I had no idea I would be going to Kibera.
Tuesday morning, after the news meeting, I opted to join a fellow reporter named Caleb on his story. I liked his story idea. Kenya’s parliamentarians are asking for a pay raise of nearly 18%, this would make them among the highest paid lawmakers and politicians in the world. The news has been in the headlines over a week. Caleb, being the creative journalist that he is, wanted to ask ordinary Kenyans how they felt about it and compare how much they make to the salary that the parliamentarians are requesting. I decided to follow.
But I didn’t know I would be going to Kibera.
I sat in the backseat with a friendly cameraman, one of the interns at K24. Caleb in the front with the driver.
“Are you ready for Kibera?” Caleb asked.
“Kibera? Kibera!” was my response.
After a wave of chuckles, I heard the cameraman say I have nothing to worry about.
“I have my bag and everything! Why didn’t you guys tell me we’re going to Kibera?” I asked.
Excitement overwhelmed me as I thought, “I’m going to the “largest ‘slum’ in Africa.” Ironically, just that morning I had told someone that I wanted to go to Kibera. The guy had laughed and said, “you are not yet ready to go to such a place.
Such a place?
Such a place, yes! I’d seen it on TV, acres and acres of shacks and tin roofs and mud houses. Street children In tattered clothing. Hawkers. Prostitutes. Drugs. Open sewage. Poverty-stricken families huddled in 12ft x 12ft boxes. Missionaries and pastors go there. Government officials avoid Kibera. Foreign aid workers go there. I was going there.
On the way, along Jamhuri Road, we saw a students on one side of the street. A huge blue van, called a matatu, had crashed right into a small shop.
“There’s a story,” Caleb said.
We got out and started reporting. Witnesses said they saw the matatu rolling down the street and heard the shouts of students inside. There was no driver and the matatu veered off the road, slamming into a tiny row of stores. I stood close, listening to the Swahili words, trying to learn as Caleb translated for me. Someone tapped my shoulder.
“Will you talk to the students?”
“Yes,” I responded. “We will talk to them.”
It was quite a scene. About 100 bystanders. Confusion was everywhere, but authorities were out of sight. And they never came. I walked over to the students wearing burgundy uniforms. The cameraman was behind me. Caleb put the mike in my hand and told me to go for it. I felt the curious glare of about 40 pairs of eyes.
“Can someone explain what happened?”
Nearly 30 students encircled me and the cameraman. They all began speaking at once. Then one boy came forward and spoke into the mike. He said, he was sleeping and awoke to hear his classmates screaming. He tried to run to the driver’s seat, but was blocked by a large piece of metal. Another student said he knew they were dead.
“How did you all feel?”
“Scared!” One girl said.
“I thought we were gone.”
“What came to your mind?”
“Accident. Accident. That’s the first thing I thought.”
“Did anyone get hurt?”
“No, we’re okay.”
“We know God is with us.”
“Can I speak with a teacher?”
A man emerged forward- the music instructor at the school. He blamed the driver. Apparently, the driver had stopped the matatu, for reasons unknown, and said he would return briefly. The brake must not have been working properly. A woman wearing red came forward to get our attention. Caleb said her store had been the one destroyed.
We followed the petite woman. Caleb asked her questions. After explaining that she had heard a strange sound and something told her to get out of the store, she began to cry. She said her husband had died not too long ago and now, her store is ruined.
After that, we went into Kibera, where the surroundings immediately changed. The driver rolled up the windows. I heard the clicks of all four of the door locks. And if I really wanted to be dramatic, I’d say, the sun disappeared.
With his arms outstretched, Caleb spoke. “Welcome to Kibera! A popular tourist attraction!”
The problems in Kibera are no secret. Prostitution. Girls sell their bodies for less than Ksh30 (US $0.30). Rape and petty crimes are on the rise. More than 1 million residents are jammed into 200 settlements in Kibera, making it the largest makeshift ghetto on the African continent. Unclean water and open sewage means typhoid and cholera. One latrine per 50 people. Alcoholism is still one of the most pervasive problems. The homemade brews are high in methanol. Hundreds of kids hawk goods on the street to fund their glue sniffing addiction. Most of the community is without electricity. More than 50% are unemployed. HIV/AIDS rate estimates range from 35-50%.
But sometimes, the statistics don’t matter when you’re in the land of your people. They don’t matter when you’re so close to the people, “the victims,” who are the subject of those studies. And when you’re surrounded by kids in tattered clothing, you’d be silly to think about those numbers. When a woman comes to you and says, “I am your grandmother,” it becomes almost inhumane to look at her bare surroundings and not at her heart.
I saw Kibera’s children. Big- eyed. Yellow-eyed. Long-eye lashed children. God. The children. Gods knows I love children. They walked in packs, in twos, in solo, marching through a maze in which piles of rubbish reached for the sky. If I tried, and when I die, I will never forget the girl wearing a striped shirt. Corn-rowed hair in a handful of braids, she was adorable. She was serious–I only saw her smile once. She was shy—it took her a while before she could look into my eyes. But when she did, she showed me the face of a wise woman. How can a girl of 3 look so strong? I saw strength in Kibera. And hospitality.
I received the warmest hospitality from people in Kibera. I saw it when I walked out the car with Caleb and the cameraman. There it was, personified in the two guys who approached us. A tall, lean dark one with slim eyes and buttery skin. Quiet. A brown, medium height one in a cargo jacket and blue jeans. Friendly. They led us into Kibera and without them, I would not have had access. Lawrence and Wyclef.
“Wyclef? As in Wyclef Jean?” I asked him.
“Wyclef as in Wyclef Mbuyo!” he said and we laughed.
“I’m Chika. From Nigeria. “
“It’s cool. You’re cool.”
Statistics don’t matter when you connect with a statistic.