This blog post is written by Laura Mayer, a friend and supporter of Uweza. In August 2013, she had the rare opportunity to visit Kibera and meet high school student Lorna, who sponsors through our Sponsorship Program. Below are her reflections on the day in Kibera and what it was like to visit Lorna’s home and school and see firsthand the impact of her monthly contribution.
The best stories we can ever tell are those that start as a grain and evolve almost independently. This one is that kind of a funny story…
After reading a Vogue Magazine article about actress Rooney Mara in spring of 2013 (yes, Vogue!), I was intrigued to learn more about Uweza Foundation, the NGO she created when she merged her organization with another started by friend Jen Sapitro in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. I had long known about Kibera through documentaries and articles, and before I knew it, I was writing Jen, the Managing Director, about volunteer possibilities, an area that did not yet exist. Nonetheless, the foundation sounded fantastic and I was soon sponsoring a high school girl named Lorna!
Fast-forward a couple of months as I was planning my annual August “big trip” adventure and decided on doing volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity in Kenya. Of course, this presented the opportunity to visit Uweza to meet the amazing Jen, see Kibera and, most incredibly, actually meet Lorna!
While I am a seasoned traveler and have been a privileged guest in modest, even makeshift homes in many faraway places, I wasn’t at all sure how I would perceive my first experience walking through Kibera, infamous as it is. I first learned of it in the 2005 film The Constant Gardener and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. How do people survive in such an environment? Why does it continue to exist? What are the houses really like? How dangerous is it? Will the smell be overwhelming? Will I just break down and cry? These questions flew through my head as I prepared for my trip.
As a high school teacher, I was also able to work the visit into my end-of-the-year curriculum, educating my own students on Kibera, poverty in general, and Lorna in particular. They wrote her letters, careful to be sensitive but also asking many typical teenaged questions. I was really excited.
My first experience was meeting Jen at a busy Nairobi shopping center to take a matatu (mini-van/bus) into Kibera proper. Jen! Incredible woman. She moved to the outskirts of Kibera in 2011 and with her terrific team, she has somehow navigated the vagaries of creating and running an NGO!
First stop was the Uweza Community Center where the football team’s jerseys were hanging out to dry and many assorted art projects crashed into each other. There are three main buildings: the office, which Jen shares with Mathew and other staff; a classroom for various clubs and journalism classes and another for art classes. The walls of the center are literally filled to brimming with amazing paintings done by the girls and boys in their art classes, turning the entire center into a gallery.
Uweza Sponsorship Coordinator Mathew and Managing Director Jen at the Uweza office
I felt giddy when Jen said Lorna was there waiting to meet me and we first sat and talked, reading over the letters from my students together. She was a beautiful 16-year-old girl, shyly hiding under her black head scarf. After a half hour or so, we made the walk to her uncle’s house through the jam-packed bustling roads of Kibera. What I saw was amazing and while I more or less knew what to expect, the neighborhood was so much more a viable, energetic and thriving community! It was one of those moments you wish you had an implanted video camera in your head, so much to take in, so many people, everyone busy. The shops and food stalls were bustling, a hardware shop had an immense inventory meticulously displayed along the ground (better stocked, I might add, than my local store in NYC!). The incredible aromas of cooking food pervaded the area, which was decidedly not at all what I had expected to be smelling! The energy of Kibera is that of a fully realized, functioning community, a place where everyone seems to know each other, help each other, share with each other.
Once at Lorna’s home, I felt somehow familiar. Though I was of course struggling with the urge to photograph everything, mainly in order to be able to share the experience with my curious students back home, I managed to remain focused on our conversation: this generous man’s story of taking in his young niece to avoid an inevitable arranged marriage, the struggle to pay her secondary school fees on his earnings as a shoemaker while also raising his 4 younger children. (His wife still lives in their village.) Joseph himself missed out on any post-3rd-grade schooling as the second son – his older brother was typically afforded the money it cost to be educated – and he is determined not to let that happen to Lorna or his own children.
Laura, Lorna, and her Uncle Joseph
The house was a typical one-room affair, the floor hard-pressed dirt, the walls the kind of mud brick adobe over bamboo frames you see in photos, corrugated tin roof. Not all that different, really from any village home. Walls decorated with calendars – five calendars! Lorna and Joseph sat on his bed while Jen, Matthew and I sat on small stools (or were they buckets? I was too distracted by the experience to even acknowledge what it was I sitting on!) Outside, we again met the nieces and nephews as well as several neighbor children, all giggling and jostling to stand next to me for a photo. The local latrine was across the courtyard.
Classroom at Raila Educational Centre
We made our way back through the community, passing hair salons, charcoal vendors and fruit stands, all the while children waving or running right up to us, “Hello, mzungu!” and shaking our hands or just touching us and giggling. Our next stop was Lorna’s school, Raila Educational Center, which was closed for August holiday, but the weekend guard allowed us to walk through and tour the many buildings. Lorna showed us the secondary school buildings, desks stacked up for August cleaning, and the elementary rooms. Each classroom was its own small building, very neat, all centered around a huge football field where boys were playing. The caretaker was thrilled to meet us, and on our way back out, realizing that Jen and Mathew work for Uweza and that I pay Lorna’s school fees, he thanked us over and over again for doing this, urging the importance of education.
Back at the community center, I was lucky enough sit in on the Saturday Girls’ Club with Lorna and about 9 of her friends, all teenagers, today discussing very articulately and frankly the changes boys go through in puberty. The session was led by a brilliant young teacher named Aliyah, who spoke in a fluctuating combination of English and Swahili. Though I found it tricky to follow the conversation moment to moment, I was utterly impressed with their knowledge and confidence. The girls were not in any way phased by my presence, though they did occasionally smile at me and giggle. One of them wrote the notes on a chalkboard and they discussed what their topic should be for next time.
Too soon it was time to go and after hugging Lorna goodbye and encouraging her to write back to my students, Jen walked with me back to the matatu pickup area where we jammed ourselves into the bits of remaining space in the mini-van as a downpour started to turn the dusty red roads of Kibera into rushing rivulets.