Friday, August 28, 2009

pray. just pray.

(a post from marie harkey)

Hi all,

I didn't have internet access for the last few days of my trip. This
is my journal entry about my last day in Nairobi. There is still much
more to tell ...

Today Bakala drove us into town early when he took Joan to work.
(Gillian came along.) We went to a cyber cafe for about 40 minutes
because we were so early in town. That was good, since I hadn’t sent
an email since Monday morning, I think. Then he took me to some shops
to buy some souvenirs. What a contrast with what was about to come.

Bakala needed to go to Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, and he took
Gillian and me along. Bakala is a social worker. In the past, he has
worked in Kibera, doing a cash distribution program, where the
government gives cash to those who are taking care of orphans (defined
as a child without one or both parents) and then following up to see
how they are using the cash. This week, Bakala is working as a
supervisor to the supervisors of the enumerators who are trying to
take the census in Kenya. This is an enormous job because the
questions on the census are quite detailed. Not just names and ages of
household members, but where they get their electricity if they have
it, whether and how often they access the internet, how they deal with
waste, which children work and how much (many young girls do), who’s
in school and where, anyone who has left the household to go to
another country since 1995, and for girls over 12, information about
pregnancies and births. It would be a remarkable picture of the
country, if all that information could be collected.

So Bakala went to meet with his supervisors in Kibera this morning,
and I got a firsthand look at a slum of 1 million people in a
developing country. There will not be pictures. I could not do it. It
seemed wrong, intrusive, exploitative. So you will have to imagine
from my description, but I assure you, you will not come close. Not
with your first-world minds, not unless you too have been somewhere
like this in the developing world. You must take the worst you can
imagine and then make it worse than that. And even then you will not
be close.

The “houses” are all in a row, no separation, connected completely.
Only thin walls separate one from another. They are made of whatever
there is: corrugated metal, wood planks, mud bricks, sometimes all 3,
sometimes more materials that I couldn’t identify. There are no
windows, no proper doors. It seems that life is lived outside, except
perhaps for the night time. There are also buildings of flats, where
entire households live in one room, and thus 3 or 4 households live in
one flat. There are some cement-block homes, again with many
households crowded inside. And the households are huge. The
enumerators were running into problems because there is only room for
10 people on a census sheet. Many of the households in Kibera contain
15 to 20 people.

Behind a row of shacks, I saw a Masai child herding 5 or 6 emaciated
cows. Chickens run all over. People stand around, talking, or sit in
“shops” that look just like the shacks except with no front walls.
They sell foods, cell phones, clothing whatever they’ve managed to
make or acquire. In the slum, there is no running water, no
electricity unless stolen. Nothing is easy.

As we walked deeper into Kibera, down a road lined on both sides with
shacks, conditions were worse. (It’s a good thing Bakala didn’t ask me
if I wanted to go. I doubt I would have had the courage.) We passed
over a drainage ditch. You cannot imagine the smell of rotting
garbage, fetid water, and God alone knows what else. We continued down
the road and Bakala showed us how the enumerators use chalk to mark
the households that have been counted. (Anything sounding Biblical
yet?) Then we came to a sort of T in the roads. Shacks in front of us,
but also an open area. Some very small children were playing with half
a plastic bottle (the kind the we drink bottled water from) in the red
clay. Bakala said it’s good to at least see them play. Some are
apparently working all the time. Many take care of younger family

In the midst of this, Bakala sent Gillian and me back up the road
while he went to “pick” the car. (I love this expression: you “pick”
someone at the airport, instead of picking them up.) He assured us of
our security, but I was completely ill at ease anyway. Gillian is
young, beautiful and well-dressed. And I, well, I am a mzungu, which
means there’s no way NOT to stick out.

But Bakala was right. We continued on our way toward the main road and
I realized we were safe. There was no violence, no yelling or
screaming. No one looked like they were threatening to us or to each
other. No one asked me for money. (I could never say that after a trip
into Harvard Square.) Bakala said that disagreements among different
groups can happen and can get ugly very quickly, but I saw no evidence
of such.

And I noticed something else, and the fact that I noticed screams my
privilege, I know. As I looked at the people who were headed out with
us, they were well-dressed, neat, clean. I would never have guessed
the conditions in which they live. As Gillian said as we stood at the
end of the road, at the main road out of Kibera, “These people really

I don't have some facile ending to this story, some trite lesson that
I've learned from walking through Kibera. I only have a deep sense of
heaviness in my heart and a sadness that's not easily defined. Please
join me and pray for the 1 million souls in Kibera.



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8:12 PM  

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