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Kibera... and AMHF Fieldwork

KENYA | Thursday, 19 November 2009 | Views [625] | Comments [1]

Yesterday I went and visited the school where David, Phillip and Julia (three other AIESEC interns) are teaching in the Kibera slum, the largest slum in Africa. It was first established in 1918 to house Nubian refugees from Uganda, but over the years it has grown to encompass many different tribes and now hosts a population of approximately 1 million. The poverty is made more bizarre by the fact that Kibera is so close to the city (10 minutes on the bus), and you really notice the stark contrast between the tall city buildings and the muddy slum alleyways. It had rained heavily the night before and so by the end of the morning we were all covered in mud; David was saying that in the heavy rains (predicted to start soon with the onset of El Nino, a periodic storm that affects many regions of Africa, Asia and South America) those people living near the river often arrive home after work to find that their entire home has been washed away in the storm.

I took a couple of photos but didn't want to take too many, conscious that these were people's homes. It seemed that all the services in the city were completely replicated in the slum, with road-facing stalls housing clothing, electricals (including lots of mobile phones for sale), cosmetics, chemists, barbers, fruit, groceries, you name it they have it, for a fraction of the price in the city. The rent, often paid to Nubian landlords, is also very cheap, and many people chose to live in the slum for this reason and because it is so close to the city. The roads were unpaved, consisting of dirt (or mud) tracks, and when we walked up onto a hill we could see all the houses, pieced together from scrap corrugated iron, squashed against each other for miles and miles with small alleys in between. Tellingly, the intercity railway line goes through the slum but there is no station at Kibera.

Despite outward appearances, the slum residents live good lives, with lots of laughing and a pervasive optimism. The children were very friendly and we were greeted with choruses of ‘Hello!’ and ‘Habari!’ ("how are you" in Swahili). I noticed that far fewer people spoke English here than in the cities, with Swahili the main lingua franca. Some adults greeted us with wearied looks (I imagine they are sick of voyueristic tourists coming and taking photos of their homes and then leaving without contributing to the community), but most didn't seem fussed either way by our presence, and the school teachers and Principals were very welcoming and happily answered our questions about their work. 

The NGO schools were amazing, again corrugated iron constructions with students perched behind small wooden desks, bursting out of mud floor classrooms. That day the students were all taking their end-of-year exams that determine whether they will be admitted into the next year level, and everyone was concentrating hard. We chatted with the teachers, who were mostly volunteers doing the Kenyan version of a "gap year" or years before starting university and were really inspirational people. They said that their school catered for those children who could not afford to attend one of the four massively overcrowded public schools in Kibera (where there are often 100 children in one class), as they charge 500 Kenyan Shillings (A$10) each month and require that students purchase a uniform. Although this doesn't sound like a lot, many of the pupils in the schools we visited were orphans, living with relatives or in half way houses, and thus had no capacity to pay, and for the parents of others the sum was simply too high. This NGO school provided daily meals to every child for only 20 Shillings (A40c) each per week, and charged only those students whose parents could pay a measly 10Sh per month in school fees.

David told me that due to endemic corruption the Kenyatta family (the family of the first democratically elected President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta) now own almost 50% of Kenya, and it is this and similar concentrations of wealth that drain funds from the slum areas. Most of the NGOs receive no government funding and rely solely on private donations, and as a result staff are often underpaid or not paid at all, and resources are scarce. There are similar slums in every town and several in Nairobi, although Kibera is by far the largest.

It's an interesting time in Kenya at the moment, as Kenya’s new draft Constitution has just been released, and Kenyans have the next 30 days to register their comments before it is put to a vote in a referendum. There are many changes to the old laws (established at Kenyan Independence in the 1060s and which allowed ample space for corruption) and the papers are full of discussion on the topic at present. One NGO in Kibera will be trying to get readable versions of this document out to as many slum residents as possible, so that they can have a voice in the consultation process and are made aware of their rights under these new laws.

After David had finished showing us around Kibera, Victoria (my boss at the African Mental Health Foundation or AMHF) picked me up and took me with her on a fieldtrip "upcountry" to the rural areas north of the city. She was meeting with a group of Community Health Workers who had been contracted by AMHF to care for a caseload of mentally ill clients in their local area. This included visiting the clients' homes to make sure that they were not being mistreated (due to stigmatization, people are often tied up and beaten or starved), trying to get clients to take their medication (when the doctor tells you that your pills need to be taken 3 times a day with meals but you have no food, what do you do?), and reporting back to Victoria at AMHF every three months on client progress and any obstacles encountered. Victoria had that morning been at a similar meeting in Kibera, which had been supposed to go for an hour but instead had run way overtime, and this meeting was no different, with many issues raised and advice given. The meeting was in Swahili, but it was lovely to visit the rural area, meet the workers and chat to them about their role. Each looked after around 10 clients for about 3 days per week, for which they were paid a small honorarium. As well as facilitating the program and offering supervision and guidance to the community health workers, The AMHF use the data collected from these workers to compile research into the status of mentally ill people in rural and slum communities, and uses the results to advocate for better services for these people.

At the end of the day I was dropped back at my host family’s home and vegged out on the couch while my host sisters showed me some funky dance moves (I have to get them to teach me so that I can dance like a real sista when I get home), then fell into bed.



Hey Beth,

In the short time that you've been there, you've done so much and seen so many different things. Kenya is a very different world to Australia indeed. I have so much to learn about Kenya.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I will keep up with the updates! =)

Take care!

  Sylvia Nov 21, 2009 12:55 AM



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