Kibera Celebrates Obama

I have to admit, it was good to be in Kenya for the 2012 U.S. Presidential election. I didn’t have to listen to the candidates argue or slander one another, I was spared from the negative campaigning, and was able to vote by mail about a month before election day in America. While most Kenyans are not deeply informed about Obama’s politics, they do find him inspiring and feel a deep sense of pride in the fact that his paternal roots are Kenyan. After watching the election results online early Wednesday morning, I ventured out into Kibera and heard about some celebrations going on just down the road (I live in an area where the majority of residents are Luo, which is Obama’s father’s tribe). Sure enough, I came upon an American flag waving high in the air, a wall of speakers blasting music, a photo of Obama, people dancing and kids singing “America, America.” Despite the fact that half of America was disappointed about the election results, I think it is fair to say my neighbors were pretty happy.

The photos below are from local media outlets that captured the celebration (click to enlarge).

Graffiti Art in Kibera

*Click on a photo to scroll through the gallery.

Kibera may be one of the world’s largest slums, but there is always abundant beauty to be found in unexpected places. Recently, I opened my eyes to the graffiti art around my neighborhood and I have become enthralled by its expression of creativity. Last week I set out with my camera to capture as much as I could, resulting in the images above.

As you can see, much of the art incorporates a message of peace which is likely born out of the horrific 2007 and 2008 post-election violence that crippled Kibera and the nation of Kenya as a whole. In fact, I found most of the graffiti in and around old structures that were burned down during this time and never rebuilt. My neighborhood saw the worst of the post-election violence. After capturing these photos, I did a little digging in order to find out more about Kibera’s most prominent graffiti artists whose tags I found. Some of them include Solo 7, Bank Slave, Gomba, and two guys that call themselves Maasai Mbili. These young men are establishing art camps for children, running art galleries inside the slum, speaking at conferences, and even traveling the world to share their talents. They were all born and raised in Kibera, and have lived through the community’s best and worst times. To them, it seems, graffiti art is not a form of vandalism or simply a hobby, but rather an expression of peace, justice, and a way to share their message with the whole world.

To learn more about Kibera’s graffiti art, visit: www.StreetArtOnTheRun.org and click on “Kibera.”

University in the Slum??

The reason I came to Kenya was to pursue a Masters in Transformational Urban Leadership (MATUL) through a partnership between Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles and Carlile College/St. Paul’s University in Nairobi. The MATUL degree is focused on community transformation within urban informal settlements (slums) around the world. When I tell people I am a master’s degree student, they usually imagine me sitting in a fancy university classroom discussing theoretical ideas about how people in slums might improve their lives, or writing papers about hypothetical solutions to pressing economic issues. But this is far from the truth. Each class I take involves working right alongside the members of my community as I learn from and with them.  And in fact, Carlile College has taken this concept to the next level by placing their classrooms right in the heart of Kibera slum.

In 2003, Carlile College opened the Tafakari Centre for Urban Mission in Kibera where many of its local trainings and university courses are facilitated. I strongly believe that this is exactly where we are supposed to be as MATUL students. After all, how can we possibly learn about slums (and from those who have the most knowledge about them – the residents) if we never spend any time there? To get to the Tafakari Centre for class each week, we walk through the lively streets of Kibera surrounded by small homes made of iron sheets or mud as far as the eye can see. As we sit in the classroom, we can hear children laughing and playing, women washing clothes, roosters crowing, and men arguing over who-knows-what. We are delighted with the scent of samosas cooking and assaulted by the smell of sewage and garbage. Much of the time the electricity doesn’t work in our classroom, but we make do, just like everyone else.

My local MATUL class is comprised of NGO workers, pastors and professionals who all desire to see change in Kibera. Some of the students were born and raised in informal settlements themselves, while others come from middle income backgrounds. We grapple with difficult social, physical, and spiritual issues, all while surrounded by the vast expanse of Kibera. Our professors are local experts in their fields with years of experience as doctors, microfinance facilitators, and pastors who can guide you through every nook and cranny of Kibera and who have more knowledge to share than could ever be absorbed in one semester.  Even though I may be met with puzzled looks when I answer the question, “Where is your school?,” I could not be more grateful for the learning experiences I have had there and for Carlile College’s bold move to have a “university in the slum.”

A Sweet Reunion

My host sister here in Kenya is a 30-something mother of three with a caring husband, a good job and has just returned to school to pursue a degree in Community Development. She is hard-working, confident and full of integrity – so many things that I strive to be. Shortly after I arrived in Kenya she told me a bit about her life. My host sister grew up as the youngest of ten children in very poor area of Nairobi. As a child, her family ate only one meal per day because they could not afford more than that. Her mother and father did their best to take care of the children, but could not cover the costs of their education, so none of her siblings finished high school. She explained that at the age of 12, she was taken on by Compassion International, a non-profit organization that allows individuals around the world to sponsor a child in need so that they can attend school and access basic necessities. It was this divine intervention that changed the trajectory of her life.

My host sister’s sponsor was a young man from Australia, not too many years older than herself. They communicated over several years, and she remembers celebrating when he got married to a young woman who began to correspond with her as well. Thanks to their support, my host sister was able to attend a high quality boarding school outside of the city where she received a good education, room and board. It wasn’t until her first day of boarding school that she realized most people ate more than one meal per day. She was the only member of her family to complete high school, which has enabled her to secure employment that supports her family and pursue higher education.

While she was telling me her story, my host sister explained that she had been searching for the sponsor couple for several years and it was her dream to get back in contact. (Understandably, organizations like Compassion International are strict about not sharing detailed contact information between sponsors and children in order to protect the children). She wanted to tell them how their support had changed her life. She wanted to thank them for their gift. She wanted to see how they were doing. The anticipation in her voice was thick. At that moment, I made it my personal mission to find the couple and reunite them after over 15 years with no communication.

My host sister knew her sponsors names and that the man had been a relatively well-known landscape painter in Sydney, Australia (she had kept all of their letters and a painting he sent). I thought the search would be quite simple, but it appeared that the man had not been involved in art for many years, and there was almost no information about him available online. So I went through all the other major websites like Facebook, the White Pages, and some general Google searching. Still no luck. Finally I decided to create a LinkedIn account in case he was listed on the website. During my first search, I found 3 people in Sydney with the same name. One had a personal email listed and the other two had companies listed, so I found the general inquiry email addresses for them and sent messages explaining who I was and that I was looking for the Compassion International sponsor for a girl in Nairobi.

A day later I got a response from the man whose direct email address I had, but was quickly disappointed when he explained he was the wrong person. Another email came from one of the companies, but the woman explained that the person I was interested in contacting had left the company and they did not have updated contact information for him. So I waited a few more days. After a long day of classes, I returned home the following week and there was a new message in my inbox – it was from my host sister’s sponsor! He explained that he and his wife spoke of her often and had wondered for many years how she was doing but didn’t know how to get in contact. He was ecstatic to be reunited. Moments later, my host sister walked into the house from work and I told her I had located her sponsors. As I read his email aloud to her, tears flowed from our eyes as her dream had become a reality.

Since then, my host sister and her sponsors have been emailing back and forth, sending photos of their families and sharing about what has been happening in their lives for the last several years. I am thankful for the gift they gave my host sister whose life was changed by their generosity, and that I could be a part of the sweet reunion.

*Note: This post is not a mandate to sponsor a child nor an endorsement of Compassion International, as every organization has both positive and negative aspects of its operation. If you choose to sponsor a child, please take care in researching the quality of the organization you work with. Thanks!

Kipepeo: Employment and Savings in Kibera

*click on photos to enlarge

One of the most interesting and rewarding experiences I have had in Kenya thus far has been participating in a microfinance internship. I volunteer with a Christian organization called Kipepeo, meaning “butterfly” in Swahili, which teaches women from the Kibera slum how to make handmade cards from recycled materials for an income that are sold around the world through fair trade distributors. The members stay with Kipepeo for five years while learning important personal finance principles and Christian discipleship.

In addition to card-making and training, the women participate in a savings group. Each woman contributes 1,000 Kenyan Shillings per month (about $12) that goes into their personal savings accounts. From the collective savings, the group then provides loans to members to start or expand their own small businesses.  The group is completely self-governed, establishing their own rules and regulations, and voting on who should be granted loans. Leadership roles of treasurer, secretary and chairwoman have been established which provide members with newfound empowerment.

Currently, Kibera’s unemployment rate hovers around 50% and those who have work primarily participate in the informal sector or have unstable jobs. Parents often find it challenging to provide for their families and when emergencies arise they fall into extreme debt or cannot covers costs to care for their loved ones. Kipepeo provides women from Kibera with a steady income and a means to save money for the future as well as start their own businesses. I spent many days making cards alongside the women and visiting their homes and churches, asking them about how Kipepeo had impacted their lives. Many of the women told me that as a result, they could afford to put food on their table every day and pay for their children’s school fees. One woman said the following about her experience:

“I have known the significance of love, thanks to Kipepeo. Some of us are orphans. Some are widows. Some are married. Some are separated. Some have been abused. But here we have each other and we can discuss freely and we support each other. We are a family. Kipepeo has changed my life – physically, spiritually, and economically.”

Kipepeo is just one of the many savings, microfinance and employment models changing the lives of people in poverty in Kenya and around the world. To order cards for yourself, donate to the cause, or read the stories of the women who are a part of Kipepeo, visit: http://www.kipepeodesigns.co.uk/.  Kipepeo is currently looking for a fair trade card distributor in the United States – if you would like more information, contact Harriet at: kipepeodesigns@gmail.com

An Introduction to Kibera Slum

The master’s program I am currently enrolled in focuses on the issue of urban slums across the globe.  All students participating in the program live and work in or near slum communities from Kenya to the Philippines to India to Brazil. Slums are informal settlements that go unrecognized by local government and therefore lack basic infrastructure like roads, running water, electricity and waste management. Each slum has its own history, but generally they result from rapid urbanization as people move to cities to look for opportunity. 1.3 billion people in the world live in urban slums – a number that is expected to rise to 2 billion by 2030.

I live in the community of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, just a 3 minute walk from Kibera slum, which is the second largest urban slum in Africa. The local college I attend has set up a “campus” inside Kibera, so between my classes, my internship, and visiting friends, I spend 2-3 days per week there. No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera, but the population is estimated to be between 200,000-800,000. Yet it is only the size of New York’s Central Park.  Kibera is divided into several villages, though I am still learning where one ends and the next begins!  Homes are made of mud and sticks or mabati (iron sheets).  The conditions for residents are dismal, as there is only one latrine (toilet) for about every 50 households, and there is no sewage or waste disposal system, so human waste and garbage is dumped into the river that runs through the community or left along the roadside. Crime and disease run rampant. The U.N. estimates that 1 in 5 children die before their fifth birthday.

The Kenyan government actually owns the land that Kibera sits on, yet refuses to officially recognize it and therefore cuts it out of all government services. People who live in Kibera pay rent to the building owners, but are technically squatters. The government has attempted “slum upgrading” projects, which sound promising at face value, but during the process they have demolished homes without any notice to residents, leaving them homeless. Shortly after I arrived in Kenya this occurred and thousands were evicted, watching their homes destroyed by heavy machinery. The reasons people live in and stay in Kibera are varied and deep – and too complicated to discuss here – but attempts to give Kibera a facelift have failed time and time again.

One of the frustrations I’ve had since moving to this community is that Kibera is depicted to outsiders as a suffering, dirty place without human dignity (tourists will spend money to get tours of the slum so they can take pictures of children playing in piles of garbage). But Kibera is FAR from that one-sided picture. Kibera is a lively community with shops, restaurants, pubs, schools, services, churches and mosques. The people who live here are hard-working and extremely resourceful – they are students, artists, employees, and family members. As you walk the pathways in Kibera, you will see children laughing and playing, women braiding each other’s hair, men gathered for an afternoon chat, music playing, and people worshipping. While there are many tragic things about Kibera, it is also a place that is truly alive.

I will continue to communicate through this blog about the community of Kibera, as I hope to share about the people who live here and the many goings-on in the community. In the meantime, here are a few resources to learn more about urban slums, and Kibera in particular:

Karibu: A new family and a new home

There are so many things that I could write about, as the last several days have been filled with new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, friends and experiences. However, I will start by sharing about my host family and my new home. I live in Nairobi, Kenya (a large city of 3 million people) in the area of Kibera, which is Africa’s second largest urban slum. Kibera is a huge place, divided into several “estates,” and I live in an estate just outside the Kibera slum.

In my neighborhood there are several types of homes. Some are made of metal sheets that you might typically picture in a slum area, and some are small apartment buildings. There are also many concrete houses, which is the type of home I live in. It has two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, as well as a small room with a toilet (though there is no running water in the house, but rather large jugs of water filled regularly and used for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, etc) and a small room to take baths from a basin. There is electricity in the home, although blackouts are common. (We didn’t have electricity the first two days I was here, and another blackout occurred last night for a few hours).

My host family is a delight. There are eight of us living in the two-bedroom home. My host mother is in her late 50’s and has four grown children. Her only son lives in our house with his wife and their three children, Israel (5), Abna (2) and Ezra (6 months). All six of them share the larger bedroom.  I share the second bedroom with Esther. Esther is not a member of the family but lives in the home and is responsible for much of the cooking, cleaning and tending to the children when their parents are at work. While this would be considered a significant luxury in the United States, it is common here.

I came to Kenya with another student, Abby. She lives just a five minute walk down the road from me. When I walk to meet her at her home I follow dirt roads and pathways bustling with people and store fronts made of metal sheets or wood. Shopkeepers sell everything from fruits and vegetables to shoes, clothes, medicine, chickens and mobile phone accessories. Some of the shops have Kenyan music playing loudly, which I love. Waste disposal is a significant problem in this area, so piles of garbage cover parts of the street, and the smell of burning garbage wafts through the air. Matatus (15-passenger vans which are the most common mode of transportation) packed with passengers drive by at highs speeds along the main road. The neighborhood is especially busy around 5pm, when children are released from school and the adults return from work. I enjoy walking the streets because all of my senses become engaged.

Above all, Kenyans are welcoming and hospitable. Karibu, the title of this entry, means “welcome” in Swahili – a word I have heard several hundred times already.