Even many Nairobians don’t seem to know how to talk about Kibera. Some told me there are 500,000 people in the slum. Some said three million. Some said it is the biggest slum in sub-Saharan Africa; some said the biggest in the world. Some talked sadly about the poverty and disease; others pointed to more positive things — “Everything is cheap in Kibera!”
The first bizarre thing about entering the slum is the utter transformation from outside to inside. The place we are staying in Nairobi is a nice gated community. We drove for perhaps 15 minutes through what seemed like sort of suburban Nairobi, when, all of a sudden, we turned off a main thoroughfare onto a dirt road. The landscape immediately changed. It was as though entering an entirely new world. On one side of the street, a 21th century African super-city, and on the other, something altogether different.
In Kibera, the houses — which are mostly shanties made, on the outskirts, from brick and sheet metal, and the deeper in you go, of clay, mud, shoes (really, I saw a lot of shoes in the walls), aluminum, sticks, and whatever else was available — are all connected, forming long walls of largely-unelectrified homes and stores. Upon first entering, there is a dusty rock road, broad enough for a bus to pass through with pedestrians ambling all around, on either side surrounded by dark houses, outside of which people sit against the walls eating and chatting and staring, and vendors selling all possible food items, shoes, shirts, and lots and lots of charcoal. The smell of smoke is everywhere, and the smell of sewage mingles inescapably.
Our first stop is the clinic called Chemi Chemi. Painted a sky blue, like NBC’s church in Kibera, it stands out. It’s a spare, gated compound here at the outskirts of this part of Kibera — a pharmacy and a “laboratory” — lined with benches, the walls empty but for posters advocating good healthcare practices: the most common here and everywhere in Kibera seems to be “Wash your hands after using the toilet.”
We rendezvoused with a group of about 15 volunteers — many of whom seem to work at the big church in Nairobi, which has in the last year converted a beer hall into a church plant in Kibera, not entirely to the satisfaction of many of the inhabitants. I gather that except for the volunteers who live in Kibera, most of the others rarely come here, maybe once or perhaps a few times a year. (I guess this is not completely surprising — I’ve lived in Chicago for three years and only been in Englewood a couple of times.) One woman we were with lives 10 minutes outside Kibera and had never entered until last year. She’d seen a report on Kibera on television while visiting America and said it broke her heart to see such a place so near her home; now she volunteers there sometimes.
At Chemi Chemi, we are delegated roles: vetters (who will check for skin infections, lice, and handle deworming — passing all the children with more serious issues, which seems to be the majority of them, on to the next team), nurses (Christin and a Kenyan woman, who were meant to examine, diagnose, and prescribe medicine for probably at least 500 children in a single day), and pharmacists (who separated, organized, and bottled all of the medicines, then passed them out according to the nurses’ prescriptions).
On this day, I was a pharmacist. Sensible, yeah?
I have never in my life seen so many drugs. We had a list of about 15 types available — mostly antibiotics and painkillers (all of the children were administered deworming drugs by the vetters). There were boxes upon boxes of these drugs. The serums and liquids were easy, individually packaged, but most of the drugs were pills, and these came in bags of thousands.
In addition to the volunteers we were with, there were about twenty brown-uniformed schoolboys, all 13- and 14-year-olds from the slum’s Magoso School and orphanage. We were to set up a makeshift clinic at the school, because Chemi Chemi could not accommodate the expected 800 children.
Each of the boys hoisted a box of drugs onto their shoulders. Each of the volunteers did the same. I picked up a cardboard box a little smaller than a beach cooler — it was heavy, but each of the boys was carrying one without a word, and I did not expect to be carrying it far.
The boys led the way. I found out later that most of the volunteers from the church could not have led because they did not know how to get to the school. There are not main roads in the deeper parts of Kibera. It is just rows upon uneven rows of ramshackle houses, built haywire on unlevel rock, surrounded by gutters where sewage and feces freely flow and narrow alleyways where residents sit and watch.
We walked for about 15 minutes, for a while alongside an operational railroad right through the slum that, I was told, shakes all the structures around and, rarely, kills or injures the people who walk along it. For a little while we were on the main road, but we soon veered off between houses. We crossed literal rivers of sewage — the smell was all-pervasive before long. We walked on what could not rightly be called paths, but were simply gaps between spartan mud-and-aluminum constructions. The ground was rocky and rough, and my eyes were usually there, rather than on the people or homes, for there was the very real possibility of slipping and falling into the drain pools.
I have been in refugee camps in Palestine, migrant camps in America, and poor neighborhoods in Syria and Egypt — one of them actually called “Garbage City” — and I can say without hesitation that I have never in my life seen a place that looked as destitute as Kibera. But, as always, we should not judge a book by its cover. I came to find out Kibera is not as poor as one might imagine. Many Kiberans leave the slum everyday to work as househelp and in small businesses elsehwere in Nairobi, which was really impressive to me. To see thousands of men and women dressed in business attire going to and fro around Kibera was sort of an impressive, mind-bending sight.
Our boy guides led us through the labyrinth. When it came to a point where I was utterly lost, no sense of direction anymore for where we’d come from or how to get out of the slum, and when I felt I might need to lean against a mud wall to rest — this was a heavy box of amoxicillin — the boys darted through a short, narrow metal gate. We’d come to the Magoso School and orphanage.
* * *
The Magoso School was probably the most eye-opening thing I saw in Nairobi. I will not be able to adequately describe it, but here is a little picture.
A narrow, two-story, U-shaped compound. Very spare and close. The school has 463 students who come everyday, all of them from Kibera and many of them orphans (I’m not sure what they do for living. Relatives? The street?) That number contrasted with only 20 teachers, most of whom are full-time volunteers. (The teachers were some of the most impressive, inspiring people I’ve met in a long time.) The students are provided with two meals a day — maize meal and beans — which I guess is all some of them will get from day-to-day. The school also houses a handful of boys and girls who would otherwise be left on the street. There is a well on site where children haul up buckets of water, interestingly not far from a gutter of draining sewage. I’m not sure why I find it so remarkable, but despite the meager conditions, Magoso seemed in some ways a school like any other. (Tattered-) Uniformed children bouncing in the courtyard, playing and dancing. Kids playing their instruments and carrying around bags and notebooks. Classrooms and a library. Teachers dolling out instructions and going about their business. It is really an incredible and hopeful operation here in the depths of the slum.
We met the principle of the school, a big beaming Kenyan. We also met his assistant, another sharp and sharply-dressed man.
For the rest of the morning and afternoon we carried out the clinic, setting up stations in the courtyard. It seemed chaotic to me — more than 800 kids (they’d invited another school and we’d underestimated the number who’d come through) — but by the end it was clearly a very organized chaos. Children went through each station, many of them legitimately ill with something — lots of stomach and skin issues — and most of those that weren’t feigning an illness just so they could see “the doctor” (our nurses), which I guess was a real treat.
Really, it was a bit overwhelming, especially for the nurses who were examining, diagnosing, and prescribing for hundreds and hundreds of children. At the pharmacy, we got a little more opportunity to chat with kids as we counted pills and filled prescriptions. To be honest, I was at times a bit worried that these young kids — some as young as, I think, 5 or 6 — would not use the drugs correctly. They’d be tempted to take medicine whenever they felt badly (rather than on a schedule) or to stop taking antibiotics when they felt better. But I guess this is a time when we trust the school and the church and the kids themselves to know how to make things run smoothly, as they had all along.
I met some really amazing people. Lots of children with whom I tried to speak Swahili and they tried to speaking English (they are very happy with a little Swahili from a white person!). It is not as though these kids had not seen white people before — of course they had — but most white people, even of those who enter Kibera, do not come this far in, I gather, so it seemed a happy treat for them to host us. I also met an amazing young guy who told me his story (which I’ll have to write down later!) about his father trying to kill him in Mombasa, how he became a street kid and got into some trouble, and how he was taken in by the director of the school (a saint with an incredible story in her own right) and is now a music assistant at the school and a gospel singer who goes by the stage name Lonetone. To hear his story was really eye-opening, and then to turn to the next guy and the next and hear similarly stories of desperation permeated by God’s faithfulness made it all the more stupendous. It affirmed that, yes, everyone has a story, that God is good and faithful, and that there is a great need for unity and service from the church.
I could write a lot more about Magoso (and will write a bit more Wednesday), but for now I’ll post some photos and leave the rest for later. I will only add a couple observations about Kibera that stuck out to me:
- At first I perceived Kibera as the depth of poverty, but really there was a lot of hope and joy.
- Looks can be deceiving. Kibera may lack infrastructure, but it has its own economy and order. It has lots of vendors, cyber cafes, services, schools, clinics, and police stations.
- Between the clinic and Magoso (about a 15 minute walk), we passed probably 25 “churches.” The man I was walking with pointed them out to me, but he said most of them were “cults,” started by poor men hoping to start a church as a way of taking in money. I heard several times that there are over 10,000 churches in Kibera (and I believe it), but most are tiny. NBC’s church plant, however, began last year with a handful of people and now welcomes 350 attenders. I think that’s a huge testament to the power of churches that preach the gospel and serve their communities well. In fact, the pastor at the Kibera church is befriending other Kibera self-declared pastors in hopes and beginning to disciple them in the Word and in orthodox, educated Christianity. It’s so cool!