Abdul led me down the train tracks of Kibera and pointed off into the distance. There was thick forest not to far away. “In in 1970s,” he said, “this whole land was full of trees. Kibera is actually based on the Neubian word for forest. We have replaced tress with tin.” A little further down he pointed to a series of high rise buildings that stood in contrast to the small, one story tin shacks. He told me it was a government project that failed. They built apartments with two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom and wanted three families to live in each apartment. The families moved in, and quickly moved back out again. It turns out families would rather have a smaller space with some privacy than share a government apartment with two other families. Abdul said, “They just never ask us what we want. They tell us what we should want. Look, there are cars there now. People with cars live there. No one in Kibera has a car.”
On my second day of interviewing, Asha and I interviewed a recent graduate named Lynn. She is gorgeous, hilarious and tells stories with beautiful, cyclical repetition. She has a sad childhood of poverty and abandonment. There was one moment when tears took her breath and voice away. She proudly reported that she had scored high enough on her testing to earn a spot at college. About an hour into her story, I suggested that the three of us pause and eat lunch together. “Yes, I will be right back.” Lynn hurried out and came back with rice, beans and cabbage and proceeded to make up three plates. Asha gathered a pile of food in her hand and stopped it an inch from her mouth. She turned to me and said, “We eat with out hands here, is that okay?”
At the entrance to Kibera, the pavement stops and the dirt begins. After a week, I can comfortably navigate the maze of informal market storefronts from the entrance to the school. The school is constructed well, one of the only two story buildings in the slum, with a large open space for the girls to play pick up games during their breaks and after lunch. Yesterday, Abdul invited me to walk with him in Kibera, and we got off that path that I had become used to. I got to see the Kibera that is off the beaten path. I saw a river of trash, stagnant and smelly. “I used to swim in this river as a kid,” Abdul remembered. “Now look at it.” They wait for the rains to come to wash the trash away. Around our next turn her pointed out a sack garden. There were sacks stuffed with dirt that had plants growing out of them in between two small homes made out of mud and sticks. “During the post election violence in 2008,” Abdul explained, “there was fighting between the looters and the police. The police blocked Kibera, and no one could come and go. These gardens is how we survived.” The ingenuity of survival never ceases to amaze me.