Visiting a Nairobi Slum
On the last day of his two-week safari in Kenya and Tanzania, Don George opted to take a tour of a different kind – into the heart of Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s most desperate and intractable slums. His journey there offered some unforgettable surprises.
NAIROBI – It is the last day of my safari in Kenya and Tanzania, and after two weeks of bouncing and jouncing through the bush, I have ended with a safari of a very different kind: into the teeming heart of Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s most desperate and intractable slums.
When I originally signed up for this two-week trip, the tour organizers at Micato Safaris asked if I would like to add an optional day-excursion at the end to visit their aid projects in a Nairobi slum. While the concept of “visiting a slum” made me uncomfortable, I was anxious to see the company’s projects and so signed up for the extra day. Little did I know where that journey would take me.
After breakfast at the Norfolk Hotel, we drove through the busy streets of Nairobi toward the sprawling slum, stopping en route to pick up a dozen loaves of bread and giant-sized containers of peanut butter, jelly and orange juice. When we first turned into the muddy winding warren of Mukuru, bumping and grinding and splashing along the trash-strewn mud-streets, past slanting corrugated metal shacks, smoldering hills of garbage and streams of people, I was intimidated. Somehow the lions and elephants of the plains seemed much less threatening than these listing shops with haunches of fly-covered meat, tiny pyramids of rotting produce, and unfamiliar faces staring in at us from all sides. As our van lurched and spun its wheels through deep puddled potholes, I began to feel like a day around the pool at the Norfolk Hotel might have been a much better way to end the trip.
I tried to focus on Lewela, our safari director, who was talking about the slum. “The population of Nairobi is 4 million, and the population of Mukuru is about one-sixth of that, around 700,000. People come to Nairobi from the country because they think they will have a better chance to find work. And when they can’t find work, they end up here. They have a relative here, or a friend of a friend. Everyone helps out everyone in Africa. But before long you have this,” and he waved his hand at the passing scene.
Micato founded AmericaShare about two decades ago to give back something to the people of Africa. “You know,” Lewela said, “because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, so many young Africans have been left orphaned and vulnerable. There are 1.1 million ‘AIDS orphans’ in Kenya alone. And many of them end up living in slums like this. So we started AmericaShare to rescue these children and enable them to get an education. We want to provide hope and resources so that they can lead healthy, productive lives and make meaningful improvements. We want to break the cycle of despair, person by person.”
One of AmericaShare’s programs “adopts” orphans and places them in reputable boarding schools around Nairobi. Because they have no place to stay when school is not in session, AmericaShare had set out to build Harambee Home, a compound in Mukuru that had been funded by Micato employees, friends and clients to provide safe, clean housing for sponsorship recipients when they were not at their boarding schools.
Before long we turned into a large, grassy, fenced-off lot with a brand-new building at one end. Lewela smiled broadly. “Welcome to Harambee Home!”
We jumped out and were greeted with rubber rainboots by the house’s director. After we put those on, he led us to a corner of the compound, site of a new borehole which, he proudly said, is the only source of clean water in the area for Harambee Home and local residents. While we walked, the sweet sound of children singing in a nearby building filled the air. We then stepped along a neatly laid rock pathway to the spanking clean Harambee Home. It was built of gray concrete blocks with a gleaming salmon-colored corrugated tin roof, and windows with fresh-painted white frames.
We toured the two-room building, buoyant with the pride and passion of the director and his staff, then set to work making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Just as we were finishing, some two dozen students filed in, shepherded by two teachers. They ranged in age from 4 to 14, and in demeanor from faces timidly downcast to big bright pupils looking straight into ours, full of expectation. Though they eyed the sandwiches eagerly, for the next 15 minutes, they lined up in three rows and sang English and Swahili songs for us, their eyes dancing, their songs sometimes sliding into giggles, their faces shyly, hungrily scanning ours.
When one of the teachers announced that it was time to eat, they lined up in a neat queue and approached the table where we had prepared the sandwiches and juice, one by one. Some stared into their napkins, picked up their sandwiches reticently and scooted away, but most looked straight at us and said thank you in strong clear voices; a few girls even curtsied primly as they picked up their meals.
They feasted, and we began to take pictures. As soon as I showed one group how they looked in my digital camera, everyone wanted to see themselves. Then I asked them to sing a song and recorded that on my tape recorder and played it back, and everyone wanted to hear themselves. They crowded around my camera and recorder, poking fingers at themselves in the viewing screen or laughing in delight at the sound of their voices. Before long I was the center of a crooning, clowning tornado, with kids doing their finest rock star impersonations into my recorder and aping kung fu classics for my camera.
Far too soon, the time came for us to leave. As we walked to the van, the children trailed behind us, some running up to shake our hands, some still striking poses for the camera. As we drove away, their high-trilled goodbyes followed us into the muddy streets.
On the drive back, I looked more closely at the once-intimidating surroundings. Despite the desperate squalor and abject poverty of the place, women in their Sunday best – bright clean dresses, high heels and fancy hats – were stepping gingerly along the muddy potholed rocky roads on their way to church. Earnest men were working their trades – a carpenter lathing wood here, a barber cutting hair there, a tailor measuring a customer for a suit, a butcher preparing a slice of meat. People gathered in doorways swapping stories, laughing at jokes, calling out to neighbors across the way. Despite the hardships of life in the slum, there were pharmacies and photocopying places and computer training schools. An old man carefully arranged a small offering of tomatoes, carrots and corn on a rickety stand. A young girl patiently sat before a table with three baskets of mangos. There were churches on every block, with music spilling out their doors. And when children caught our eye, they would flash bright smiles, wave their arms like windmills and shout, “Hello! Hello!”
As we threaded our way back through the tumbledown shacks and gaping puddles, past the smoldering trash-hills, Mukuru no longer seemed an alien, threatening place. Now it was a city within a city, where people strove for dignity and dream. It was one more neighborhood in the patchwork-quilt of neighborhoods that covers our planet.
I thought of the children at Harambee Home -- their raw joy and high spirits despite the circumstances they had sprung from and the conditions of their lives. I looked again at this life all around in Mukuru, and tears crept into my eyes. The warmth and dignity, the indomitable spirit, of the people here were as majestic and moving in their way as the wildlife wonders of the previous two weeks.
Before this journey, I had pictured Africa as a land of lions, elephants, rhinos and gazelles. Mukuru was not that Africa. But now I realized Mukuru is that Africa: It had just taken a different kind of safari to show me that the African puzzle was much bigger and more complicated than I had once imagined – and much richer too.