Friday, June 24, 2011

Kibera Reflection #1 - Where is the love?

I have been implored by a number of people to write more about Kibera and the community that I am working with. I apologize for the lack of details, perhaps it is that it is nearly impossible to know where to begin. Although I had seen many pictures and spoke with many people who had visited previously, I was acutely aware that I could not prepare myself for working in Kibera. I was correct. I have had some really great, and some not as great, experiences in Kibera over the last month and I think it is a good idea for me to post some reflections on the community, and all of the happenings there, to give my readers a bit of insight and to help me to process a bit.
The CFK Senior Girls' team in a group hug with their opponents after their game

Because I am working with sexual and reproductive health, I am often contemplating one associated subject (to varying degrees)  -- love.

I overheard a conversation the other day among another researcher and a community member about love and sex and marriage in Kibera. “There is no love in Kibera”, she said, in reference to the fact that many people have sex as a means to an end or part of a casual relationship. Often, this encounter results in an STI, HIV, or an unwanted pregnancy. I have heard innumerous stories of men bolting at the sign of trouble leaving a young girl pregnant or misled. I am told that girls start having sex as young as ten years old, although the most common age I hear is more like 12. It is generally with older men who are able to provide something to the girl. One new friend here, when I asked him why a 12 year old girl would sleep with a much older man, replied “I don’t know, maybe he gives her something, like chips (fries).”  

It is easy to see the spaces in Kibera void of love. Frowning women hunched over a steaming pot of food, young men looking menacing and perceptibly unemployed, pregnant girls who are shockingly young, animals with indescribable injuries. These voids are magnets, drawing the attention of concerned individuals world-wide.

I have made a concerted effort to discover the pockets of love throughout Kibera and have found several, only a few of which are presented here. First, and most obvious, is that I see love in the volunteers of CFK, especially those who are my age. I am always struck with the amount of passion and commitment that the young people have for their community. I think this is because I refer back to the same age group at home and am struck by the absence of the same sacrifice for their community. The young volunteers of CFK change their school schedules, give up jobs and opportunities, and sacrifice time to serve their community. Their love is evident in their participation and in their true and honest interest to see their community prosper.

I also see love in A--, the woman who comes to help Mama clean and cook twice a week and resides in Kibera. Privileged to see her house a couple days ago, she told me about how she had the opportunity to move into a larger, more expensive, home a few doors down but that she passed it up so that she could continue to send her son to a better school outside of the slum. To pay for the transportation, she gave up the opportunity to move into a larger space, understanding the importance of the educational opportunity for her young son. A-- shows love to her son by using almost a fifth of her monthly income to pay for the bus across town, and even more of her income to pay for his school fees (although technically primary education is free here in Kenya). A-- is not alone, many of the mothers I have met have sacrificed greatly for the next generation. I see love in the mamas who go to extraordinary measures for their families.

There is a strong sense of community within Kibera that also sometimes gives off the palpable sense of love. While there are unfortunate and violent exceptions to this, it seems that the members of Kibera are a close family sharing a unique and defining experience. The love is apparent in individuals looking out for one another, offering what little they have to support their neighbors with the understanding that tomorrow they themselves might be in need of assistance. I have heard stories of people risking their own safety to protect others during the post-election violence of 2008 or to provide food and assistance to those who were in need during that period of crisis. People check on their neighbors to make sure that they are alright if they have not come out of their home (I don’t even know the names of my neighbors back in Carrboro). Another new friend told me that her mother took in a baby she found on her street, still covered in blood, hours old, and abandoned, and has raised the baby as her own. The people of Kibera seem to understand that their neighbor’s wellbeing is inextricably tied with their own and this is reflected in the love that the community members have for each other.

So while on the surface there may be tangible absences of love and many other human necessities in Kibera, there are important pockets of hope and understanding that can be magnified with the continued effort of CFK and the other leaders working here.

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