Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Complexity of the Slum

            You are looking at a slum in Ngong (southwest of Nairobi). It looks as I had imagined. There are tin and wood shacks bundled atop one another. I see goats, roosters and mules roaming around, often pulled by children. The muddy ground beneath my feet takes on a whole new meaning when I considered that there are no sewage systems or running water. A landfill welcomes me at the entrance to the slum. There I find young children playing in the waste while goats dig through trash looking for food.
          My senses register new sights, sounds and smells. There is almost too much new information and I am not sure where to file it away. As one would image, the air is malodorous, but not as potent as it would have been in hotter weather. I see a 3 year-old boy wandering aimlessly. What I don’t see is a mother anywhere beside him.
          I hear ‘It’s a Mzungo’ (white person) screamed out of children’s mouths when I walk by. They wave with urgency and excitement. I wave back and consider how I may look in their eyes. Like some sort of alien invading their space. In that moment I wish I were invisible, not disturbing their world. I become acutely aware of my clean hands, clean shirt, shoes and IPhone in my pocket. A sense of shame washes over me.

         The older women you see in the picture are sho-shos (grandmothers). They have gathered here today in an empty space where chickens and goats graze on straw-like grass. Their presence signifies their commitment to a movement in the community to send the children of the slum to school. There are ~60 sho shos present today and they range in age from 60-90 years old. They represent ~75% of all of the sho shos in the slum. 
        Noises escape their mouth that sounds like music to me. The language is, in fact, some tangential version of Swahili. They are clearly connected to one another as if they are sisters. They are wrapped in layers of colorful clothing and blankets. Their skin is deep with lines that suggest wisdom and experience.

Abandoned Children
       These old women serve as the primary caretakers to most of the children in the slum. Why? Young girls get pregnant at 14-15 years here. Often, they are shunned and ostracized by their community when they become pregnant. As a result, they abandon their children and they flee the slum. The grandmothers, who are less mobile and unable to leave the slum, are left to care for the children. The average sho sho in this slum takes care of anywhere between 6-10 children.

       Humans are quick to blame. In this situation my mind rushes to find a clear cause and explanation for all of these motherless children. I think of a vulnerable young 14 year-old girl becoming pregnant. I imagine her hiding her belly as long as she can. I imagine how men and boys may treat her when they see her swell. I imagine the shame and fear that may become her constant companion. I then imagine this broken young girl running away from her own children to protect herself. The story gets more complicated as I considered that the both the children and the mother are victims.

A Miracle
         The young woman that you see in the photo is Rose. Rose was born in a slum called Kware. She tells me that when she was young, the ‘Mzungo’ would come to her slum and she would dance for them and they would give her money. She would give the money to her grandmother so she could take care of the family. All Rose ever knew was the slum. 
        Then, something happened inside of Rose and she saw that things could change in her community. She got involved with Tatua as a community organizer. After spending a few days with Rose, I have great admiration for her. Where did this young woman find her confidence? How did she have the courage to extend beyond her environment and its limitations? Where did she get this sense of responsibility and accountability?
         As you see in the picture, Rose engages the sho shos about the need for their grandchildren to go to school. First, she empathizes with them and connects. Then, she charges them with taking responsibility for the children’s education. Her voice is firm and filled with conviction. The old women respond positively and their faces change. Their eyes open wider, they emphatically nod their heads, and they clap. Rose is like a beacon of light in front of them and the women are lifted up.

I am lifted up.

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