As you know I have been in Kenya for the past few weeks working building a local fellows program, which is beginning to come together and more importantly feel more like a Kenya program than a New York program… it is all exciting and I can’t wait to share more.
But the reason for this email is because I wanted to share some thoughts and a story from a recent trip to Kibera, (the largest slum in East Africa).
This trip has been a learning one so far… A few days ago I had an interesting day because on the eve of my birthday I came into contact with someone who reminded me of myself at 20. She was young, incredibly capable, fearless, and determined to fit in as a native. The young woman I am referring to is Jessica, a recent graduate of Welsley, who is doing some incredible work in Kibera, with her co-partner, Kennedy, (both echoing green fellows). They have built an all girls school in the heart of Kibera. While the school is free, they have developed a model that ensures repayment in other ways. They have the parents commit 5 weeks of work to the school a year and have services around the school they change for like pay per use toilets, a community center, a health center…really amazing…
Back to Jessica. It was so amusing, she had me meet her at this shopping mall, which is where I thought we would hold our meeting…so of course I show up, white pants, nice silk shirt, long flowing scarf, gold bangles, and she quickly wisks me away from the comfort of the mega mall to a nearby mutatu (small local bus transport) which we crammed into for the ride into the slums… as I sat there smushed between two people body odor filling the bus only to be over powered by the smell of burning garbage, in an instant I was back in Senegal (where I lived at 20) taking the local road, the hard road everywhere, at any cost…we exited the mutatu as I looked down at my already dirt and grease stained white pants and jumped onto the red dusty road that leads into Kibera. We walked together followed by groups of yelling kids who were dying to hold my hand, touch my leg, and just be noticed,… I had almost forgotten what that was like… (most of my time here and in my last few trips has been a very priviledged existence).
As we walked down the road, she buzzed with energy to tell me what she was doing, so inspired so proud so accomplished for a young woman of 20 ( I admit while I saw myself in her, in no way had I accomplished all this
J). When we finally arrived at the school deep in Kibera I meet Kennedy her co-founder. He is one of those people who just radiate energy, he stood there in front of their community site in a rainbow colored tyedye shirt and jeans with a huge Kenyan smile…he walked up to me and welcomed me to his community and we talked about what they were doing and what I was trying to do. They told their story I told mine… Kennedy told me he admired me because I was “way up there” but also “way down here”… I sat there thinking how can this young man admire me?
After our conversation Kennedy walked me through the long winding road out of Kibera. We passed many men yelling in Swahihi “who is the white woman with you?” (Kennedy had translated). He stopped to chat with a man who was making wooden bed frames. They exchanged greetings and we were off. Kennedy told me about 4 years ago he had raised 2000 Shillings ($25) and invested it in 20 businesses in Kibera. For his small investment he asked that the borrowers not pay him back but instead pay it forward to someone else.. The man selling the bed frames, was doing quite well and had the option to pay it forward and also pay Kennedy back. I felt a tinge of guilt flow through my body as I thought about the last thing I did with $25.
Kennedy was born in Kibera to a girl of 15, he never knew his father. At the age of 9 he was living on the streets, and was angry at the world, but then at 12 he met a priest who helped educate him, Kennedy told me he was determined to learn English so he could speak to the white people…Kennedy is currently in his second year at Welsley in Connecticut.
As shared with me his story I looked around and was so intensely reminded of the pain and sadness that exists and has existed in the world The anger and resentment that lives in many of the individuals that have experienced the injustice that this world has to offer. My friend and I recently had a long talk about the legacy of colonialism and the implications of that on the economic and psychological lives of many Africans. I wonder if there ever will be a point when we can find a place where we are all truly given the opportunity to realize our potential as individuals and as a world. Acknowledgment and forgiveness are such hard things to achieve…
And then there are people like Kennedy and Jessica and all of you who remind us that there is hope and that things can change.