Kibera: A Love Story
By Jennifer Cleary of Humber College, Toronto, Canada.
Peeking behind the curtain to reveal humanity at its best
We drive through the Kibera slum, along seemingly impassable dirt paths without any greenery, to reach the office of Kijiji Cha Upendo, translated into ‘The Village of Love’. Andrew Obara, the co-founder of the community-based organization (CBO), is at the wheel and his two volunteers Leah Atieno and Moses Omondi are in the back seat asking me ‘how do you see it?’, referring to the slum.
Looking around I see lining the narrow street are numerous miniature stores, schools, houses pieced together with clay and tin corrugated sheets. People busily get on with their day. One person is making chapatti, another painting metal bed frames – all outside on the dirt path. Smoke rises from the barbequed meat that I see are the hooves of goats; flies swam around a table full of fish, not far from a pile of decaying garbage. Children in tattered clothes, smile and point, calling me ‘Mzungu’.
I’m speechless, if unsettled, that two million people call this place home. I don’t know what to tell them, it takes all my effort not collapse in tears.
The dust hits my eyes as we gingerly step over the murky puddles to reach the earthen office. Basic and clean, the modest space has a few plastic tables and chairs. The organizations vision, mission and goals hangs on the wall in framed hand printed signs.
As one of few organizations working in the slum to support families who are caregivers to orphaned children whose parents died of HIV/AIDS, its appearance does not capture its impact. The volunteer-run organization uses the family-care model with a straight forward solution – kids need to be nurtured and loved. The CBO currently supports 75 families though paying for school fees, providing training and loans to start small businesses and education sessions on topics such as facts about HIV/AIDS, weekly counselling sessions on good parenthood and guidance on orphan care.The office is also a gathering place for community meetings. Women who previously did not know each other come together and share their stories; each contributing sugar and soap on a rotating schedule to help out one another and to indicate their commitment to the group.
It’s not long until I need to go to the bathroom and inquire for a key. Around the corner there is a pit latrine with a bucket of water. I wonder how most people manage this daily necessity where space is desperately lacking. I’d heard before about the flying toilets in Kibera, where people go to the toilet in a bag and then dispose of it in the makeshift sewage system. When it rains the bags run downstream to a river, when its dry it sits, decaying. The horror of this reality hits me and I ask Andrew how this is possible. He laughs, as he always does, boundlessly positive, yet pragmatic and tells me the government installed public toilets and showers to help with that problem. For only a few shillings, people can do their business. But who can afford that everyday? What is more, the government only provides water two days a week. What happens when you are sick? He says people make do.
The next three days I try to understand Kibera. Moses, a teacher by training and a resident of Kibera, tells me about the people who live here and their unbreakable social fabric. Dressed impeccably each day and oozing with devotion for his community, he is proof that your surroundings only tell you one part of the story. He and long-time volunteer Leah come to the office each day to monitor the projects and to visit with the people supported by Kijiji. Unwavering in their commitment, they show up to work every day.
It wasn’t until they took me to meet the people Kijiji supports that I understood the beauty of this place. I peeked behind the cloth covered doorways and was greeted with wide smiles, kind eyes and handshakes (sometimes hand slapping, the typical greeting). Open to answer any question I had, they shared their stories of improvement and hope. As per Kijjiji’s requirements, all of them have been supporting at least one orphan for two years. I met Kadra in one household, a Muslim woman who was making sweets from coconut and sugar cane. Another house I was greeted by an older woman who learned how to make bags instead of chapatti to compete in the market.
The most remarkable conversation I had was with a man in his carpentry shop. Moses and Leah led me there, down a kind of labyrinth they come to know well from all their site visits. The man named Peter Magak told me that he and his wife had nine children of their own and had adopted six orphaned children. He told me that while his business struggles and he finds it difficult to feed, clothe and school all the 15 children, he still is able to give back to the less fortunate through his church. I was floored that he could even give a thought about someone who had less than he did. This selfless sentiment was in the hearts of all the people I met. Despite living in poverty in Kibera, despite wanting a different future, despite facing hardship after hardship – they took on the responsibility of raising the children of their siblings, their cousins and even their neighbours.
Giving back here is so much more than buying the Tim Hortons’s order for the car behind you. It’s taking in children, treating them like your own, paying for their meals and school fees, working harder at selling vegetables, or used bags or making new bags for to care for your extended family. Andrew and his wife Leonora also embody this sentiment. They developed the family-care model of Kijiji by testing it out in their own home. Over the years their family unit has multiplied as they continue to adopt children to grow with them, solely out of the goodness that runs through their veins. Just like the name says, The Village of Love brings the peaceful feeling of family to the slums of Kibera, extending a hand to children who go without. And that is beautiful.