Today Sequoyah took me to the Kibera slum. It is one of the largest in Nairobi only about a 15 min bus ride from Mirimani backpackers hostel where we are staying. Kibera was not so very different from what I imagined but imagining is far from experiencing. Nothing really could have prepared me. Poverty of the most profound sort that is not just a vision in the mind but that is experienced by every sense of the body. We wound thru a maze of narrow pathways between structures. Homes made of mostly mud, cement and coragated steel. All materials are utilized. Sewage runs in streams thru these “streets.” Garbage is piled up in mounds everywhere. Truly my sense of smell was most assaulted. The smell of life packed into a small space, the smell of garbage and excrement, charcoal cook fires and unfamiliar food. The children everywhere repeating the standard greeting “how are you?” “how are you?” And I respond,”Fine, fine and how are you? Over and over as we passed. Obviously we stand out.
We followed Sequoyah’s friend Regan through the maze to St Catherines school and orphanage. St Catherines was started by his father, a Christian minister, years ago in response to the need that existed here. There are 24 “adopted” children that they care for and about 100 students from kindergarten up that attend the school during the week. On Sunday he has services there. They are truly doing God’s work in its rawest and most profound form.
Regan was giving me the tour of course as Sequoyah was returning after a year and half. He lived here and taught the children while in Africa before. There were some changes since then, including a whole new building, if you could call it that. It was more like two small rooms above the kitchen and bedroom of the older boys. I know that I cannot do justice to the scene but I will do my best. Imagine stepping though the door way into a very cramped and dark (the electricity was out) low ceiling hall that led thru to the steepest most narrow wooden staircase ever made. Upstairs is the girls living quarters which is two rooms about 10 x 10 crammed with several bunk beds. One small window to each room. Of course it is hot anyway and much hotter upstairs. I could not help but think what a complete fire trap it was up there with its single exit down those stairs. The construction is amazing and its seems that even upstairs is a dirt floor. The walls may be cement or clay over a sketchy thin board framework. But I was too busy thinking about the earthquakes we have back home and wondering if they have earthquakes in Kenya too to inquire further about their building materials.
So while the whole physical scene itself is overwhelming I am being introduced right and left to all the people, adults and children that live and work there. They are so happy to see Sequoyah again, quite a reunion. Hands are clasped, hugs given. They obviously love my son and are very happy to meet his Mom.” Sequoyah is a celebrity here” Regan tells me. And I can see it.
By this time it is all that I can do not to break into tears. Tears of frustration for the injustice of this poverty, tears of sorrow for the suffering here, tears of amazement for the grace and beauty of these people I am meeting and tears of utter gratitude for this amazing young man, my son, who is so at home here, so loved by these people and so present for them. It seemed to me that it would have been very selfish of me to cry there and then and so I do not.
Later I asked Sequoyah about the toilets as there were obviously none indoors. He tells me that the only toilets are privately owned. A line of wooden outhouses numbers on them. They cost 2 shillings per use, all opportunities to make a living utilized here. He told me about the “flying toilets.” What people must do who cannot afford 2 shillings every time they need to use the loo is use plastic bags. They then fling the bags as far away from their homes as possible, landing, as you may imagine, anywhere.
We visited the men who grind bone to make jewelry without masks or ventilation. The bone powder filling the air. They sit there for hours, days, weeks, lifetimes breathing it in. The jewelry is beautiful and I bought a bracelet and earrings for their asking price, about $ 4.
There were men and women carrying large bundles of wood on their backs. They cut it in the forest and carry it back to sell. It is totally illegal and sometimes they get shot. Regan told us a story of how in an attempt to shoot one of the thieves the person missed and the wild bullet killed a woman in the slum.
People do not dress in rags here. They are clean and neat. They, at least those I met, were gracious and very friendly. They are big on shaking hands, and I received a few hugs. There were smiles all around. Kenyan accents are strong and I struggle to understand everything that is said.
Last public testing that was done of the children from St Catherines they ranked very high. With some financial help they were recently able to purchase land. Their goal is to become self sufficient and grow their own food with hopefully enough left over to buy books and other needs. Interestingly the land is about 7 hours away by bus. They have not worked out all of the kinks but the inspiration and motivation is there. And the intelligence. There may not be a lot of people with higher education here but intellectual sophistication abounds. I think living on the edge of survival must make people smart.
In general all the people I have met, residents and foreigners alike, have a much more in depth and sophisticated analysis of world politics, and specifically how it relates to the U.S. than most U.S citizens do. I have had some awesome and educational conversations in the short time that I have been here. But that will have to be the subject of another blog. Or not.
I am blessed to be alive and here and to have such dear friends who would actually take the time to read this. Baddaye! (see you later)