Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kristen for Kibera

Kibera is the largest slum in Africa.  It is about one square mile of unpaved alleys, rusting tin shacks, and open streams of sewage.  Approximately one million people live in Kibera (roughly 1 in 5 Nairobians, and 1 in 50 Kenyans overall).  The HIV prevalence, crime, and chemical dependency statistics are clear off the charts.  The name literally means “jungle” in one of the local languages, and is synonymous with just how bad urban poverty can be.

But it is still in habited by people, and people as a general rule are a resilient lot.  Kenyans in particular are similar to Americans in the dogged belief that this bad day is just a stepping stone, and with the right amount of hustle, better days are just around the corner.  One of these people is Lucy.  Lucy runs the St. Vincent de  Paul Day Care & Nursery School (, a pre-school and kindergarten for at risk kids in Kiberia slum.   She provides them with small classes, motivated teachers and a solid foundation for primary school, something comically lacking in the local public school system.

She also does outreach in their homes, checking up on which parents – often single mothers – are on the edge.  She encourages them to seek regular medical care for their children and for themselves if they are pregnant.  She tells them about drugs with can prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission.  She encourages them, whether they are married or not, to try to start some kind of small business, because waiting for a man to come home (or not) with some money is not going to get your children out of the slums.  She has recently started a rescue center on a piece of donated piece of land outside the city, for children who were abandoned or just could no longer remain at home.  And she does all of this on a few thousand dollars a year given in mostly small donations over the internet.

I am one of her small donors (very small – literally a two digit donation once), and took a morning off while in Nairobi to join a few other visiting donors to meet her and see her school first hand.  We also visited the home of two of her students, getting a firsthand walking tour of Kibera.  I like to think that I am not easily impressed by people anymore, but what Lucy manages to do on so little is incredible.  Even the non-monetary resources, getting college student volunteers from Holy Cross for the summer, convincing the UN spouses group to donate food, have the huge challenges of coordination.  I am no slouch at developing world logistics, and I couldn’t organize a taxi where she works.

In any case, I am going to skip the funny anecdotes for this time, and just recognize a dedicated woman’s achievement.  It was a much needed Barack style shot of hope – after two weeks of listening to taxi drivers tell me whose tribe is better than whoseother.  And having six people be killed in a grenade attack at a political prayer rally across the street from my hotel last week.  And working 12 hour days trying to help a country that seemed hell bent on screwing everything up.   Here’s to you Lucy, for making me think that maybe this country isn’t total *%&$ed.

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