If you’ve been to Africa before, you may have experienced what we call “This is Africa” moments. These hit us kind of randomly, usually when we’re walking down the street and suddenly we realize we’re in the middle of a stereotypical African scene. Generally, these scenes involve children running in the street and reggae playing in the background because honestly, that’s pretty typical here.
This Saturday our original plan was to visit the Central Business District (CBD) and check out the National Museum and UN buildings and just walk around and see more of the city. Then there was a terrorism alert (that apparently even closed the US embassy) and we were advised to avoid the CBD and any crowded areas like malls or markets.
So instead we went to visit our friends in Kibera, the slum. We met Beth and Cristina our first week here, they are two other AIM short-termers who are working at a project called Ghetto Light. Beth is from the UK and Cristina from Switzerland so we make a multinational foursome of mzungu (Westerners… although it’s technically to refer to people of European descent but generally here I’m close enough haha). Getting to their little home required a good walk through part of the slum which was my first experience there. This is a truly African part of the city with no other Western faces anywhere (usually when we’re out and about we see at least a handful of expats). It’s a completely different atmosphere in Kibera. It is like it’s own city with it’s own culture and system of roads and paths. Beth told us they usually can’t even explain to a taxi driver how to get to their home.
It was a great to be able to walk through where many of the students at the center are from. It’s also a good reminder of how lucky we are where we’re living, even compared to the girls’ home which comes complete with no fridge and a squat loo.
While there, we met some of the little girls who live in the compound with Beth and Cristina. Upon arrival I was promptly swarmed by 6 year old twins Hope and Faith who proceeded to pet my hair (without asking permission and jam and butter on their little fingers) and exclaiming that “your hair is black” with some awe and wonder. They likely haven’t met many females with light skin and black straight hair and so it was kind of funny. Lucky for them I’m fun and awesome so I let them braid my hair and they spent the better part of an hour braiding and rebraiding it.
Our visit there was like one big this is Africa moment. No longer is the slum something that we see in pictures or in a movie. This is real life here. For the children who run barefoot in the streets, the men who blast music from their boomboxes watching life go by, the women who do all laundry by hand (which takes FOREVER) this is life. This isn’t a moment that passes like flipping the page of a photo in a magazine. This endures and for many, there isn’t really a way out of it. So even if I feel that I’m not doing anything productive, I’m working at reminding myself it’s not about how I feel but about how these young men and women are being offered a way to improve life for themselves, whether that’s opening their own shop in Kibera with corrugated metal walls or making their way somewhere else in the wider world.