Monday, June 4, 2012

Kibera Reflection: One Year Later

Photo credit: LadyeJane Vickers
One year ago last week I went to Kibera. The biggest slum in Kenya,the biggest in East Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people in a very small space. Spending three months in Nairobi and working in Kibera had an indelible impact on my life's path, provided me with new perspectives and new friends, and also importantly allowed me to graduate with my Master's.

Someone recently asked me recently if I was glad that I went to Duke, and glad I got my Master's.

I thought about the moment that I made the decision to go back to school. I was in Tanzania, livin' the 20-something dream of starting an NGO to send kids to school. I thought I was doing the right thing. And for that moment, I was. And for those kids, I was. I thought that this was the way to go, to spend my life in the field working with one kid at a time, supporting one community right in front of me. Global health can be an addictively gratifying field in that you immediately can see the impact you have -- at a very individual level. You send one kid to school (Been there). You buy one mosquito net (Done that). You pay for one man's ARVs (Check.). And for many, this is the right way.

But then long story short, the NGO didn't work out (at least not my involvement in it). And I realized that I would rather approach my impact in a methodical, thoughtful, and INTENTIONAL way. So I went to school to learn how to do that. And also to prove to those around me that international health work was not a 20-something fling with travel, cute African kids, and cultures that value a little junk in the trunk. And it certainly had nothing to do with a "white savior complex".

This is work I have always known that I was going to do. It felt right not because I was satiating my white guilt, or because I thought that those I was supporting had been waiting for me -" chelsea-like-the-football-club" - all along, or that they couldn't do it without me. It felt right because it was what I was supposed to be doing. It was (is) what I was built to do. Just like you are built to be a violinist, a teacher, or a mom.

So going to Duke, and ultimately to Kibera, was always an INTENTION of mine. And in Kibera I refined my purpose, at least for now, to two words.

Peddling Hope.

In Kibera, I met hopelessness in a whole new way, in depressing incidents that shook me up, in fearful conversations with Kiberans about perpetual poverty and pervasive violence, in the vacant eyes of young guys just hanging out waiting for dusk. But I also encountered hope in tangible ways, in ways that defied reason. Here was the glaring dichotomy of those with and without hope.

It seems to me that those of us in global health, those that I have met through Duke and at Carolina for Kibera, who make thoughtful, intentional, and innovative decisions, using researched ideas and community-driven processes, are in the business of providing a commodity - hope - that makes or breaks entire communities.

Hope for health care.

Hope for a safe neighborhood.

Hope for education.

Hope for the next generation.

Now we don't have the answers, and we are far from perfect, and the challenges we face are complicated, convoluted, and frustrating. And I certainly don't claim to know what the next years bring - for myself, or for Kibera.

But for the one year anniversary of a great trip, surrounded by impressive people, and experiences I still can't quite put into coherent words, I am hopeful for the years to come.

1 comment:

  1. Inspirational. And really, what I think a lot of us do it for without such eloquence in describing it!