Women in Kibera are heroes
Shortly after arriving in Nairobi on Thursday evening, I was introduced to KV, another Canadian who was also in the city for the weekend. KV invited me to come with her the next morning to visit an NGO located on the outskirts of Kibera.
Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world and is home to somewhere between one and two million inhabitants. These millions of people are packed into an area that is roughly the size of Central Park, making the slum one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Life in Kibera is difficult. Statistics published about the community provide one measure of just how difficult life can be. The average life expectancy in Kibera is 30 years. I am turning 30 next month. Only 8% of the girls living in Kibera will ever have the chance to attend school. No high school, no university, no law school. Most homes do not have running water, and residents share 600 toilets. This means that, on average, there is one toilet for every 1300 people. It also means that residents have to walk long distances to reach a toilet, which is particularly dangerous for women after dark. The apartment I rent in Dar es Salaam has three toilets for two people. By the age of sixteen, 66% of the girls in Kibera routinely trade sex for food. For some, this begins as early as the age of six. Unthinkable. Women living in Kibera have an HIV transmission rate that is five times greater than their male counterparts. Another thing that is in the realm of the unthinkable. (Statistics from: http://shininghopeforcommunities.org/about/about-kibera/).
Sieraden 4 Life, the NGO that I visited on Friday, trains women from Kibera to make beaded jewellery, which is then sold to upscale boutiques in the Netherlands. Employees are paid a fair wage, and profits from the jewellery sales are used to fund schools for their children. The NGO also employs a social worker and counsellor from the community, who attend at the workplace each day to provide the women from Kibera with support. There is a waiting list because so many women want to work at the jewellery workshop.
When I arrived, the employees were in the middle of a meeting. An order had recently been placed for 25,000 bracelets and some of the beads had not yet arrived from China. The NGO tries to source products locally where possible, and some of the beads are made from animal bones by residents of Kibera, but unfortunately most of the beads that are sold in Africa are imported from China.
One of the employees showed me around, another told me about her children and taught me the Swahili word for rabbit (there were a few hopping around the yard), and a third tried to teach me how to make a bracelet. AK, who is one of the supervisors at the workshop and who lives in Kibera, offered to give me a tour of the community. He soon realized that he was too busy to take the time off work and called his friend BK to show me around instead.
The houses in Kibera are packed tightly together. Most have mud walls and corrugated tin roofs. Dirt roads weave between the homes, too narrow for a car to pass through. Railway tracks bisect the neighbourhood and, between trains, provide a space where vendors can sell shoes, electronics, food, and toys.
There is no formal waste disposal system in Kibera and the smell in the neighbourhood is, at times, overwhelming. Community hygiene is a problem. Because there are so few toilets, and because it is often not safe for women to be outside after dark, residents resort to the use of “flying toilets”, which entails defecating into plastic bags which are then thrown onto the nearest roof or road. The practice contaminates the community’s water supply and has led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.
Standing on a hill that overlooks the slum, I noticed that the roofs of some of the houses in Kibera have been plastered with large photographs of women’s faces. The effect is haunting. The photographs are part of anonymous graffiti artist JR’s exhibition called Women are Heroes. As part of the project, JR covered 2,000 square meters of rooftops in Kibera with photographs of women that live in the community. The photographs are made out of vinyl to help waterproof the homes during the rainy season.
JR discussed the project with a reporter from The Guardian: “I was interested in women because I realised in the projects I’d done before – most of the time in the kind of places I was going to – it was men on the street, but it’s actually the women who are the ones holding the community together”. BK, my guide, explained that for him the art project is meaningful because it reminds those who look down on the slum that real people live in Kibera and that the community is more than the sum of its statistics.
BK is an electrical engineer. He grew up in Kibera and moved back to teach science and mathematics at the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy was originally conceived as a soccer team that would empower young women in the community. The project evolved into a school where there are currently 120 students and 14 volunteer teachers. Due to a lack of resources, the school can only accept 40 students each year. Demand is high. BK told me that the teachers conduct interviews and visit applicants at home to try to assess who would benefit the most from attending the school.
BK speaks articulately and eloquently about his community. He explained to me that interventions in Kibera tend to exclude girls on the basis that they become wives and mothers rather than active agents in the community. BK told me that this is precisely why it is so important to educate girls and emphasized to me that in Kenyan society it is the wives and mothers who shape future generations. He spoke with conviction about the role that his mother played in his own life.
BK invited me into the school, which is located in a small two-level building in a residential area. There is one classroom for each grade, and a library with three computers and a wall of books. Even though it was Christmas break, there were about fifteen girls in the library studying chemistry and physics. BK explained that students view the school as a safe space and come there to study when it is not safe for them to be at home. The teachers all live near the school, and escort students home if they study past sunset. It is not safe for girls to walk outside after dark in Kibera.
I don’t know how to end this post. I could say that I left Kibera feeling inspired. That would be true. It is hard not to feel inspired by girls who risk rape just to reach the public toilet but also manage to make it to school every day. But it was more complicated than that. I also felt sadness and loss and hope.
Instead, I am going to close with a toast. Last Saturday was Human Rights Day and I am reminded of a song by Ani Difranco which celebrates the hard choices and sacrifices made by people living in unthinkable conditions. So, here’s a toast to the women living and working in Kibera, to the 8% of the girls who make it to school and to the 92% who don’t, and to those who are helping the girls from Kibera to find their voices.
so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in Palestine
here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation
under the stone cold gaze of Mount Rushmore
here’s a toast to all those nurses and doctors
who daily provide women with a choice
who stand down a threat the size of Oklahoma City
just to listen to a young woman’s voice
here’s a toast to all the folks on death row right now
awaiting the executioner’s guillotine
who are shackled there with dread and can only escape into their heads
to find peace in the form of a dream
–Self Evident by Ani Difranco