My second day in Africa I wake up disoriented as Rose is bustling out of the room to clean and a rooster crows right outside my window. “Doesn’t anyone sleep around here?” I think, as I slowly find my way to the end of the bed.
I climb down the first rung of the ladder for jumping the last two feet to the floor, “what a long 3 months this will be” I can’t help from thinking as I make my way out the door. The other volunteers are already in the kitchen when I walk in and say good morning to Tim, a boy my age from Indiana and Lydia and Virginia, two girls from Germany.
Breakfast is once again tea and bread with butter, the only difference is in addition to the butter there is peanut butter too. For something different I spread peanut butter on my bread (which is never toasted), and take a bite. The taste is different than I’m used to as the crunchy, sweet flavor spreads over my tongue, “this is NOT how peanut butter is supposed to taste.” I finish both pieces of bread, partially because I’m starving and partially because I don’t want to be wasteful. After what I saw yesterday, it seems we are fairly lucky to have bread for breakfast at all.
The girls offer to accompany me on the walk to school, it is about half a mile and I’m not sure how to get there on my own. We have to leave the house by 7 a.m. sharp and so I walk back to my room and pull on the first pair of jeans I see and a t-shirt. It’s a little chilly so I rummage through my bag before finding an old pullover sweater and make my way to the door.
The walk to school surprises me as we dodge a traffic of people. Women in bright dresses and men in collared shirts, it seems that no matter how much money they have, the people here in Kenya like to look their best. The one thing I notice as we weave in and out of people and traffic is the smell; it is more than just the smell of garbage; the smell of body odor fills my nose.
The need for showering often isn’t high on the priority list in the Kibera slums and I wonder if by the end of this I will smell like them as well.
When we arrive at school the children are already in class and Dantilla, the Principle meets me in the “office” which is a small room consisting of two chairs and a shelf. The shelf is piled high with books that are so old and have been used so often they are tearing at the seams.
She leans against the counter and quickly tells me a little about the school. Herself and Mila (Barnabas’ wife) opened the school about 15 years ago and it has been very successful, teaching children math and English. She explains the hierarchy of the classes and it all is explained very quickly. It’s hard for me to understand what she is saying, her English is good, but her accent is incredibly strong.
She assigns me to the first year class where all of the children are around 5 & 6 years old. They are graduating in a few weeks and so instead of teaching them, I help grade their math homework. It is simple addition and subtraction and these kids seem so proud of themselves for answering all of the questions. I sit in a small chair by the blackboard, my eyes droop and I nod off as I wait for them to finish their assignment. This 8-hour time change doesn’t seem to have done me any favors as I continuously wake myself up from a hazy slumber. I am thinking only of my bed when the children come up with their papers.
All of the children crowd around my chair making fun of each other if they get an answer wrong. It’s funny, no matter what country you are in, kids always act the same way. While I wait for them to finish I sit on my small plastic chair and look around the room. 15 children are squeezed into a tiny room where natural light peaks through a dirty window even though a lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. A girl sits next to me wearing glasses that are crooked and cracked in one lens.
The school is very unorganized, I am at school for 7 hours and all the class does are those 20 math problems.
At 10 a.m. we take a break to “take tea” and we line up the children in the baby class first. The hierarchy in the school is Nursery (they are the little ones about the age of 3 and 4), Baby Class (ages 5 and 6), First Years (ages 7 and 8) and finally the Second Years (ages 9 and 10). The only children that speak English well are the First and Second Years, it is mandatory they everyone in Kenya speaks English.
I put hand soap on each child’s hands as they line up to a spigot sticking out of the wall with a small stream of cold water flowing down. Resources are scarce and so the little ones are only allowed to quickly dip their hands under the water before moving on.
The children walk to the courtyard where they are served bread and a cup of water with what looks like chocolate powder in it and they run back to their classrooms, tea sloshing everywhere.
I walk into a small room where an old 90’s computer sits on a desk and a window looks into the first year classroom. There is a sort of bread in a canister on the table and I am told it’s mandazi. I slowly pick it up and take a taste, it is honestly the best bread I have ever had; it has the appearance of orange fried dough with a sweet taste. I wonder how to make it and am determined to try when I go back home.
1 egg, beaten
½ cup sugar
½ cup milk
2 tbsp butter, melted
2 cups white flour
2 tsp baking powder
Bring all ingredients to room temperature before mixing them together.
Mix all the ingredients together, adding more flour if necessary. The dough should be soft but not sticky.
Roll the dough on a lightly floured board until it is about ¼ inch thick.
Cut into triangles and fry in hot oil.
Fry until both sides are golden brown.
Remove mandazi from oil and drain on paper towels or newspaper.
Best served warm.
At 12:30 the kids have another break for lunch and this time I am appalled by the state of the area where we serve food.
It is a square courtyard that smells strongly of garbage and there are flies everywhere. They land on the food and the plates but no one seems to care.
It is at this point that I decide I will not be partaking in lunch here at school. The flies could be carrying all kinds of diseases and I don’t like the notion that they crawl all over my food before I have a chance to eat it.
I decide to settle for a banana which I know is protected by its outside layer and I have zero chance of getting sick from it. So I settle in a chair and observe the children running through the courtyard now that they have finished eating. It reminds me of my time in elementary school during recess as I watch children run carefree in circles around my chair.
My stomach gives a small lurch as I see a 3-year-old reach down and grab a dirty lollypop stick from the ground and put it in her mouth. There is a small puddle so she rubs the stick in the dirty water and once again puts it back in her mouth. I look at the other teachers who have seen the child, but are doing nothing. It’s another shock as I carefully take another bite of my banana.
After lunch it is naptime for the nursery and baby class, and a few worn mattresses that strongly resemble the mats we used in gym class are laid down next to each other, fitting five or six little bodies on one mat.
I go to the kitchen with Lydia and Virginia to help clean after lunch. On the right side are dirty dishes piled so high I am sure we will be here all afternoon. In the sink a large bowl sits filled with soapy water. Lydia begins washing the plates with a bar of soap and a sponge so old it is falling apart. On the counter next to it is another large bowl filled with water to wash off the soap; we wash countless plates, bowls, mugs, silverware and two Frisbees that were being used as plates, yet we never changed the water.
We have to be frugal with our resources and cannot waste, even after the water has turned brown.
At 2 p.m. a 25-year-old boy Leonardan comes to bring me to the slums. Most of the children at Havilla live there and it’s important for me to see where they are coming from.
As we enter the slums there can be no mistaking where I am as the pure stench of garbage, filth and body odor fill my nose.
I look around and pick up on more disturbing sights as piles of trash rise up on the side of the road creating what can be mistaken for small mountains. The side of the road, where there might have been a sidewalk are deep trenches used as a sewage system and a drain with houses on the opposite side. Small, unsteady planks of wood were placed to navigate from the road to the poor-quality homes.
A stream runs through the slums but it is not the picture of tranquility. It is polluted, filled with trash and the rotting corpses of animals. It’s hard to believe why anyone would choose to stay here, but I suppose they don’t have a choice.
Leonardan and I continue down a side alley where the stench is intensified. We walk into a workhouse where men are grinding away at what look like bones. After asking them a few questions they tell me they are making jewelry, from animal bones. They make necklaces and earrings and offered to show me the final product.
The small, dark, dingy room is filled with machines to grind the bones into smooth jewelry, and a small area set in the corner is left for designing purposes. I am brought into a side room to see the final product and they ask me to buy something because I am a “rich American and I can help them.”
I tell them I am so sorry but I left my bag at the school and after assuring them I would be back to visit we continue on our way. Leonardan takes me to the top of Kibera so I can look at the whole slums and I am struck by the vastness of it. It stretches on for miles, with no end to the ram shackled roofs.
Leonardan points across the street to housing that looks no different from what I’ve just seen in the slums and says that is Government housing.
We continue walking and are standing on the train tracks when I hear a soft meowing. I look around for a minute before I see a tiny starving kitten poking it’s head out of a plastic bag.
It has been hard seeing children playing in garbage and families begging for food, but for some reason this tiny kitten hits home and I realize just how sad it all is. I struggle for a minute as tears spring to my eyes, I want to help and I just don’t know how.
The walk back to school is slow and silent as I take a video so I never forget what I have seen.
When we get back to the school Virginia and Lydia ask what I thought of the slums. I told them how sad it was, kids were using the garbage mountains as a playground, people were using the side of their home as a toilet and above all I couldn’t believe how happy everyone was.
If I learn anything from the people here, I want to look at life the way they do. No matter how bad your situation, it could always be much worse. And even though the people here have minimal resources and minimal means for surviving, they always find a reason to smile.