Kibera Story 01 – Of Shame & Possible Redemption

We downsized our home recently. And we needed to reduce “stuff”. While we had a garage sale, gifted away bed linen and donated clothes, I had not done anything towards reducing my books, papers and craft material.

Then I read an appeal on the Facebook page “Nairobi Expats Marketplace” for stationery and crafting material that a school wanted “for children to craft and sell at at a Valentine’s Day fundraiser”. It was time to sort my craft room. I filled a few boxes and spoke to Diana.

Today a friend, Shoma (who brought along books for the children) and I decided to drive over to hand over the material.We also decided not to carry our cameras. The phone would have to do.

We met 40 children today. Or maybe 50? Between the ages of 1 and 10. Those who could speak, mostly spoke their mother tongue, Swahili. A few spoke English. But they all sang for us. The song made famous for all tourists to Kenya “Jambo, Jambo bwaana” – the Hakuna Matata song. It’s a song Kenyans sing to welcome visitors to their home. The teacher started singing and even the littlest nodded his head in perfect rhythm. Arms wide open to welcome us to their school, their home. Their hearts.

The children were still in their “old” school which is due for demolition. And I visited the new “fantastic” school being constructed for them. With a floor above for the teacher to live in. And some of the kids too who were either orphaned or whose parents were up country, working. A building of red earth and white paint with a tin roof. Two toilet-bathrooms. The school is in Kibera. Africa’s largest slum colony.

We spent about two hours with Diana and Joanna – two twenty something young women from Portugal. They have raised funds back home and are on the spot, ensuring construction is happening, collecting donations, dealing with all those wanting bribes, buying necessities to equip the school, organizing help for the teacher – today she is handling all the children single handed, radiating goodwill and dedication to her job. An HIV positive mother, she definitely needs a helping hand.

Most of all they are just loving and being loved by the children. One can feel the deep affection that the people around the school already feel for these two muzungus – white people – who really have no reason to be there. Except for the calling that is in them.

As Diana was introducing us to young Samantha, who showed us how badly her thigh was burned – from boiling water – Joanna bent down and wiped the snot off the nose of the little boy sitting next to Samantha. With her shirt. Casually, no fuss. – “what could I do, there was no tissue. This is all I had”. Later we discussed options for a never ending stock of handkerchiefs, tiny napkins, a solution.  But at that moment …

It was a moment of deep shame. Here we were, privileged ex-pat wives of managers of a multi-national company. And our first reaction to the surroundings was ewww. Our first instinct was to step away from children who had leaky noses and “peed in their pants”.

The same children who came up to us lifted up tiny arms and asked just one thing from us – “Lift me up. Give me a hug”.

One consolation, for both of us, is that we were not alone in our reaction. Both of us felt the same. One redemption is we did not hesitate for a moment to carry them. Or give them that hug. We are resolved to go back and try to help. Somehow. Maybe with more material for the school. Maybe just a monthly round of chocolates for the children. We will go back with a camera to capture those angelic smiles, because “Since I came to Nairobi, I have lost two phones. But in the city. Not here”.

We hope that we will go back with more awareness, more trust and less horror. If we have any claim to being “human” beings, we need to go back. Without an urge to reach for the sanitiser bottle in the bag.