Kibera – June 23 2014

I returned to the school early in the morning to meet the three girls sponsored by Reverse The Course, Eunice, Joylet and Marlin. We were joined by Mr. Doula, a male teacher, who grew up in Kibera and was a graduate of St. Al’s. I planned to visit the girls’ homes, learn more about their lives and interview them. Sitting together before we left the school to head into Kibera, it was a bit like going to camp or to school the first day: you have a mutual bond through the place you are at together, but it is often a bit awkward breaking the ice. Yet, after 5 minutes of chatting, we realized we are more alike than anyone might guess and the talking quickly became more animated and laughter punctuated the air.

It had rained the night before, and there are no streets in Kibera. There are dirt paths that easily turn into seas of mud. Of course, collecting rain can provide fresh water in a place where it is difficult to come by and it also lessens odors, but it comes at the cost of more flies and spreads more trash around. A “house” in Kibera is a 12’x12’ mud frame with a corrugated tin roof. For every 85, there is one hole-in-the-ground latrine. There is electricity for about 20% of the slum houses and there used to be two water pipes. There is now just one. Most residents get water by going to the dam, but that water is not clean and many Kibera residents contract typhoid and cholera.

One of our students lives in Soweto, on the farthest side of Kibera from the school. It means a 60-minute walk in a more dangerous area versus the 15-30 minute walk for our other two students. Going home every night each girl is at risk of being victimized.

The Soweto neighborhood of Kibera is the most violent. Gangs operate more freely and more aggressively in this area. Trudging through the mud, we are faced with the smell of open sewage, see people trying to make a living by selling fish heads or fruits, hear countless happy cries of children running up to us, crying “how are you?” and try to avoid being run over by boda bodas (motorcycles).

After walking for about an hour, Eunice beckoned us down one of the side streets that lead to an insurmountable network of narrow, muddy lanes that spawned off into darker corners of Kibera. When I say darker, I literally mean darker. The further in we walked, up slippery rocks and down grooved, muddy paths, the less light there was. Kibera was built in upon itself, and luckier people live on the edges where sun can enter through an open window frame. At one point, it was so dark, I could not see my hand in front of my face let alone where to properly place my feet.

We turned into an alley that opened up to reveal a small slope that ran alongside what had been a river. Mr. Doula guided me saying, “See this river here?…Put your left foot here….it used to be a source of somewhat clean water…watch that slippery patch there…now people use it as a location for drug trafficking.” Over the hill, we were greeted by Eunice’s family. Her mother shyly waved and led us into a pitch-black alley with doors on either side to give an illusion of privacy. Here were another 6-8 “homes.”

Eunice’s mother moves a curtain aside and we take off our shoes and enter this one-room space. There was a well-worn couch, a small plank table, two wood plank beds and a little cupboard wedged inside. Clothes are spread out to dry and old political posters are pinned to the wall and scraps of paper cover parts of a wall. Though tiny, the space was clean and neat. The room had a warm, inviting, tone and I didn’t feel as claustrophobic as I feared. I did, though, feel sad that for so many this was all they would ever achieve.

I positioned the tripod and camera to face Eunice and her mother across from me on the couch as Mr. Doula held up a light I brought with me. As the interview progressed, my respect for Eunice’s mother grew. She was honest and gracious. She wished for her daughter what she never had – a good education, a bright future.

We then left Eunice’s family to walk to the other side of Kibera. Moving out of the Soweto region made me feel both mentally and physically more comfortable. People smiled as we walked by and more children ran about freely. The level of poverty, sadly, did not change.

I gave the girls a camera to take pictures. They took a few of each other and then set about showing off their world and what they want people here in the U.S. to see. Eunice wants to be a journalist and was especially keen on taking photos and has a good eye!

Joylet’s family was not at home when we arrived. Her brother and father had waited for us, but left to search for a day job to earn money for dinner that night. Marlin lives with her sister and a friend from school. They fled their homes in search of safety and took shelter with each other. I interviewed her friend and it was surprising and humbling to get a student’s point of view on life in Kibera, balancing schoolwork with demands of having to take care of yourself in an insecure place, and constantly struggling with hunger. I go to sleep wondering how everyone manages to keep their clothes so clean and so many were able to retain their dignity.

After spending the day in Kibera, I had a better understanding of the girls’ lives and how an education will truly change everything for them.