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:
I heard the most incredible story from one of the local volunteers today. Jimmy grew up in a poor, rural area outside of Nairobi. The planes of Wilson Airport flew directly over his village and he dreamed of flying one of those planes. He found a magazine about flying and wrote a letter to every address listed in the directory. He kept doing that for years until finally he got one letter back from a man named David in Connecticut.
David encouraged Jimmie to study hard and follow his dreams, and they began a pen-pal relationship that lasted years. When Jimmy graduated from high school with great grades, David paid for him to go to college in Michigan. He trained to be a pilot there and then got a job in Arizona as a private pilot for the Mayo Clinic. The clinic offered to pay for his Masters but he really wanted to go back to Kenya and be a pilot at Wilson airport. He’s been flying for Air Kenya for 4 years now.
David is a volunteer on our trip and he asked Jimmy to meet us on the first day and share his story. He asked if he could help us in Kibira because he had never been there before. He immediately fell in love with the project. He’s joining the board of the daycare center and is going to become our liaison. He doesn’t have much money but he realized he was given a great gift from a man who encouraged him to study and now he wants to help hundreds of young kids study as well.
Jimmy’s story became our slogan for the trip. When someone said we couldn’t finish digging the foundation that day, another person said, “Well if Jimmy can fly…” Whenever something seemed hard, we just kept saying “Jimmy can fly.”
In other news, this morning we dispensed 200 pairs of Crocs to the kids at the daycare center. The kids went crazy for them. It was amazing to see their joy in receiving such ugly shoes but it was it was also gut wrenching to see the kids outside the daycare center watching this giveaway, barefoot and hungry. They stood outside the gate, hoping to get an extra pair but we didn’t have enough. Well it felt great to give these shoes away, it was a reminder that the gift of schools, wells and roads do a lot more good than finite, material goods. Despite how ugly they are, there will never be enough crocs to go around.
Afterward, Marina and I finished the mural. It’s really cheerful and the construction workers kept taking breaks to look at it and give us the thumbs up. In art school, the idea that art is supposed to be challenging and serious was crammed down our throats. Today was a nice reminder that art can also cheer people up and be pretty.
Last night at dinner we were talking about the book Many Lives, Many Masters. It’s by a professor who did a lot of research into past lives. As I was walking out of Kibera today, I thought about that book and almost vomited. I had absolutely no control over where I was born, and I just as easily could have been born in Kibera. The thought that past and future lives could be real, freaked me out because as long as there’s the chance of being reborn, there’s the chance of being reborn in Kibera. I think a lot more people would do volunteer work, and donate money if they thought there was a chance they could be reborn on the other end of the lucky spectrum.