WOW. What a day. So many sights and feelings. On our way to visit the parents of my late sister-in-law Irene, Mark drove us through the slums of Kibera. It was moving and powerful, overwhelming and sobering, real and intense and thought-provoking.
Most of my "around town" photos are taken from my seat in the car by the rear left window; I usually leave my window down so I can get the clearest shots. As we neared Kibera (but before I realized that's where we were), I raised my phone to take a picture of a row of clothing kiosks. A young man saw me and took a quick step toward the car, shouting, "No photos!" Embarrassed and chastised, I lowered my eyes and dropped my phone into my lap, prepared to abandon it for the remainder of the drive. But Mark encouraged me to go ahead and take photos, saying that people are regularly brought into Kibera to see and to document and most of the people there are accustomed to it (though he did recommend that I roll up my window for the rest of the drive).
The young man's abrupt rebuke exposed a feeling that had begun to creep in — or rather, a complex brew of feelings. I felt ashamed: ashamed of ogling people as they're simply going about their daily living, ashamed of turning that into something for my edification and entertainment. I felt guilty that this was just another of many fleeting experiences for me, a place I can choose to visit and choose to leave and even choose to forget if I want, and guilty that I would be returning to my life, a very different life from the one I saw unfurling outside these windows. I felt sorrowful that here are so many people, my brothers and sisters in Christ, struggling to meet basic needs like shelter and clean water. I felt uneasy that in my typical day I am still so removed from the plight of the world at large, and uneasy that perhaps even deeming any person's or group of persons's life a "plight" is self-centered and arrogant when I really know nothing of it first-hand. I felt humble that though I came into this place from a life of privilege, I may not encounter or rely on God's mercy and provision as much as I could.
Despite — or maybe even because of — all these feelings, I was determined to chronicle what I was seeing so I picked up my phone again. Even so, there were still photos I didn't feel comfortable taking. Like the tiny young woman, her face marked by determination and fatigue, lugging a solid toddler on one hip while carrying multiple bags in her other hand and balancing items on her head. Or the uniformed children giggling and playing on their way home from school. It felt too intimate, too invasive to capture these scenes.
Kibera teems with life. It is a place I suspect most Americans would feel is unsafe or hopeless — I was ashamed to catch myself judging it so — and yet it seemed to me that God is very present and there is in fact much evidence of hope. I saw many more people than not with smiles on their faces, laughing and joking together. There is a sense of community and connection, a bustling sense of purpose and unity. There were thriving shops and people cooking, hauling, repairing, selling, and buying. I was ashamed to realize that I had expected dismal silence and the stillness of despair. Instead I had seen gregarious relationship and industrious activity. As with most things, it defies the simple explanations that would be so tempting to give. I have a tendency to oversimplify, to reduce a complicated experience to a pat summation or to romanticize it into a trite analogy. I want to resist that urge. I recognize that I spent a total of twenty minutes on one particular day passing through this vast area containing a quarter of a million souls. I talked to a total of zero people who actually live there. It would be wisest of me to make no assumptions and draw no conclusions based only on what I saw this one time. But I do pray that God grants me insight and wisdom about what I have seen and what effect it should have on me.
Although I didn't admit it to myself until later, arriving at the home of Irene's parents was a relief. We were welcomed warmly into their inviting home and treated to a delicious breakfast:
- thin, lemony pancakes that were similar to crepes, served with honey and jam
- sizzling sausages
- avocados fresh from the outside tree
- kachumbari (Swahili, pronounced KA-choom-BAH-ree, with a rolled "r"), which is similar to salsa, containing diced or thinly sliced tomatoes, onions, and often peppers with cilantro and other seasonings
- goat meat stew
- nduma (Kikuyu, pronounced n-DO-muh), which is taro root, or arrowroot as it's commonly known in Kenya, a starchy vegetable almost like bread in its taste and consistency
Most of the food was prepared by Wairimu. Many years ago she was the househelp for Irene's parents. Irene and her mom trained Wairimu to cook, and Wairimu became so excellent that people clamored to hire her for various events. Irene's parents encouraged her to take advantage of those opportunities and now she has a thriving business. But every once in awhile as a favor to Irene's parents, she returns to cook for certain events, and we were honored to be worthy of her talent!
We had a relaxing time eating and chatting with Irene's parents. They are kind, hospitable people, and I especially enjoyed remembering Irene by seeing her in their faces and mannerisms. After eating, we retired to the living area to talk some more (grown-ups) and play video games (boys). The boys also played outside for awhile with the neighbor's dog, Twila. We spied some monkeys in the trees and on an adjacent wall. Irene's parents recounted some funny monkey stories, like the time Irene's brother Andrew was visiting from Canada and found monkeys in the living room, carefully peeling bananas one by one and eating them as politely as can be. He was so taken by their refined eating that he went and bought them more bananas! Irene's mom was flabbergasted, but couldn't help being amused as well, although the monkeys have gotten so plentiful and bold that the house windows need to remain closed most of the time. The parents even keep a cage in their backyard so they can trap any especially irksome monkeys and have a service retrieve and release them into a park farther outside of town.
On the return drive through Kibera, I learned several interesting things from Mark:
- The statistic I shared yesterday (about Kibera containing 10% of Nairobi's slum-dwellers) is probably an underestimate. It is probably accurate that are about 250,000 people in Kibera, but that number is a much higher percentage of the total Nairobi-area slum population than 10%.
- Each slum is comprised mostly of a particular tribe. Kibera, for example, is majority Luo.
- Kibera is directly adjacent to middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the househelps and other workers in these surrounding areas live in Kibera.
Before returning us home, Mark took us to the Chandarana FoodPlus supermarket at YaYa Mall where we stocked up on water, juice, milk, and honey, and even got a treat (Ezra chose pink and white Haribo marshmallows, Nehemiah chose a Snickers bar, and I got Ritter Sport dark chocolate with marzipan). I was also able to see where Mark has been getting my favorite bread: a Dutch-based company called BBrood. They'll even deliver if we want to pay a small fee! On the way home we glimpsed a few interesting and amusing things, including an ad for Harry's favorite African beverage (a Baileys-like drink) and some horses grazing on the side of the road.
Back at our apartment, I snapped photos of some more striking flowers around our complex. Patrice, Courtney, Taye, and Micah came over and joined us for takeout pizza (from Mambo Italia & Domino's) and chicken (from Galito's). Ezra got locked in the bathroom somehow, but thankfully he was able to figure out how to unlock the door. The boys fell into bed exhausted at 9:45 and were asleep within a minute.