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Kibera 2


We did go to Kibera to see our ex-nightwatchman, Cosmas. On Friday we caught the end of his 2 day workshop on HIV/Aids awareness that forms part of his Hope Life Action Trust - an NGO project that he heroically set up off his own bat and FINALLY got sponsorship for.

The first workshop (that we visited) was training, targeted at girls aged 10-18, the next will be for 'the youth' - men aged 20-35. He said that the spur to set up the project was the story of a girl in the community, whose mum died of Aids, then her dad died, then she was then taken in and 'looked after' by neighbours who abused her, she fell pregnant, was persuaded to have a backstreet abortion, then died of complications after that. This story is scarily closer to the norm that we would like to think - I have even heard a similar one once before from my orphanage friends.

For me, it's almost a joke how things in one city can be such poles apart. That day, I went from expensive hairdressing salon/salubrious shopping centre to slum in one day - though to be honest, Kibera is not that different to a trip to a mitumba/second hand clothing market (which was raided by city council officials when I went there last week - bit scary).

'Just a typical day in Kenya then,' my friend said on the phone.

The hairdresser in the smart shopping centre said to me in the morning,
'are you sure you don't want a blow dry?' and I said,
'no, I'm going to Kibera this afternoon'
and she said,
'Oh, I see, I quite understand.'

Kibera is a cliche. There are lots of slums in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya - but Kibera is the one everybody talks about. Possibly this is wrong as it detracts from the others, Kawangware, Dandora, Mathare etc. But on the other hand - perhaps to focus on Kibera means that it gives the slum problem in Kenya a sort of face that people can relate to - which cannot be a bad thing.

The housing in Kibera and indeed any slum is not dissimilar to the mud hut arrangements/corrugated iron roofs, that can be found in villages all over rural Kenya - it's just that in a slum there's no view, no trees, no grass, no space - just thousands of people and many sanitation problems. There is rubbish dumped here and there - we even saw a pig foraging in one place - But I don't think that people in Kibera are to be pitied - everyone who lives there is streetwise and savvy, prevailing over a difficult set of circumstances, working the system.

When you go in your impression of Kibera is that it is a working place, busy, thriving on tiny scale enterprise, full of children, dogs, music blaring from radios, washing hanging on lines, plus there's a community there. I wished I could take thousands of photographs of people going about their business - but that would not have been right, and it would not have helped because still the pictures would have elicited responses of, 'Oh - poor Africa - there it is again laid bare and hopeless.'

'Nobody is fighting here any more' we were told by Cosmas in reference to post-election violence that shook up and fragmented the place. 'Until next time' my husband cynically added. I nearly kicked him and muttered something about The Hague under my breath.

When we hurried behind Cosmas through the busy streets and along the railway track we saw a small posho mill filling sacks with maize flour, dvd hire shop, blow dryer blaring behind the net curtain of a hair salon, three men working on re-vamping some sort of engine. Many of the side of the road vendors are selling items that we would class as rubbish. Old electrical items, bits of broken mobile phones, second hand loo seats, old boots, recycled plastic containers, charcoal in black stained margarine pots. There's food too, maize roasted on coals, fried fish, mandazis, chips. Cosmas, meanwhile, was answering his mobile phone every two minutes, fielding calls.

You have to walk fast and concentrate hard on where you are putting your feet as there is mud and open sewage everywhere - but everyone in Kibera is careful where they put their feet and all are tidy and immaculately turned out. We passed a huge, walled Catholic Church and walked along the edge of an acre of dirt - mostly mud as it had rained recently - which is the area used as football playing field and congregation centre for the local community.

I thanked Cosmas for inviting us to see his project as to bring two white people into the slum draws all sorts of the wrong attention. However, contrary to what one might expect, no one asked us for money or indeed anything - but at the same time everyone commented on our presence - you could hear them and children cried out 'Howayou' and chased us, grabbing our hands like celebrities.

We first were taken to Cosmas's offices which were rather pathetic because it was so dark inside the single room with just one tiny window. He plans to put a clear plastic corrugated sheet in the roof to let in more light. Once our eyes had adjusted we looked at all the hand written posters around the walls which were mission statements and lists of aims of the group. We were then introduced to Cosmas's team of volunteers who were seated on benches whose tasks varied from counselling HIV positive clients, producing bead necklaces (sustainable income) and running micro finance/savings schemes for the local community. There were some boxes in there containing AMREF flyers to be handed out. Cosmas talked the talk, using all the NGO jargon, but believed in it all and I guess he's a big man now having suceeded in something.

We then went to the church which had been hired as a venue where the training session was going on. There were sixty girls on plastic seats whose workshop was drawing to a close after what we suspected were a very long two days. The girls were being told frankly, but by a nice lady with enough humour, about abstinence, condoms, going for HIV testing, supporting others who might test positive, not to ostracise them, that it was possible to have a healthy life with HIV because there is help out there. They discussed openly dispelling myths about HIV, about having babies in a hospital, testing if you are pregnant, testing if you are raped. There were question and answer sessions. It was all very matter of fact.

The girls shuffled, fiddled with pens and papers, whispered, giggled, scraped their chairs, fumbled in plastic bags, disappeared off to the loo, a chicken pecked about inside the church. Adults and organisers at the back drank tea. A high point (for us observers) was when the girls were asked to come up and present the HIV awareness poems and skits they had put together for the session. There were some amazing songs, lots more giggles and some fabulous entertainers. The ones that didn't want to didn't have to go up. Some of the girls were in normal, modest clothes, some veiled and some in black bui-bui robes. Cosmas said they had tried to find girls from all over the slum, so that they could be ambassadors and pass on the message to others in their communities. There was some consternation when the certificates Cosmas had drawn up could not be handed out because they were not yet signed by the right people. The girls were outraged. My husband told Cosmas later - you'd better have the certificates ready when you have 'the youth' training - otherwise you might have a riot on your hands!!

We were supposed to see where Cosmas lived on the way back, but he ended up not showing us. We sensed he was tired and didn't want to push it. It was rush hour in Kibera by then, with hundreds of people rushing in and out, to and from work. If we walked three abreast, we blocked the uneven road and people tutted because we were walking too slowly. When we got to the District Officer's compound where our car was parked, Cosmas told us about how his group so desperately need a computer, mostly to tabulate their results.
'Sometimes it rains inside our office and the papers get spoiled.'

When I got home I, of course, saw our lovely home and garden with fresh, more appreciating eyes and thought I'd try not to complain for a few days. But sadly, it didn't last long. Perhaps I should think about Cosmas's little office of hope every day.

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