Thursday, June 2, 2011

First Day of Work Jitters

My window looks directly out on a large market place. During the night time (I found out) there are guards that are placed almost directly under my window to guard the market place. The vendors take home all of their goods each and every day in bags that I imagine could hold three of me and probably weigh three of me too (I’ll let the airport guy know they need a big orange tag). In the morning the first thing I heard was the call to prayer from the local temple. It is amazing how loud these can be, and how early they can be. It is the job of the person at the temple (forgive my technical understanding of the Islam temple) to call the people to prayer and wake up anyone within several miles before the sun actually rises. This was actually a handy wake-up for me because it quickly shook me out of my travel stupor and reminded me that I was back in Africa. Apparently this call to prayer is also is a handy wake-up for the guards at the market who (almost) simultaneously begin to blast their music. This is mostly reggae like music, only with a female singer singing in Swahili an overly repetitive song. As this happened again in the same sequence again Wednesday morning, I am sure this will how I will be woken up each day. No problem.

                                                The view from my room overlooking the market 
This was my first day at the office of Carolina for Kibera. It may be important here for readers to jump over to the CFK website to see the story of the start of the organization. Very briefly, Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and may be the largest slum in Africa. The founders of the organization sought to use local talent and leadership to provide opportunities to those who are living in Kibera. At the outset, this focused primarily on a sports program (the only sport of importance in this context is soccer) and a small clinic. Almost ten years later, CFK has rapidly expanded into an organization with multiple initiatives all focused around utilizing local leadership and input. I will get to the part of the organization I will be working with later but it is important to note that I was already impressed with CFK before I came to Kibera, primarily because of the interactions I had with staff and also the central focus on Kenyan involvement I had cited as a reason I did not always agree with the NGO centric model of development.

Lindsey was kind enough to fetch me from my homestay and walk with me to Kibera. The walk there from my homestay is about 30 minutes, not very far. It turned out to be for the most part a fairly typical walk, busy roads, kiosks and businesses, people on their way to work, houses made of all sorts of materials. I don’t know what I was expecting I guess, some sort of “Welcome to Kibera” sign with neon flashing lights a la Las Vegas or something. For some reason I assumed that there would be a clear point that I would know that I was in Kibera. Perhaps it was how I had built up the community in my mind –the smell, the chaos, the small tin houses, the stray dogs – perhaps I assumed that all of a sudden the chaos of Nairobi would end and the chaos of Kibera would begin in a clearly demarcated way. This was why I was surprised when Lindsey said that we were now officially in Kibera. Apparently I had missed the flashing lights and the tourist information stand. Turns out CFK office is just at the beginning of the majority of the slum and I had much to discover.
We reached the organization in no time, the main office stands out from the rest of the area in which is sits because of the security wall but also because of the size of the structure. The people I met at the office were kind and it was almost a relief that they were not particularly interested in chatting with the new American to walk through their doors and were focused on their work. It was comforting though that many knew I was coming and said that they were waiting for me.  I chatted with a few of the staff a bit and waited for Ben who is my primary CFK partner, to come and meet me at the office. When he arrived, he took me for a tour of all of the CFK offices. CFK is so large that it rents a set of auxillary offices about a ten minute walk from the main office, the Tabitha Clinic also is about a ten minute walk away.

It is difficult to put my first impressions of Kibera into a cohesive paragraph or thought, or to do any sort of justice to the place. To be completely honest, the first time is so overwhelming that I was forced to concentrate on only one detail at a time, in particular securely placing my feet on the muddy path one step at a time. While our approach to CFK was on a road, this trip through Kibera was taken on the infamous alleys and pathways. Before coming to Kibera I had attempted to imagine what it would be like to be on those pathways between the houses, skipping past trash, dodging stray dogs, jumping over streams and passing people with concentrated looks on their faces. But of course I knew (and I was right) that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be there.

The trip through Kibera from the office to the satellite office via the “scenic” route afforded a good idea of the basic idea of the area, although I was primarily concentrated on my feet. My first thought was that it did not smell as bad as I had imagined, although the occasional whiff of humanity stuffed into these conditions did meet expectations. Taking a walk through Kibera is no casual activity and requires concentration and focus. At the moment I was focusing on not making a fool of myself on my first day by slipping into a stream. There are plenty of streams to be navigated in Kibera, a small flow of liquid that contained what I could at the time not afford to contemplate.  I was intent on not making a total Mzungu of myself and falling in on Day One. Better to save that when I know enough Swahili to say something quippy as I pick myself up.

Ben gave me a comprehensive tour of all the offices and the Tabitha Clinic. The last stands out among the shacks and tin roofs, and I briefly thought of how this must be what seeing the pyramids must be like – a large unexpected thing rising out of same-same-same. We were introduced to every available staff member at the clinic and I was even dressed up in a lab coat and given the chance to bungle up a Swahili name and call out the next recipient of pharmaceuticals. I will be sure to give more of a description of each of the facilities in the future. On this first day however I was mostly struck by the impressive size of the clinic and the fact that it had the only x-ray available in Kibera.

The first day at CFK was exciting but a bit numbing. I was impressed with the expansive staff and volunteers and their willingness to learn another Mzungu name.  I was still jetlegged and trying to remember every person’s name I was introduced to. Of course they would all remember my name (more on that later).
That evening I met Amy at her hotel for a bit of American luxury and a much needed large Tusker. She was leaving in the morning for Muhuru Bay and needed a bit of encouragement. I think we both did. Although I was pretty good at pretending, I was feeling a bit unprepared for my summer ahead. After an introduction to the community, I needed a moment (and some liquid encouragement) to get my thoughts together. I left feeling ready to start, ready to learn, and ready to enjoy my summer as much as possible.  

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