A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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Reflections on Kibera July 14, 2010

We stayed in Kibera for nearly 3 hours and I became increasingly anxious. I could no longer ignore the pain shooting up from my ankles. Walking in heels in such a landscape was so difficult. Had I known where I would be going, I would have worn flats. Twice, I fell into the sticky pool of water in the middle of the dirt road. The same water that carried drops of feces, chicken fluid, and who knows what else. I thought to myself, “there’s no way I can ever disinfect these shoes enough to wear them again.”

I began to feel a wave of nausea and tried to make sure the dizziness didn’t show in my face. At first, I didn’t mind the huge flies, but then I thought of what germs they may be carrying. Standing in place, I began to make sure I twitched my limbs every so often, chasing away the bugs.

Green, in Kibera! One man had begun growing kelp. They stood tall and healthy. The man was very soft-spoken. He was proud of his crops.  After speaking with him, we continued to walk around Kibera.

I didn’t realize how tired I was until we got back into the car. I said goodbye to Lawrence and Wyclef. In the newsroom, a strange feeling came over me. I still can’t describe it, but I remember it. Inside, I couldn’t stop shaking. The nausea, I couldn’t get over it. I ran into the restroom to clean my shoes, but they don’t keep tissue in there. Running around looking for tissue, I became flustered and couldn’t get the image of those children out of my head. The child standing underneath the clothing line with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing white like an  infant phantom. His head covered with a hat. Haunting me. That’s what he was doing. That’s what he’s still doing. Even as I write this now, itchy sensations tingle down my spine. Kibera.

I finally found tissue, ran back into the restroom and cleaned the bottom of my shoes. The smell from the bottom of my soles filled the bathroom- a mixture of every unclean thing you can imagine. My stomach churned as I scrubbed my hands under the faucet. Back in the newsroom, I put on my extra pair of shoes. But I couldn’t sit still. Knowing that I had to edit the footage from the bus accident, I still couldn’t keep my mind at rest.

Finding refuge in a quiet space somewhere, I called my best friend. In the States.

I needed 10 minutes to sort my thoughts with someone. Just 10 minutes. I told him where I had been, but the words couldn’t come out right. After asking the right questions, he was able to get some inkling of the story. I told him what I had seen, really, it’s the stuff from movies. Does the grandmother sleep on the dirt? What about insects? Rats? Do they tickle her feet? My mind couldn’t ask the question, before it would conjure another one. The ache in my head throbbed louder. Why was I feeling this way?

He said that I’m probably just overwhelmed. Having read about Kibera and seen it on television, maybe the experience of actually being there was just that powerful–that was his guess.

That sounded about right. Kibera was okay in the daytime, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a nightmare at dusk. What would have happened if Lawrence and Wyclef hadn’t approached us to assist us? Would someone have stolen my camera? I had carried my the pocket-sized Kodak in my hand, telling myself that I could not miss the perfect shot. But Caleb had warned me, twice. Gesturing towards his right trouser leg, he had said, “Chika, I put my cell phone here. Watch your camera.”

I had stood close to the camera guy or Caleb most of the time. Around the women, I was more comfortable. But, did I belong there? In Kibera? How was I being perceived? At one point, I had looked up to see a lady about my age, watching me with tiny, brown eyes. I followed her gaze to my necklace. Why in the world did I have to be wearing a necklace?! Did she think I was mocking her? The guilt cut in me so deeply—I still haven’t pulled it out. Not sure if I can.

Africa. What can we say about it that hasn’t been said?

Kibera holds the stereotypical images of Africa, yes… but it’s still the truth. A truth, which I’ve now seen and can never ignore because I stood in a pile of it. The stench ruined my shoes. Several people here have asked me why I chose to come to Kenya. I keep telling them:

“South Africa is too violent. Nigeria is too corrupt. I thought, ‘why not Kenya?”

They usually respond with a laugh and say, “You think Kenya is not corrupt?”

But hey, I got through the airport with all my luggage intact and I never had to hand anyone a shilling, so, that’s alright by me.

A week later, writing about Kibera, listening to the hyper-aggressive guard dogs outside, barking madly at some innocent pedestrian, inspiration looms before me. Africa is for the hardy and being here is like witnessing humanity in the hand of God. And for those who don’t believe in God, here’s another one: Being in Africa is like looking down, at us, from the highest peak on Earth. There, you see beauty undefiled, choking in a tangle of injustice. What have we done to Africa?

And the girl in the striped shirt with corn-rowed hair in a handful of braids, the one in Kibera, who will she become? Which image will she succumb to: the one that depicts Africans as victorious or the other one, that illustrates an enslaved African?

Because when I talk to some Africans, I understand Bob Marley’s plea: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” I remember talking with Nigerians back home who said white people must be the ones to save Nigeria because blacks don’t have the brainpower to do so. Blacks are a lesser specie of humans, these university students told me.

“What about me? So you’re telling me I can never be as good as a white journalist?” I asked a man in Nigeria, a man who will remain nameless.

“You live in America.” In his explanation, he said something like “white mentality” has rubbed off on me. His hair is gray and his skin has wrinkles. Tell me what he has seen that has deteriorated any sense of black pride. Perhaps he is on that peak.


K24 Day 2(Part II): A Grandmother in Kibera July 11, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Admin @ 8:17 pm
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I snapped her picture. Leaning over a broom, sweeping the dust, she was beautiful. Aged, full-figured. Wearing soiled white. The camera clicked at just the right moment. And she didn’t like it.

The Swahili flew out of her lips like a child dropping a bowl of marbles. Wyclef laughed and tried to appease her.
“Is she upset?” I asked. “Tell her I’m sorry.”

She wouldn’t stop. Nearby, two ladies watched closely. Marching towards me, her arms pumped and I saw the smile in her eyes, before I saw the grin of her lips. She was ok.

“Tell her I’m sorry.”

Wyclef told her. She spoke to Wyclef, who said to me, “She says ‘when you want to take a picture….’”

“Yes…” I said.

“’You must ask the person first. When they say yes, everything is ok.’”

“Tell her I am sorry. Ask her to forgive me.”

She smiled and went back to her home.

Caleb went to interview her and we prepared to leave.

“Ask if I can take a picture with her,” I told Wyclef.

“With her? You want to take a picture with her?” he asked and from his voice, I could tell that such a thing is rare.

I sat next to her and we smiled. Being so close to her I had to get a good look. Her breasts hung low. How many babies had she nourished? Her skin was gleaming. Does she use cocoa butter? Wisdom twinkled like stars in her eyes and the firmness of her body contrasted the smallness of my own. Who am I to be sitting so close to African beauty in all its wise pomp and circumstance?

“She’s from Nigeria,” Wyclef told her.

“Eh! I am your grandmother!” She said and I fell into the embrace of her arms. Comforted by her softness.

My verbal thanks seemed insufficient.

“I am your grandmother,” she said again in English, nodding her head to punctuate her words.  “Tell your mother, your grandmother is here.”

“I’ve been wondering where you were, after all these years, I’ve finally found you.” I said.

Wyclef, Caleb, cameraman, and grandmother laughed. Her hand on the small of my back– it felt like friendship.


K24 Day 2: When the stats don’t matter July 10, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Admin @ 11:38 am
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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.