Part of taking our girls on this adventure around the globe was to broaden their knowledge, learn and to experience life in other parts of the world. We hoped it would continue to motivate them to share, love and give and of themselves freely, and help them to recognize what is important in life. We have been blessed and a trip to the Kibera Slum reinforced that fact, for all of us.
The Kibera Slum, located in Nairobi Kenya, is one of the largest slums in the world. It is estimated to house one million residents of which many are HIV positive. Antonina, our friend who has helped us with our village projects, and is our guide while in Kenya, went to school with a woman named Agneta, who worked in Kibera. Agneta is the director of a group called Stawi, which in Swahili, means ‘together we can achieve more’. Twenty-seven years ago, Agneta lost her husband to HIV. He left her on her own to raise four children and to continue living with HIV. As in many parts of the world, the stigma of living with HIV was unbearable. Many committed suicide, avoided treatment and waited to die. Agneta was determined not be one of those people. She sought treatment, raised her four children who all graduated from University and made it her life’s ambition to help others ‘live positively with HIV’. To her, HIV was a disease, which was preventable and manageable with the right medication and support. It did not mean she was unethical, of low moral standards, or a drug user. It simply meant she had loved and shared her life with someone who was ill.
Stawi has grown over the years and Agneta, her children, and other “members” of the group have helped to educate and support thousands of people affected by AIDS and HIV in Kibera. They have encouraged them to seek testing, treatment and to live positively with HIV. Stawi has also raised many orphaned children who have lost their parents to the disease. The building that we visited was cramped with few features, but it was within those four walls that people were supported and children grew up loved, nurtured and with some form of education.
|The children to Auntie Marilyn's right were all enrolled in school and hoped to continue. Little Natalie has been|
raised since birth with the help of Stawi, and spends her days here in the Stawi building.
After meeting with some of the members, we were taken on a tour of the slum. As we walked down into the valley, the conditions continued to deteriorate. The higher area where the office is located, was considered to be of better class. We were asked many questions along our journey and told to observe our surroundings. Children came up and held our hands, stroked our arms and smiled. Despite the poor conditions, the people were happy. A little boy pulled a juice box car behind him on a string. As we moved down into the valley, the path became littered with garbage, the scents became stronger and not one person asked anything of us.
|Antonina is in the sunglasses walking beside her school friend, Agneta. We are walking behind.|
Although the slum works on a class system, the dwellers can work your way up from the valley with money and education. Education is provided free for little ones; however, very large class sizes, little equipment and poor teacher quality, makes it very difficult for children to achieve. Many cannot afford uniforms and others who make it beyond the first few years cannot afford to pay the fees to continue.
|This is the dry season, but this valley floods during the rains and makes life more difficult for the residents.|
Some of the biggest challenges facing the residents include crowding, poor sanitation, access to clean water and reliable electricity. Although most dwellings have a television, the power is spliced illegally and often causes fires and power failures. Water is available in some areas but it is expensive; residents must purchase jerry cans from those that can afford a water connection.
Many attempts have been made to improve the conditions in the slum with mixed success. Our guide suggested that there has been improvement over the last 10 years, but it has been very slow. Despite millions being invested in the area to provide better quality housing, many chose to remain in their tiny shelters, and rent out the new apartments. Those that did move out of their shacks found them quickly occupied by new immigrants. Even the most basic of shelters are rented out by slum-lords, and are not owned by the families that reside there. Sanitation blocks have also been installed by a number of NGO’s and although this had potential to improve the situation, the fact that there is a fee to use them (5 schillings or about 7 cents) discourages many. Mothers were already struggling to stretch what little money they had and feeding their children ranked higher than paying to use the sanitation blocks. So, toileting in a bag became an option and the notion of flying toilets became many people’s vision of life in the Kibera.
There is a strong sense of community in the slum. Just like Canada, most people are happy to stay put and choose to stay in what is familiar, and this is no different here. There is no easy answer to help support the poverty and improve the living conditions in Kibera, but the people are hopeful for change and it is happening slowly. One of the women who walked along side of me, asked if I thought there was hope for better living conditions in the slum. Did I think it was possible that life could improve? It was probably one of the toughest questions I have been asked. As we continued our journey, I thought about how I could answer her. She was raising her daughter and grandchild on her own, all “living positively” with HIV. She was kind and gentle and interested in some of the places we had visited.
It was certainly an emotional day that left me grateful, inspired, and motivated. With our visit, the Stawi organization will provide another meal for the children and continue educating those affected by HIV. Their message was passed on and our girls got to see another part of the real world. We did not see waste flying through the air, or swollen tummies, but kind, welcoming, gentle people, living life with integrity the best they could.
To answer my tour companion’s question, I suggested that there is hope for better living conditions in the Kibera, but as far as living a better life… what is it that makes a better life? Is it health, happiness, dignity, education? I couldn’t easily answer that question but I did let her know that the work she was doing with Stawi had already had an impact on the lives of so many people. She was humble as she accepted that recognition. One thing I am certain of though, is that we all could learn a lesson or two from the members of Stawi, and the people we met along our journey into Kibera.
Our girls have cared, shared and been generous in so many ways. Although our work in Africa has only just begun, we have experienced and learned so much already. Thank you Antonina, for connecting us with; Agneta, Judy, Lillian, Margret, Malcolm, Rita, Veronica, Faith, Natalie, Gaudencia, Joseph and Otto of Stawi.