By Sam Hindels
I started to feel nervous; I was worried about what tomorrow had in store for me. I had just arrived in Nairobi, Kenya and the excitement had not yet worn off, but suddenly I was confronted with my gut churning every which way. I knew instantly what it was. Tomorrow I would visit Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world.
Until now, my work for AMREF has been conducted from within the confines of the developed world: New York City. I have seen photos of where AMREF works, but never actually set foot in sub-Saharan Africa. The reality of where I now was had begun to set in.
I consider myself a bit over-sensitive. If empathy were a bad thing, I may have too much of it. Life has been good for me lately. I have felt challenged, been helping people, and enjoying my work in communications for AMREF. But, there is nothing that can sadden me more than a person who is not happy with themselves or their place on this earth. They seem to have a sort of soul-sickness. That is why the day-to-come was so difficult. I was scared to be so greatly saddened by what I would encounter that my outlook on life might change.
There is something that has always concerned me about humanitarian aid. Handouts prompt people to become dependent on what they receive. But they know in their hearts, their souls, that it is not something they have earned; it is something they have been given, and most are not happy with themselves as a result. There seems to be a primordial pull within all of us that prompts us to work, and to be self-reliant.
When I arrived in Kibera, my concerns seemed to be validated. I have never seen a place like this before. Here, there wereso many, with so little. The homes were made of metal and mud. People were selling their wares, but where were the buyers?
Poverty and its effects were very apparent. Some of the kids wore shoes, some did not. Some had clothes with holes. All of them were way too skinny. One thing that was not in short supply was the trash – it was everywhere.
It’s interesting how feelings can change. My first stop was at the Ushirika Children’s Center. Look at the photo of the students. How could I not be inspired seeing their smiling faces? I was surprised. I wondered how this school came to be. I spoke with co-founders David Kitari and James Bundi who told me about growing up in Kibera, and how few positive things there were for kids to do. That’s why they decided to build the school. It opened in 1999. It was initially very modest, but it was able to expand when AMREF began its support. Water-borne diseases were wide-spread among students, leading to many missed school days. The Center now includes in its curriculum AMREF’s Personal Hygiene and Sanitation Education (PHASE). The children also now have access to new latrines with separate facilities for girls and boys and a clean water supply. The results came quickly. Attendance has increased sharply which has led to better grades. The co-founders, James and David, were living in the heart of one of the largest slums in Africa yet, you couldn’t wipe the smiles off of their faces. But I suppose why wouldn’t they be happy? They get to see the smiling kids every day! Lucky!
At AMREF we talk a lot about empowerment, but what does that really mean in the communities in which we work? We talk about entering communities, and becoming partners with them. Where we do our work we often find people who are helping their communities like David and James, however, they usually lack the means to fully realize the change they seek.
In the course of the day I also met Scholasticah, a mother of five from Kibera who learned eight years ago that she had HIV. In areas with little health education, such as Kibera, people who have contracted HIV are often ostracized. Most do not understand the causes of the disease, leading to suspicion, and then stigma for those infected. Instead of allowing it to end her life, as it has, and still does, for so many people on the continent, it in fact started - with AMREF’s assistance - life anew for her. She has embraced her situation and found a new purpose in life. She has found this new direction through AMREF who trained her to be a community health worker. As part of her duties, she goes door-to-door encouraging her fellow residents to get tested, and to know their status. Scholasticah is an experienced, respected member not just in her community, but also across Kenya. She gets paid by other NGOs and hospitals to teach them how to create community health services that are for and by the community. She has a career now! Creating community-based health services helps ensure that the facilities and services are actually used. Often facilities are built but not used because of a lack of trust and awareness in the community. It takes time and people like Sholastikah to create some trust, and to change people’s views about knowing their status. She is now a thriving, passionate, and happy woman.
I feel so fortunate to have met some of our partners and beneficiaries. Here I was thinking they would make me sad, while in fact I felt the opposite. It was inspiring to meet David, James, and Sholastikah and I realize that it often takes just a little help from AMREF for these people to truly make an impact in their community. To see more photos from my day in Kibera, please visit: www.amrefusa.org/kibera