh, and the religious conversations have continued. I can't seem to escape them. There was a group of 20 missionaries bombarding the hostel where I was staying. I support what they are doing (to an extent), but so struggle with blind faith, ignorance and intolerance for other views. Anyways lots of good conversations - hostels are like a backpacker version of the UN. Yesterday I was sitting having beers with a German, Ethiopian, South African, Kiwi, Swiss guy, a few English folks, a few young American missionaries, a Dane a Norwegian and myself. I kept getting questions like "Are you part of the American missionary group? What do you think about all of this?" Oh and I met a guy from the Ivory Coast, a refugee who is traveling all over the world on his refugee papers begging for dinner, though classifying himself as a tourist. It's such an interesting world....... Love it!

Little Dorkas, one of my favorites from Watoto
Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!