Each day seems to bring a new adventure in sticking out like a sore thumb. Nicolas’ cousin, Maureen (the name she took as part of her conversion to Christianity) gave me a guided tour of Kibera, one of the largest slums on the African continent. She is one of its residents, transplanted here from Karungu to be a nurse at a hospital in Nairobi.
Aside from the miles of corrugated tin dwellings, the first thing I notice is the constant hum of activity. Homes often double as a storefront as people hustle and eke out some kind of living. The put random objects on a thin piece of ply wood outside their home hoping a passerby needs a phone charger, a hand fan, a new pair of flip flops or some articles of clothing.
Which brings me to another observation in the time I’ve been here: this is where a lot of our “stuff” goes once planned obsolescence runs its course. For example, recall in one of last posts a group of us when to Kisii for auto parts. While there, I saw a man in a Drew Bledsoe jersey. For those who don’t know, he was the star quarterback of the New England Patriots until he went out with a major injury and Tom Brady, whom you likely do know, took over. If I were a betting man, I’d guess someone in New England donated an unwanted jersey to a clothing drive and it made its way here. I am fully prepared to be wrong and discover the gentleman in question spent time in New England, studying perhaps, and has the jersey as a memento. However, my money is on the former scenario.
Al of this is to say my time in Kenya has been, among other things, an opportunity to reflect on the hardly-seen impacts of consumerism. Those of us with means and the good fortune of living in developed countries would do well to start thinking further down the line regarding the impact of our economic lives. I’m not suggesting a return to closed economic borders or abandoning capitalism by any stretch. What I am advocating is more intentionality regarding the materials we harvest to produce the things we are told we need, and how long we intend to keep them. Our patterns and choices have second and third order effects we rarely consider. I’m also advocating smarter policies for minimizing waste.
These observations ran through my head as Maureen guided me through Kibera’s streets. I sidestepped polluted water sources and discarded Styrofoam food containers while taking picture and trying my hardest not to look like some kind of rude voyeur. I came across a group of kids that wanted me to play a game of tag with them. Around the next corner I met a group of dental students wrapping up a month offering free dental services in Kibera.
At first, the whole thing was sensory overload. Between the locals and myself, it was difficult to determine who was staring harder. I tried to simply look and not stare, take it in as if it were normal. I’d argue I didn’t do a very good job, but I must have done a good enough job that people began asking Maureen about the M’zungu. I recognized the word and used it as a way to laugh about the obviousness of the situation; never really sure who I was trying to put at ease more: them or myself. Everyone we met welcomed us in to their home that day for tea, a Coke – whatever they had. They were generous to a fault.
As my tour went on I began wondering why places like Kibera exist, beyond the easy answer that there are always winners and losers in economic systems. They exist because we allow them to. And really, is Appalachia so different? I’d argue it’s not. Some of the same forces at work that create conditions here are at play back home: apathy, greed, fear.
But what to do about it? I don’t know. All I have right now are a few words inspired by my visit with which I’ll leave you for a while. I wrap up here in a few days and have a circuitous route back to Chicago. Until then, take good care.