While in Nairobi, I got the chance to visit Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa. Population figures vary drastically—reports claiming anywhere from 150,000 to 2 million in this “neighborhood.” Few, however, will argue that Kibera is not overcrowded and in serious need of help.
I feel extremely fortunate to have visited Kibera with a friend of a dear friend. Khohot, a recent graduate of the University of Nairobi, had worked with a small, grassroots HIV/AIDS organization in Kibera, and knew the area well. Organized tours of Kibera are available, and if you’re in Nairobi you can easily arrange for someone to act as your guide, although I personally would not have felt comfortable with such an arrangement. I will be the first to admit that I was still very much a Western tourist in the slum, not unlike those who pay for organized tours. What makes me feel like my experience was somewhat different (and you are free to disagree) is that I went with a friend, to visit a friend, whose name and story I was excited to hear in exchange for my own. If you consider paying for a slum tour (in Kibera or elsewhere), I recommend leaving your camera in it's bag until you make a real, human connection with someone whose name you learn and who learns yours. People of a lower income status or education level are not less of people, and they are most certainly not tourist attractions.
|Kibera is known for it's "Flying Toilets"-- without any type of plumbing, |
people relieve themselves into a plastic bag and throw it out the door.
Khohot invited to me join him on a visit to his good friend and community social worker, Josephine. We took the bus from downtown Nairobi only ten minutes to the edge of Kibera, where we got off and walked into this city within a city. I smelled it first. Piles, no, mountains of trash lay everywhere. I’ve heard and read of various projects and programs aimed at improving life in Kibera. Some are health, others education, even more involve economic development. What I think Kibera needs are some city planners. I’ve heard time and time again Kibera’s problem is overpopulation. It’s just too dense, too overcrowded. Well, so is New York City, but that doesn’t stop the city from running, or people from paying absurd amounts of money for closet space they call bedrooms. Mayor Bloomberg, I think Kibera could use you and some of your advisers.
Khohot’s friend Josephine invited me into her one-room home and told me about her work assisting those “infected and affected”. Her clients are eighty plus children under the age of 18 who are living with HIV and hundreds of adults also infected with the virus. She checks in with people on a weekly or monthly basis, monitoring their anti-retroviral drug (ARV) compliance, as well as their general emotional and physical health. Josephine was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, and since then has been preaching, in her own words, the “gospel of AIDS” to others. She told me in Kibera the stigma of getting tested for HIV, and of being positive, has died down a lot. She said the people who were least accepting were the medical nurses and doctors, who are prejudice towards infected people. She told me her community was strong, and that’s what kept her strong.
Josephine asked Khohot and me to go with her to visit another two friends and clients. The first was her next door neighbor, a fourteen year old girl named Jen, who had been diagnosed with HIV only weeks before. Josephine had urged Jen to get tested when Jen came to her complaining of constant illness and infection. Jen’s parents (who likely transmitted the HIV virus to her) died in her rural village, leaving Jen to live with her grandmother, and putting her in charge of two younger brothers, who died shortly after their parents. Jen had moved to Kibera to help her older sister take care of her own two children. When Khohot asked Jen how her sister earned money, she looked towards the door and said “she’s gone in the night”.
Despite the incredible hardships Jen lives with, I saw in her eyes, and heard in her voice, a determination and passion for something big. She spoke of her good grades in school, and dream to one day open a safe place for HIV positive orphans, like her. Jen did not ask me for money, for gifts, for school fees, or for a ticket to America. She thanked me for visiting and apologized she had no tea or food to offer. I told Jen she had given me inspiration for a lifetime.