The private taxi made a sudden turn from the shaded, leafy suburbs of Kilimani into the sunny and dusty slums of Kibera, and ours very quickly became the only car on the road. We slowly proceeded deeper into the heart of the largest urban slum in Africa, the paved road giving way to red dirt. Tiny shops set in corrugated metal shacks filled both sides of the street, selling everything from clothing to charcoal. Nairobi is well-known for its extremes of wealth, but the sudden shift from embassies and estates to shanties was a shock. It was only the first to occur.
I volunteer with Givology, a young, all-volunteer social enterprise that partners with and supports grassroots education nonprofits around the world. Among the organization that we sponsor is Carolina for Kibera, a locally run community organization that serves the inhabitants of Kibera, a large settlement that has been entirely neglected by the Kenyan government. Kibera--which has an unknown population of between 170,000 and 1,000,000 people--is officially unrecognized by the government and so has never been provided with basic infrastructure and social services: roads, schools, sewersi. In this milieu, , etc. As a result, it has developed completely informally and organically, with its own free-form capitalism and social organization. The slum has organized itself into fourteen or so villages, and also has the highest concentration of organized criminal gangs in Nairobi. In this milieu, Carolina for Kibera offers vital economic, social and health services for the residents of Kibera.
While on vacation in Kenya this summer, I got in touch with Darius Isaboke, the Head of the Department of Social Services at Carolina for Kibera. Darius kindly offered me a tour of the organization and the area. After some meandering and asking passers-by for guidance--par for the course in Nairobi--our taxi brought us to a brightly painted wall indicating the home of Carolina for Kibera. Past the thick wall and heavy gate was a tiny, beautiful courtyard with a couple of visiting volunteers slouched against a wall, two friendly cats, and Darius Isaboke. Darius introduced us to his colleague, Roggers, a young, charismatic man who offered to take us around Kibera and to meet some of the students that Givology has given scholarships.
We stepped back onto the street and made our way to the first school. The hilly terrain provided us with a view over the densely populated area; corrugated metal walls and roofs filled the landscape in what was (and officially still is) a forest preserve. In the distance, a wide road was being built that would cut through one side of Kibera, with no thought to its residents and actually cutting it off from part of Nairobi. Closer to us, open sewers lay on each side of the road to wash away waste, and residents watched us curiously as we walked past. Roggers gave us a quick briefing on their activities to date.
Founded in 2001 in collaboration with the University of North Carolina, Carolina for Kibera emphasizes "participatory development," employing local staff to provide a comprehensive set of services and leadership, with the intention that the positive impacts "cascade" throughout the community. Givology supports the group by sponsoring scholarships for a number of students that Carolina for Kibera has selected for being academically promising and socially vulnerable. The group now sponsors over 100 students in the 30+ schools situated inside the slum. The students go through leadership training and are supported with tutoring, home visits, health services and counseling (notably, including on women's empowerment and reproductive health).
We ducked through into a small open courtyard that was crowded with desks and chattering young teenagers in uniform. We met briefly with two young women, who are in Forms 1 and 2, meaning that they are in their first two years of high school. They were confident, friendly, articulate and very driven; both wanted to become doctors when they were older. They returned to class, and we hiked up another steep, rocky hill--walking narrow paths with rivulets of waste drainage and being electrocuted by metal walls that were conducting stolen electricity--to another school to meet three more, similarly incredibly young men and women. This group was planning on becoming doctors, lawyers and journalists. It's incredibly humbling to meet kids with so much potential who were thriving on small-dollar donations. Given proper resources--and all they really wanted from us were textbooks--and continued guidance, they can and will achieve their goals.
Kibera presents a fascinating picture of what people can and will accomplish with very limited resources and despite enduring quite a bit of hardship, including floods, disease and frequent power outages. The entrepreneurialism and societal self-organization together make it a very dynamic atmosphere, and there is a strong ambition and determination among many of the residents to better themselves. As Roggers, Maddie and I walk through Kibera back to our taxi, we are frequently greeted by small children singing out, "How are you?" and shaking our hands. I was struck by their good cheer, their extroversion and their very good English. If we can help all of them in the same way that we're currently supporting a select few, I have little doubt that it will be one of the most impactful, productive development projects that we can undertake.
It's a challenge to communicate the curious mix of emotions that come with this type of experience: despair at the neglect and the mountainous set of issues that must be overcome to improve people's social and economic conditions; skepticism that the necessary services can ever be delivered efficiently and effectively; exasperation as poverty persists; and optimism as people nevertheless strive to improve their lot. Charities traditionally emphasize the first set of feelings as they try to sell the need for aid, and the persistence of poverty despite decades of donations has given rise to the aforementioned and exasperations. It is the optimism and the great unrealized potential that has become apparent when visiting a place like Kibera, and it provides inspiration for the very large amount of work ahead.
Meeting the first group of students. Behind them on the wall, randomly, is a message saying that "ghetto" stands for "Get Higher Education to Teach Others."
A survey of the area reveals a sharp divide between Kibera construction and beyond, now delineated by a new road cutting through the hillside.
Roggers very kindly guided us through Kibera
The streets in this corner of Kibera were very vibrant with activity; there were many children about who were especially friendly.
Informal, ad hoc development has given rise to dense construction matching the neighborhood's topography.
Meeting the second group of students in the courtyard of the second school.
A relic from a bygone era. Durable goods are recycled and reused as much as possible in Kibera.
Carolina for Kibera's Blog
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