Kenya Visit: rainbows from Africa

My last day in Kenya is one in which I experience an entire rainbow of emotion.

From my visits to the informal settlements of Nyalenda and Manyatta, I thought I was prepared for the realities of slum life. And then I spent Thursday morning in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. Around 1 million people play out their lives in an area that is approximately 1.5 square km.  Conditions here are just not cramped, they are hellish. Families of at least five people live in shacks made with mud walls and corrugated tin roofs, measuring only 10 feet by 10 feet. The children will often sleep on the floor underneath their parents’ bed. I was shocked to discover that this fact is actually a contributing factor to the high HIV rate. Children are exposed to their parents having sex just above them, and children being children, will begin to copy this from a very young age.

The houses are built so close together that walking between them becomes a case of edging forwards, side on. With every step you take there is a stream of shit (literally) to avoid. The stench of waste enters your lungs before any amount of oxygen, and a certain heavy-heartedness hangs about the place. I am enraged that people who are too poor to afford other accommodation are forced to live here.

Unlike the informal settlements of Kisumu, there is a huge feeling of despondency among people I meet. I had been warned before I came here that so much money has been pumped into Kibera in recent years that there is a culture of dependency. People do not know how to change their lives because, year after year, they have been given hand-outs, rather than a hand up out of poverty.

But Practical Action is making history in an effort to change this. In partnership with the Kenya National Library Service, we are working with the community in Kibera to build a library and resource centre. This is the first ever library to be built in an informal settlement anywhere in the world. For this reason alone, it is an outstanding project. But as always, it is the people who make it shine. I am introduced to the construction team who are working on the site. They are young women and men from Kibera, who have never before had jobs. They are so happy and so proud to be involved. Stone by stone, they are building their own library, and the hopes of the community in which they live.

The chairperson of the Kenya Community Library Group tells me, most sincerely “Now our dreams have come true. It will change our children’s lives. They will have opportunities that were denied to us. And maybe people will know Kibera for something good.”

For every child I see scrambling around the rubbish dumps of Kibera, I think this library – with its treasures of books and equipment and knowledge – cannot come soon enough. And I am so thrilled that it is Practical Action who is bringing about this change. That Practical Action is being true to its radical heritage by doing something revolutionary and building the first ever slum library. That once again, Practical Action is transforming lives – perhaps as many as 50,000[1] in this case.

Later on Thursday, I receive some very sad news from the UK. My grandfather, who has suffered with Alzheimer’s for several years, has passed away. And in spite of my passion for Africa and for Practical Action, I feel sick with sadness, and all I want to do is catch the first flight home, to go to my family, to be with the people I love.

So now I am home.

I have learnt many things during my time in Kenya. I have learnt that no matter how many times you wash your hands with hand sanitizer and how much bottled water you drink; it is still possible to fall sick from dirty water. I have learnt to be grateful for tarmac – the roads in the UK are wonderful. But by far the biggest lesson I have learnt is that people are people. Regardless of where you live, how your skin is coloured, which God you pray to (or not), how much money you have; people are just people. And the same things matter: your friends, your children, your parents, your grandparents – the people you love.

On the plane home I curl up with my music. A cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” begins to play. I cry, and I think of my grandfather, and I think of Africa.

Before I came here this place might as well have been beyond a rainbow, so distant it seemed. Now I have travelled many many miles across Kenya to share food with Mandera village elders in their straw houses, and to chat and laugh with Kisumu women in their tin homes. I have lived an entirely different life to my own small world in the UK, but witnessed the same things: disappointment, excitement, rage, passion, grief and joy.  No longer does Africa feel like an unimaginable place: it is real, and I am a richer person for having been there. And I cannot wait to return. I want to see more of Practical Action’s work, to hear more inspiring stories, to colour my world with rainbows of experiences of Africa.

[1] The number of expected beneficiaries from the Kibera Community Library.

2 responses to “Kenya Visit: rainbows from Africa”

  1. Vivian Sabulao Says:

    I read and was touched by your efforts to help a people that are so different from you. In every single way..but I agree with with what you wrote.that people are people and it really doesn’t matter where in the world you are, or your ethnicity, people have the same needs, same aspirations .. same hopes and concerns. i thank God for you, that you felt with your heart..and you took action. The world would surely be a better place if more people would have the same compassion that you have.It only takes a bit of that to help change the world!

  2. Ella Jolly Says:

    Hi Vivian,
    Thank you so much for reading my blog and for leaving such a lovely, supportive comment. Although I am now back in the UK I will be trying to blog every Friday about my work, so I do hope you find the time to continue reading about and following my efforts to “change the world” !

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