Kenya Day 5 – Nairobi, Kibera/Kibra

Amy and I left Angi’s early today for a women’s circle in Kibera/Kibra (the name depends on your tribe), the largest “informal settlement” (referred to by many of the people who live there by the less elegant term – slum) in Nairobi, stopping along the way to pick up Nyambura, who has done a great deal of work in Kibra.

Nairobi is in the midst of what seems to be an extended construction boom, with a good deal of high-end seeming housing and commercial space being built almost everywhere you look – but not in Kibra. At some point, we crossed a line from one world into another. Even the appearance of affluence fell away and we found ourselves lurching slowly over rutted paths, weaving carefully through the river of people walking, bearing their burdens, some pushing or pulling carts.

Fewer and fewer substantial-seeming structures; more and more dwellings and business spaces cobbled together from scrounged wood and rusting corrugated metal. In many spaces, only a drape of threadbare fabric separated a family’s living space from the banks of refuse bordering streams of raw sewage and the seemingly endless river of people in what served as a roadway. Only three miles from the center of Nairobi and about the size of Central Park in New York City, Kibra houses an ultimately uncountable ocean of people (I heard figures as low as 600,000 and as high as 2,000,000), most without proper sewage or running water or any formal electricity. Most people have to buy water at a rate five times higher than the more affluent people in Nairobi who are blessed with running water in their homes. Standing in the middle of it, Kibra stretches seemingly endlessly in all directions.

Our haven in the midst of Kibra was the Polycom Development Project (http://polycomgirls.org/), whose founder and director, Jane Anyango, greeted us as we stepped through the gate, having connected with Tecla, into the enclosed area that housed their office. Started in 2006 in response to the exploitation and sexual violence faced by young girls in Kibera, Polycom works “to empower young women in Kibera through access to education, sports activities and sanitation to be able to manage their lives positively and develop a voice to influence policy and decision makers on issues that affect the lives of girls.

As I would later learn during a walking tour, Polycom is one of a growing number of NGOs that work to shine the light of hope more brightly in practical ways that have the potential to transform lives. It seemed like a perfect place to host of a circle of women peacebuilders.

As Jane greeted us, she almost immediately acknowledged that her mother had passed away earlier that morning. After expressing our condolences, we urged her to do what she needed for her mother and herself, assuring her that we could handle the women’s gathering. She thanked us for our concern, said she’d done all she could for her mother for the moment, and that this gathering of women was too important for her not to be there.

We set up chairs in the area behind the office, being careful to be in the shade and to avoid the rows of kale plants (spindly stalks, three feet or more tall, naked except for scars of harvested leaves, until you reached the new growth at the top of the stalk). Slowly but surely women – younger, older; taller, shorter; narrower, wider; lighter, darker) arrived, until there were nearly thirty sitting in a flattened-circle between the back office wall and the crop of kale, with chairs here and there already in the sun.

After the women introduced themselves and one of them offered a powerful, heartful, soulful prayer, we moved into our by-now-familiar round of comments by Angi, Tecla, Amy and me. When I completed my remarks, as always stressing my belief in the essential importance of women’s leadership, men’s support and a women’s space of their own, I left the circle and spent the next three hours being walked through Kibra by Vincent and Brian, two young men Nyambura has worked, both in their mid-twenties, who have spent their entire lives in Kibera.

Not long after we’d set out from the Polycom office, we turned left down a small tributary off the main path and soon found ourselves going down some steps into a dimly-lit room filled with young women and men taking a class on sexual health. The class is one of many programs offered by Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), whose mission is to combat “gender inequality and extreme poverty in urban slums by linking tuition free schools for girls to holistic social services for all.”

SHOFCO (http://www.shofco.org/) was founded in 2010. It’s programs focus on education, health, community empowerment, and water and sanitation, all with an overriding emphasis on supporting the growth and development of bright, at-risk girls. Even though the room was dimly lit, it was aglow with the light from the faces of the girls and boys who occupied every inch of the available space, and by the teacher, a young man who spoke about the program with a depth of passion and compassion that moved me deeply.

Those radiant young people in that dimly-lit cellar room in the midst of, for me, unimaginable poverty, have come to symbolize my experience in Kibra. To be honest, I’m not sure I could survive a week in the over-whelming material poverty of Kibra. Simply remembering it the following afternoon in a debrief of our trip with the Green String Network staff caused me to weep from the core of my being. At the same time, having the privilege of meeting so many bright, committed, hopeful, activist leaders in a few hours walking around left me chastened, inspired, challenged. I realize I have so much to learn from these extraordinary people; and I wonder what I have to offer them that might approach the value of what they offered me.

In the midst of our walking tour, I was reminded of a quote from an anonymous Methodist missionary I have carried with me for over three decades –

Whenever I enter a new place, the first thing I do is to take off my shoes to remind myself I am standing on holy ground. Otherwise, I might make the mistake of believing that I bring God with me.

I was invited to see the holy ground in the midst of Kibera and to see in my human sisters and brothers all around me emissaries of divine light and abundant creative possibility. As Vincent and Brian guided me along they pointed out many micro-projects (most involving bore holes where people could purchase water at price much closer to what most of Nairobi pays) and took me through a relatively new multi-function government center that for the first time offers many basic government services in Kibra to its residents, saving them the cost in both shillings and hours of commuting into downtown Nairobi to access these services.

There are many schools in Kibera; and we passed by many young students walking to or from school. There are also many young adults, predominantly male, who see to pass the day standing around, there education perhaps behind them and questions and the threat of emptiness ahead. I found myself wondering what the future held for these children and young adults who were so dedicated to receiving an education. Was there, would there be for them, a way out?

I found myself reflecting on questions Rev. Jose Chipenda, then on the cusp of retiring after two decades leading the All Africa Council of Churches, had asked me on my first visit to Kenya twenty years earlier. After listening patiently and attentively to what I had to say about the vision of a United Religions, he said he was skeptical, but would watch and wait and see. Ultimately, whether or not he would support URI would depend on the impact it would have on the lives of three groups of people he’d come to know during his decades of work in Africa.

The first group, which was obscenely large given the level of affluence that existed in the world, was those people “born to die.” The poorest of the poor, they lacked the barest necessities to sustain the spark of life. They would die of malnutrition, of dysentery, of preventable diseases, of violence. Their time on this Earth would be like the flare of a match that dies without ever igniting. What, Rev. Chipenda wanted to know, would URI offer these people who were born to die?

The second group, the overwhelming majority of humans, was those people “born to survive.” Though their match would ignite, they would spend their lives laboring merely to sustain a simple flame. What, Rev. Chipenda wanted to know, would URI offer these people who were born merely to survive?

The third group, which was a tiny part of the overall population, was those people “born to live.” These were the candles lit with the matches of those born to survive. They were privileged to receive an education and have a path prepared for them so they didn’t have to struggle merely to survive. They would have the privilege of exploring what it meant truly to live. What, Rev. Chipenda wanted to know, would URI offer to and ask of these people who were born to live?

I find these haunting, challenging questions as relevant now as when I first heard. I realize they aren’t just questions for one organization, or for a group of organizations; for one government or a group of governments. They are questions for all of us. Questions we have a responsibility to keep in front of ourselves day by day. Questions we have a responsibility to help answer. As we walked, I prayed that the sparks of hope I was seeing represented a movement – slow and incremental – upward, so that fewer and fewer might be born to die or merely to survive, and more and more might be born to live. I believe in the depths of my being that for this to happen the leadership of women, with the support of men, is essential.

After three hours, we were back at the Polycom office. The women were now seated in front of the office, having moved in their efforts to avoid the sun. They were sharing tea and refreshment, engaging in animated conversation. I would later learn from my colleagues that the circle had been powerful, though in some ways more guarded that the two previous circles; not surprising given the armor these women must have to wear to live where they live and do the work they do.

That afternoon in the GSN office the questions that shaped our debriefing time was – Where do we go from here? How do we nurture the tender flames of possibility that were kindled during the three women’s circles? What is the work that is GSN’s to do because they are on the ground in Kenya? How might CFP be an appropriately engaged partner?

And what is our calling to extend this work of inviting and growing women’s leadership in peacebuilding and development? How might we connect these women in Kenya with their unknown colleagues in the Peace Mothers groups in Sierra Leone? And how might we continue to expand the circle of invitation and support? These aren’t questions with easy answers. They are questions to live with, to grow into. We intend to do that, in partnership with a growing community of women leaders around the world. That, for me, is hope for tomorrow – hope I happily dedicate my life to supporting.

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