A few days ago Kibera was mentioned at an event I attended and the name sounded so familiar. After a moment I realized it sounded familiar because I had been there three years ago. I went on a volunteer trip to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with my dad and a group called Cross-Cultural Thresholds. How did I manage to completely forget about an experience that shook me to the core? Forgetting Kibera was a coping mechanism, because if I thought about it all the time I would never be able to do anything. How do I work on a novel when I know that there are 2 million people living in a slum with no electricity or running water? How do I enjoy time with my friends when I know kids are starving to death? While it serves no one to put my life on hold because there is suffering in the world, I do believe I have a responsibility to remember and share what I saw. I am reposting some of the emails I sent to Mike while I was there:
Today we visited Drug Fighters, the daycare center that’s the influence for the daycare we’re building. Agnes started the school 15 years ago. She couldn’t afford to feed her own 4 kids, but whenever she heard about kids getting abused, abandoned, or exposed to drugs and or prostitution, she would find them and take them home with her. Soon she had over a hundred kids and she would get donations to feed them. She didn’t have a classroom so she would just teach them outside in the alleyways.
Eventually, Carter [the organizer of the group I was volunteering with] got involved and helped build the school for her. Now they have 284 students and feed them 2 meals a day. That’s typically the only food they get. The building is bright blue and there’s a courtyard in
the middle for kids to play safely play in. When we visited, we all noticed that it was the first time we saw the kids really being kids. They were jumping ropes, playing with balls, and chasing each other. It was a complete contrast to the children outside of the school who look lifeless, and too worried for their young ages.
The kids sang songs for us and performed some poems they wrote. One girl, named Cynthia, was so articulate, charismatic and talented we all felt this terrible feeling that she
deserved so much more. If she had the opportunities we have in America, she would be the next Beyonce, but in Kibera her greatest opportunity is to get two meals a day.
And then we met another Cynthia. She was chained to her bed for three years because she is autistic and there is a stigma against any sort of disabilities – they see it as the devil possessing the child . When Agnes rescued the little girl, Cynthia couldn’t see because she had been in darkness for so long her eyes hadn’t developed. She couldn’t speak and her muscles atrophied so she couldn’t even sit up. Agnes took Cynthia back to her school and found her a foster home. She made sure Cynthia got three meals a day and lots of hugs. Cynthia is now 9 years old and greeted us when we visited the school. She’s a ball of energy and loves to hug people. She can speak and she has complete vision. She’s great with rhythm so when the students want to sing a song they ask Cynthia to stand in the middle and clap the rhythm. This little person who was chained to a bed for three years has become a source of pride for the school.
I forgot to tell you about the flying latrines. At first people were digging pits for the latrines. When the latrines were full, people would cover them with dirt and build a house on top of it. Now there’s no more free space for the pits so people poop into plastic bags and leave
them in their house until night time. Then when it’s dark they go out and throw the bags as far as they can. The man who we’re working with at the new school told us that one night he was hit in the face by one of these bags and that’s when he decided he needed to change Kibera. I would think a lot of things if I were hit by a bag of shit, and I don’t think one of them would be: how can I stay here longer?
In the afternoon, I helped dig the foundation for the daycare center. After a few hours I was happy to trade in the shovel for a paint brush. Mariana and I started a mural for the new center, and we painted the gates of Drug Fighters.