kenya, day four: on community and shedding light

Today, we visited Kibera, a huge slum located in Nairobi, and the largest slum in Kenya.  In preparation for this trip, I did considerable online research about Kibera, and much of the information that I found was contradictory:  I heard that Kibera is the second-largest slum in Africa, and third-largest in the world, but I'm not sure if either of those statistics are true.  I've read information that states the population of Kibera is 250,000, but I've also read that it tops 1,000,000 people, so who knows what the real number is.  I do know that the geographical area of Kibera is about 3 kilometers by 3 kilometers, so no matter how you slice it, it's a lot of people in a small area.  I also learned that Kibera is heavily polluted, with "human refuse, garbage, soot, dust, and other wastes."  It is, in short, in dire straits.

This site visit was the one for which I held the most apprehension.  I wasn't concerned about seeing the poverty -- I've certainly seen poverty before -- but I was mindful of a TED talk I had seen by a brilliant writer, Chimamanda Adichie, speaking about "The Danger of a Single Story."  In her speech, she touches on how people outside of Africa often frame their opinions of the continent based on the single story the media brings them, and that single story often skews to certain topics, like poverty or corruption, while ignoring all the other stories that exist, without which an accurate picture of Africa can't be imagined.  I was afraid that when I took photographs of Kibera, I would not be able to convey anything but the poverty with my images, without capturing the full character of the neighbourhood.  I didn't want my images to contribute to an incomplete picture.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, last week I received an email from my friend Mark:

Have you ever been to a slum like Kibera before?  I will be very curious about your thoughts.  I've been to several ... the human resourcefulness.  Man, oh man.  And the ability for people to carry on living and loving and really doing pretty much what you and I do on a day-to-day basis (though in a different way) is quite astounding.  You are going to see a lot of different, and you are going to see a lot of beauty.

It was exactly the words I needed to hear, and I clung to them as our bus rolled up to the outskirts of Kibera.

I'm not going to lie to you:  the first impression can be a bit of a shock.

But I quickly discovered that Mark was absolutely right.

Our first stop was to Carolina for Kibera, a nongovernmental organization that "exists to develop local leaders, catalyze positive change and alleviate poverty" in Kibera.  It was co-founded by a former US Marine, Rye Barcott, who wrote about the experience in his new book It Happened on the Way To War, a fascinating page-turner that I couldn't put down when I read it a few weeks ago -- in fact, I've been recommending it to everyone who will listen ever since.

Carolina for Kibera is a collaborative network of programs designed to advance health, education, ethnic (read: inter-tribal) cooperation, gender equality and economic empowerment, and equip leaders with the tools to strengthen the community.  Their dream is for the leaders who go through their programs to ultimately be able to do the same on their own, without the need of CFK's assistance.

It just so happens that when we arrived, Rye was in town visiting from his home in North Carolina, to celebrate the organization's tenth year.

Rye is a stunningly charismatic leader, and it was such an incredible honour to meet him.  He told us about the organization, his new 26-day challenge to the world (which you can read about here), and especially about the Daughters United program, giving special focus to the needs of adolescent girls and young women, providing the resources to explore and discuss the issues most affecting them in Kibera.  They meet in a separate structure from the CFK offices, one where men are not allowed to enter, so that they can feel emotionally and physically safe to freely discuss anything.  The women are also trained in skills that can help them become financially independent, and able to provide for their families.

After Rye's brief, we were invited to visit the home of one of the young women who was active in the Daughter's United program, Beti.  So we set out through Kibera, on the 15-minute walk to her home.


Once we arrived at Beti's home, she invited us in to her tidy space, where she lives with her father, and her three young daughters.


Beti is an incredibly charming young women, and a devoted mother.  We shared stories about her daily life in Kibera, and our daily lives in our own homes in the United States.  We talked about how raising children can be difficult -- she's a single mother of three -- how tired we can get trying to keep up with them, and helpless we feel if our children are ill.  As she was talking, I was taken by the beautiful bracelet on her arm -- one she made as part of her learnings in the Daughters United Program.


During our visit, I asked her about her participation in the program, and her eyes lit up.  "It's so good," she said.  "I've learned so much, and I try to get other girls in the program.  I'm a hairdresser -- I braid hair -- but now I can make jewelry as well.  It helps me get what I need for my girls, you know?  And it's so important to be committed to your children.  It is what it means to be a mother."

I asked her what she'd like for herself in the future, and she said, "I'd really love to have my own place.  One where it's just me and my girls living together."

"Here in Kibera?"

"Oh, yes, definitely.  Near my father.  Kibera is my community.  It is my home."



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I'm traveling to Kenya at the kind invitation and expense of The ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan, advocacy organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.  ONE works to convince governments (the US, as well as others) to invest in smart programs that help to eliminate proverty and preventable disease in a sustainable way.  This week, along with 9 other bloggers, I'll be bringing you images and stories of how the organizations for which ONE advocates are effecting real change in Kenya.  If you're moved by anything you read here and you'd like to help, please consider adding your voice and join ONE by simply filling out the form below.  Your information will remain confidential, I promise.  And if you're already a member, and would still like to help, I'd love if you'd spread the word by sharing this post with your friends and followers.

(In addition, for fun, if you'd like to follow along on our trip and help by performing a "daily action" while we're here, be sure to check out the ONE Mom trip page.)

That's all there is to it.  Because ONE never asks for your money, just your voice. 

As always, thanks so much, friends.