A very humbling experience

In February 2015, my friend Swati and I went to meet a 20-something girl called Diana. A business communication major from Portugal, she had first come to Nairobi, 9 months back, with an NGO but had soon started out on her own, to do things her way – building a primary school in Kibera. There, we met an even younger business major Joana, who had just quit her job in Portugal, to join hands with her compatriot’s amazing efforts.

Diana had made an appeal for donations on an FB expat forum – art & craft stuff for the slum kids to create some things for a Valentine’s Day sale. They also posted pictures of the plans of the new school building. The old building – located dangerously by the railway tracks was going to be demolished any day. So though they needed craft materials at that point of time, anything and everything- from chairs to stationery – was welcome.

The railway line that passes in front of the old school

Swati is a very artistic person and loves to collect craftsy things like beads, tiles, ribbons, paper, paint, …. Due to a major downsizing of their house, she needed to give away a lot of ‘junk’ collected over the years. She jumped at the idea of donating her stuff for a such good cause and asked me if I was interested too. Now, I have loads of Math and English workbooks, which I had kept close to my heart in the garb of the oft-used excuse of“jodi kono din kaaje aashe” (if they come of use some day). We were both also very curious to explore the dreaded Kibera – the largest slum in Africa and the underbelly of Nairobi. This provided us a wonderful opportunity to do both.

“In the 1920s the British colonial government allowed Nubian soldiers from Sudan who had fought for the British in World War One to settle on a wooded hillside outside of Nairobi which became known as ‘Kibera’, the Nubian word for ‘forest,’ or ‘jungle.’  The British, however, never gave the Nubians the title deeds to their new land and while they built homes and set up businesses they had no legal rights and effectively remained squatters. Over the years many other Kenyan tribes migrated from rural areas in attempt to find work in Kenya’s capital city and began to rent huts from Nubian landlords…..These residents still rent their shacks and huts from Nubians, but also from middle class landlords who live in Nairobi.  The land itself, however, belongs to the government.”

Typical sights in Kibera
A portion of the slum

There was some initial trepidation after planning this trip and we took the usual precautions like hiding our jewellery under a scarf, leaving our cameras behind, taking both our drivers in the car as “protection” from unwanted elements that we kind of expected to be hanging around that area. As the car approached Kibera, the look of the neighbourhoods we were passing by, started changing – as if to prepare us for what was to come.

We were greeted by the 2 girls at the appointed meeting point and we carried the boxes and bags to another slum school which was being used as a temporary storing place. The roads were too narrow for the car to pass and walking was the only way. At the other school, we met a very earnest looking David, who was their “superstar”, without whom the building project would not have started. He was in charge of supervising the construction.

The old school

“The majority of the homes in Kibera are twelve by twelve feet shacks made from mud plastered over sticks and discarded pieces of wood or mabati, corrugated tin, with dirt or cement floors.  Thousands of narrow and uneven dirt pathways, sometimes only a few feet wide, separate these homes.  During the rainy seasons these paths become small rivers of mud, which often combine with the open sewer systems that also run alongside many of these walkways. Irene Khan, Secretary General Amnesty International, refers to these corridors as “the arteries of Kibera.”  Kibera’s arteries are clogged with every kind of garbage imaginable from plastic bags, broken glass bottles, rotting food, human waste, clothing, rubber, wood, and broken shoes. The scent of burning coal and garbage mixes with the scent of human waste and various foods to give the air throughout Kibera a constantly changing, but always pungent, smell.”

Classroom in the old school

Walking to the new building was like a mini obstacle race. Navigating through the smelly, narrow and uneven alleys dissected by drains of dirty water, muddy wastes and people coming from opposite directions. Children with snotty noses, playing or squatting on the roads, shops selling all kinds of things. Many seemed to know Diana and waved at her with their charming Kenyan smiles.

Finally, we reached the under-construction new school – which was a very basic tin-roofed two-storeyed red clay & wood construction with walls painted white – facing a building which looked like it could collapse any time. “Now all is white but it will be very colorful when it’s complete”, assured Diana.

Way to the new school (pic courtesy: Diana)

The ground floor had about 4-5 class rooms – the windows were mistakenly built on the wrong side of the wall making the rooms dimly lit – while the first floor had brighter rooms for the resident teachers and the orphaned kids. That is where all the activities will also be held. Work was going on full throttle and it was lovely to see the bunk beds for the kids painted brightly in pink, blue, green and yellow! The girls emphasized that their first concern was to first settle the kids in a safe, clean and happy environment, engage them in various kinds of play and then start formal teaching.

Painting the walls of the new school with a child (pic courtesy: Diana)
Joana, Diana and Joseph very happy with the new bunk beds
These beds are even more colourful


“The government is almost entirely absent from Kibera and plays no role in building sorely needed infrastructure such as roads, sewage and water systems, schools, health services and hospitals. As a result NGOs and Faith Based Groups attempt to fill this void in order to provide some of these services, however HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment make up the majority of the mostly foreign funded aid. While Kenya has been independent for over fifty years and has had plenty of time to have granted the title deeds needed to legitimize the community, the government insists that because the slum is still illegal they have no obligation to address Kibera’s grievances.”

We were introduced to a slightly touched but chirpy lady who was cooking in one of the classrooms (Diana had invited her to stay there as she had lost her home – she will be the school cook). Then we met little Samantha and her baby brother – Samantha was grievously injured when boiling water fell on her thighs and legs (we saw some gruesome phone pics) but can walk now after the medical treatment she is getting courtesy these Samaritans. She gave us a brilliant smile when coaxed but her bro was a tough customer. When we enquired about the toilets, we were told that they were being built right in front of the school – a community toilet for the school and 20+ homes which can house as many as 8 people! And they were just pit loos.


“There are no proper toilet facilities in Kibera, only latrines, holes dug into the ground.  Children, mostly young boys, empty the latrines into the river, the source of Kibera’s water, for a small fee.  There is approximately one latrine for every fifty shacks and most shacks house families of at least eight people.”

As we were discussing these horrifying aspects of slum living, Joana casually bent down and wiped off the snotty nose of Samantha’s little brother with her T-shirt, as if that was the most natural thing to do! I too had observed the runny nose of the toddler a while ago with a feeling very akin to revulsion but here was a just-arrived pretty young 20+ Portuguese girl wiping off the snot of this toddler covered in grime, with her own T-shirt! If there was one moment that encapsulates my whole experience at Kibera, it was this. Waves of shame and mortification washed over me. In a flash, this incident held a mirror to my inner core.

Mind you, I have been brought up by parents who have really treated people equally. We have visited the houses of (and eaten meals with) our domestic helpers and drivers. I have gone to the house of our helper at Lake Camp. I have been to village houses of the dadas – who worked in my father’s little magazine – in Canning, Bira, Sonarpur and many other places (when I was in school/college) with my parents. But I have never experienced the squalour in Dharavi (or other Mumbai slums) or the squatters’ shantees in Calcutta by the railway tracks near Dhakuria Lakes or near Tolly Canal.  Years of exposure, education and reading had not prepared me for this experience in Kenya. I was still light years away from evolving as a human being. This was very real. In your face. Far removed from voicing our “educated” concerns over FB. This is how privileged life renders us so very lame as human beings.

Lojja, lojja, ki bhishon lojja!! (Shame, shame, oh terrible shame)

Happy kids (pic courtesy: Diana)

With this turmoil in my head, I continued with my learning. Where did they get the land for the school? Since all the land belongs to the government, one can only lease land in Kibera. But only embassies are allowed to build permanent structures!! So Diana’s organisation bought about 6 houses for 2100 euros and demolished them to build the school. But they could not build a concrete structure. “The demolition and construction had to start on the same day as empty land may just be taken over by someone else!” She had to bribe the neighbourhood people and the shameless Kenyan police to be able to continue the work. Diana was completely hands-on with every aspect – buying wood, paint, collecting donations (mainly from Portugal) and also in Nairobi, appointing the right construction agents, bribing the local people, firing the first few batch of workers who were stealing wood,… and of course spending quality time with the children. Everywhere she went, there were kids with sunshine smiles waving at her, calling out her name… Diana, Diana….. Then they took us for a long walk to the old school – the one which would soon be demolished….. by the railway tracks with garbage strewn everywhere.

“Electricity is very scarce and inconsistent in Kibera.  The majority of electricity in Kibera is stolen from Nairobi because the government refuses to install a safe and affordable means of powering Kibera.”

As we neared the school, Diana and Joana were spotted and a dam of excitement broke! Hundreds of kids (actually 30-40 but felt like more) rushed towards us laughing, shouting, leaping at D & J, …. but welcoming us all. Small faces, happy faces, alive faces, excited faces, with sparkling eyes and 1000-watt smiles, with innocence brimming all over…. in their maroon checked uniforms. Boys and girls aged between 1 – 10, split into 2 ‘classrooms’ based on their ages. The kids here have very interesting names, probably indicating their aspirations: Monte Carlo, Beverley Hills, ….  We were introduced to their teacher Benta who single handedly manages all this. An amazing woman with an aura brimming with positivity. And of course, with that disarming Kenyan smile. She welcomed us to the classroom and they all performed the famous Kenyan song to welcome visitors.

Teacher Benta looks hopeful in the well lit new school

Jambo      hello

Jambo bwana      hello sir

Habari gani      how are you

Nzuri sana      I am good

Wageni mwakaribishwa      you are all welcome

Kenya yetu      to our Kenya

Hakuna matata      everything will be fine

Watching her and Joana with the kids was such a privilege. They were so happy with the kids and vice versa. Hugging them, kissing them, cuddling them with such gay abandon …. while all I could notice was the total lack of personal hygiene in quite a few kids. But it was impossible not to be swayed by the gay mood, infectious energy and the rhythm and music in all the performers, irrespective of their age. Suddenly I felt a tug near my knees. Looking down, I saw this little kid raising his arms to me with a toothy smile…. take me up into your arms please. It was a Selfish Giant moment – giving me a chance to redeem myself. Telling me ‘you still have a ray of hope.’

In a blink, he was mine, almost to keep… and then he was in Swati’s arms. A little later, another tug, another toddler. I danced a bit with him, swaying to the music. I wish I could freeze that moment but alas it was time to leave…….to our privileged expat world. To our houses where there are more rooms than people, more domestic staff than residents and where I keep myself busy with reading, gardening, windchimes and bird feeders. I also had to be back in time to pick up my spoilt-with-choices daughter from her school, where the toilets are bigger than the classrooms in Kibera.

Kids are easily happy (Pic courtesy: Diana)

Suddenly, there was the rumbling noise of an approaching train and a bunch of children ran outside in excitement. Not very different from the kids in The Railway Children. “This is the part I don’t like at all”, exclaimed the safety-conscious European in Joana.

And I remembered Apu-Durga in Pather Panchali.

Happy after the completion of the cheerful looking wall (Pic courtesy: Diana)
Interesting names
More interesting names

Some afterthoughts

As we were walking back to where our car was parked, I enquired about the teacher whose radiance in this bleak scenario totally bowled me over. Diana told us, it was after meeting this lady that she decided to build a school. Such a teacher surely deserved a better school. She is incidentally an HIV positive single mother – I was shell-shocked!! Then I learnt that many of the school kids too were positive. I didn’t even want to know who they were. This was my first-hand experience of HIV+ people. I am relieved to say that unlike my reaction to the snotty kids, I had no shameful thoughts about the HIV affected ones. It made zero impact on me. However, the dirt and muck in the muddy pathways of Kibera made me wash my hands, shoes and clothes as soon as I returned home.

I realise I can never do what Diana is doing. I can never live or work there. Or be so physical with the kids. But I can contribute something to this project in my own small way. Something that I am comfortable with. Something I can deal with. But I also need to modify my sensibilities and approach the situation with more empathy than horror. Less cringing and more accommodating.

That will be the slow path towards being human.

Post Script: Here are some links you may want to see/read.

The 1st one is Diana’s homepage but it is all in Portuguese. Still there are many interesting pictures and videos that need no translation.

The second and third ones are news items on Kibera.

The last one is a blog about an absurd/exotic romance between an American girl and a Kibera resident which is soon going to blossom into marriage.

For those who want to be updated on what Diana has been doing (she is also building a library for children in another slum in Mathare, Kenya), here is the link to her FB page. It is all in Portuguese but you can translate!