The Susans I Met In The Slums Of Nairobi

I visited Kibera last week – the largest slum in the world and the center of recent post-election violence in Kenya. We were guests of a not-for-profit organization called Comic Relief (our hosts out of the U.K.) that provide funds for multiple programs around the world to combat poverty with many centered in Africa. With local NGO leaders as our guide (and two soldiers carrying automatic rifles) we walked through a section of Kibera and an adjacent neighborhood slum of Nbuta to visit some families that live there.

I met three Susans on our travels amidst the winding dirt pathways cluttered with open sewage and mounds of garbage that weave among the million mud and tin structures of homes and businesses (tailors, barbers, stores, and toilets) that serve some 1.5 million inhabitants. Children were all around – as summer vacation is in full force – mostly playing (a few with marbles I noticed) or getting water from pumps (or waiting in lines to get water as it was sporadically on or off throughout the day). Women and men were going about their daily business and eyeing us with suspicion or a friendly hello.

The first Susan I met lives in Kibera and had been given a loan via Comic Relief to start a vegetable stand to raise money to buy one of the homes constructed by a local organization that are trying to upgrade the homes in the slums. The tin or mud huts could be replaced by concrete slab constructions at a cost anywhere from $700 U.S. to $5,000 U.S. The $5,000 bought a multistory concrete slab home with two bedrooms, a toilet, and cooking area. Since that cost was exorbitant to most, the lesser $700 purchase was more the norm (a foundation and four walls – no roof but potential to grow). The Susan I met had been one of the first 62 families to get a ‘high end’ home. She was awarded a home (one of the first 62) by a community council who determines which families are most eligible for homes. Awards are based on the person’s capacity to save money and their contribution to the community through labor or leadership (digging sewer lines, construction, running community meetings) among other criteria. This Susan shared her home consisting of two rooms (each about eight by eight feet in size) with her husband and four children. And Susan was so proud of it, showing me her next design project – to be able to buy a piece of tin roofing to block the exposed hole in the ceiling of their bedroom to prevent the rain from flooding it all the time. I noticed her patch of dirt (about one foot by three) in front of her house which held some fresh vegetable plants and thought of my garden at home – just built last summer that spans 20 feet by 100 feet and might be considered small by U.S. standards.

The next Susan I met was part of a ‘Grandmother’ program by a local NGO and she lived in an adjacent illegal slum to Kibera. Research has shown that identifying a grandmother for youth who have lost their parents to HIV or violence is one of the more successful routes to their protection and future success. Since many children have no biological grandmother, the program trains grandmothers to care for multiple sets of kids. The next Susan I met was a grandmother to several families but one we had a chance to meet. Margaret (age 16) cares for her three siblings (11, nine, and seven) since her parents died when she was 13 years of age. Susan – a rotund woman probably about 60 with grey hair, bloodshot eyes due to the smoke from charcoal burners, and the kindest smile – took us into Margaret’s mud hut. It was a single room, dark with an oil burner for light. Her three siblings sat on the floor while Margaret flipped through a small photo album. We asked her a few questions discovering that she loves math and biology and wishes to be a doctor some day. She said the only way she survived was because Susan helped her with food, water, and care when they were sick. I noticed a light bulb on the ceiling and said something about how great that she has electricity only to discover that it was merely a prop for ‘decoration’. Her brother – little Kevin Minor was his name – flipped through the pages of a used and worn math workbook – the kind my kids grudgingly completed in kindergarten. We asked Margaret if she liked music but they had no radio or means of listening to it and the only reading material she had was a Christian handbook. I thought about all the books we have in our home leftover from the years of reading by our three now grown children….Harry Potter was definitely not part of Margaret’s reading experiences.

The last Susan I met was an energetic leader in one of the Kibera communities. This time the Susan led us to a Muslim household in which a grandmother cared for eight or so grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose parents were killed or died of HIV. I don’t remember the grandmother’s name but I will never forget her face. At 89 she carried herself like the queen of a tribe or matriarch of a clan. Dressed in traditional garb and toothless, she smiled and talked with the authority and wisdom of someone who understands the value of love and family and humor. Her clan of some eight children stood nearby as she described their venture out of the slum when violence erupted after the election and homes were looted and burned. She had taken her brood of grandchildren back into the country-side to their tribal villages until the violence had settled down. With the support of the program we were viewing, she had returned to establish a vegetable vendor business and re-build her home. I thought of my grandmother who had died at 89 of Alzheimer’s disease, alone in a nursing home, and how this grandmother would always be in the hub of her family when death arrived.

The poverty I saw was overwhelming and the Susans I met made it feel more personal in some way, bonded by the stamp of a name. But the experience just solidified my resolve to balance our resources better – to use less and share more. But I also realize that as we may export our resources to eradicate poverty around the world, we can’t forget to import their ‘technology’ as well – a technology of human community – a reverence for family, a sense of pride in leadership and community involvement, and a shared vision to improve the lives of many not just one. Giving and Receiving always go hand-in-hand and meeting my fellow Susans living in Kenya helped me see that even more clearly.