Thursday, September 20, 2007

Not For The Weak-Hearted

Although I just recently sent one and all an email highlighting the wonderful experiences of life in Nairobi, I feel compelled to write again especially after my most recent experience.

One of the girls on the program, Bria, is staying with a woman who works for Mother's Love, a group that brings together women who are living and barely surviving in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. I don't know all the facts, but I believe it is one of the largest in the world. Yesterday afternoon, seven of us responded to her mother's pleas to join her on a visit to three of these mothers and their families. Directly after class we went to the market and purchased for each family two loaves of bread, three cartons of milk, maize flour, and sugar, and walked the several kilometers to Bria's home. After meeting her mother, Beatrice, we dropped off our bags, and grabbed only our cameras, at Beatrice's request, hidden in small bags. Accompanied by her house help and good friend we all walked across the street, and entered Kibera.

"How are you, how are you, how are you!", chanted all the smiling children at the first sight of our white skin. We clutched the bags hiding our shiny, silver valuables as we entered a world of uncertainty. Walking carefully down an intensely packed dirt hill lined with plastic bags, well-eaten cobs of corn, and innumerable other indistinguishable items, our noses were nailed with odors of all shades we have never quite experienced before. Masses of people were heading in and out of this contained city and some of them stared, some of them took no notice of us at all as we climbed back up a similar hill to a high ridge. At the top were railroad tracks which you had to assume were long forgotten as hundreds of people were making their way along this high path to reach their homes below. Beatrice told us we could now take out our cameras as our eyes focused on what was before us. Sprawling as far as our eyes could see was something we had each perhaps seen before on TV, but may have assumed was exaggerated with special effects.

Down the hill and up another, and down some more, all the way to the horizon were earthen, dung, and corrugated homes, woven together in something of a masterpiece. Movement could be seen in every tiny crevice and smoke rose here and there through the mass of dwellings. We took out our cameras and began to shoot, and little smiling faces made their chanting way in front of our lenses. Shot after shot we took of these surprisingly well dressed and clean little babes just coming home from school. Turning toward the tracks we noticed the men walking their bikes in their nice suits, and we recognized them as the same men riding along Ngong Road, the backbone of the city on 50 shillings a day, coming home to no electricity or toilets.

We walked along the tracks a bit until we reached our path, our turn, and in good time... there was a train coming. Down the hill we went, weaving and bowing under rooftops, stepping over trenches containing the filth of all the thousands, thousands of residents. Children continued to run up with their chant and an outreached hand wanting nothing more than a shake from your own. Women lined the sides frying fish, samosas, and fries, smiling at us as we passed and most calling out a "Kariboo" -- Welcome. By now we had began to feel more comfortable, and we kept our cameras out and stopped continually taking pictures of all whom wanted theirs taken.

We finally made it to our first destination, the home of Beatrice's house help. We all squeezed into her little place, which was the same size as all the other homes we were to visit that afternoon, about 12x12. On the one metal framed couch, we piled in, and one after the other family members came in and sat around us where they could. There was one sheet covering a back area smaller than the size of a twin bed, where we assumed the older ones slept. We were allowed to ask anything and "Please, please" take as many pictures as we wanted. This woman lives here with her nine children. Her youngest baby boy is sick, and no one knows why. They do not attend school, even though primary school was made free to all by President Kibaki, for they don't have the shoes to wear. None of them had eaten all day. They only had the clothes they were wearing, and access to water was a difficult journey; and very expensive.

We had to move on as the sun sets early and we were in the middle of the largest electricity desert in the city. At Beatrice's request, we were led in a prayer by Bria, focusing especially on the little boy. It was too much for us visitors and the tears started as we watched these young, desperate children soak up every foreign word. After presenting our bag of food, we proceeded to our second home.We were greeted by an excited woman with the biggest smile in Kibera. She grabbed each one of us and gave us the strongest hugs we'd felt since leaving the States. We again took a seat where we could, Julia found one on a half exposed bed where she also found a half-naked undisturbed baby. She scooped up the little girl and cradled her as we fired our questions out.

Agnes, our host, could barely speak English, but threw out a laugh at everything we said, as life alone appeared to be pure joy in her eyes. She earns her money by babysitting up to ten children a day for 30Ksh a piece. She has five children of her own and one grandson. One of her children attends school, the others "do nothing". She apologized that she could not serve us tea, but begged us to visit her again. And we will. More prayers, and we wove on.

The third home was one which none of us will ever forget. The woman's name is Emily. She lives in the tiny earthen home with 15 children; half of them hers, half the children of her sister, who died of AIDS. Two of the young children are HIV positive and one of those also has TB and therefore cannot walk. Emily also has HIV. Through her tremendous smile she told us her story. How her parents, her husband, and all four of her siblings have died. She gets treatment for her sick children, but cannot afford her own. She doesn't know what to do. She told us again and again that our visit meant the world to her. She, like the others, asked nothing more of us. They never even glanced at the bags of food, or expected us to open our pockets. They just thanked us for seeing them, and we'd sit like a family, holding each other, realizing how the power of the human touch truly enlightens the spirit. And like the others, she asked that we visit as much as possible.

I don't think, after the amazing reception we received, and the lessons we learned, we could possibly stay away.

Thanks for reading.

Emily Sara


Jenny said...

It would seem that the ability to nourish the spirit not only conencts all things, but transcends all things.

Lollie said...

Many in America are bothered by visitors...if only we could gather the joy felt by these women and children. Lovely.

Kristen Painter said...

It's amazing what we take for granted, isn't it?