Beyond muddy puddles

I had a dream last night. After a series of strange events my mom (mama) and I were somehow going to some kind of Baptist church because someone had recommended it to her. The church was somehow on a construction site on top of a mine and we were the only non-Africans there. For some reason we were required to enter a big yellow crane which was being steered by the priest. The priest didn’t manage to shift the gear and drove off the cliff, my mom yelled ‘tis nie waar eh!’ and while holding my mom’s hands tumbling down the mine (wind making our cheeks and hair flap), thinking my last living breath was counted, I yelled at her that if she were to survive this and I wasn’t, I wanted her to tell everyone I know that I just want to thank the world for all the opportunities and love I have had in this life. The moment of truth where I closed my eyes ready smash on the ground and die I in fact opened my eyes and perplexed stared at the mosquito-net while the rats outside made their last squeaks of the night.
I believe my dream summarises what I have seen, heard, smelled but most of all felt in the past week in the city snugly wrapped around the Victoria Lake (as Emily puts it). I think my parents did a great job making me aware of the opportunities and support I have received throughout my pink and rose-smelling life. But the real learning about the life of the people I have interacted with this week has mainly stressed how many people have never been offered a brush and paint to colour their life as they desire.
Every day of this week I followed a Community Health Worker to the heart of the slum Obunga and finally looked the community in its scarred face instead of just watching my ignorant feet hop over muddy puddles in my flippie-floppies accompanied by the continuous rhythmic chant of uniformed toddlers ‘Mzungu. Hayayu (aka how are you). I’m fine. thank you!’ stressing my white oddness in the area while walking through its streets. Community Health Workers are unpaid volunteers from the community that go door-to-door and screen children for malnourishment, ringworms and scabies; offer dewormers, vitamin A and information about family planning. Playing mother Theresa of Obunga, squeezing vitamin A in infants mouths and measuring upper arms while making faces to keep the babies entertained was fun, but I was particularly keen on conducting surveys to estimate the household situations of the beneficiaries of vocational training and micro-finance. At last, a chance to hear their stories besides just seeing their faces and buying a mango from them. They call the interviewing ‘vetting’ (which I find more of a term for animal-doctors than surveys for humans). I got lucky with the CHW I am paired up with who is a sweet man with a passion for spacing out and consequently an attention span comparable to that of a goldfish. Since he often forgets what we are supposed to do or what has been said in the mid-sentence) I get to do most of the work while he guides me to the houses, translates and signs where and when necessary. In opposition to my frustration with ‘doing nothing’ last week, this week as a result has been stirred and moving.
Tuesday (while looking for malnourished children) we found a little baby girl who had defecated in her pants on the couch of a hot, dark, mud hut a little outside of the city. (She is wearing a yellow shirt on one of the pictures). There was no one at home. After talking to the neighbours we figured out the mom left in the morning and came back at night, leaving the baby all day without any food, water, attention or love. The child was two years old and didn’t talk, walk, nor crawl. Even when we tried to play with her she just sheepishly followed our movements seemingly lacking any interest or awareness regarding what was happening. According to the size of her upper arm the child was borderline underfed.
Another family we visited counted fifteen (most likely empty) stomachs and was headed by a mom and dad that were both infected by HIV. Of all members of the two-room, bed-lacking house, only one boy in the household worked and earned 100 KES a day (the equivalent of one euro). Granted, Kenya does not have the cost of living Monaco does, but a coke is still about a euro in a bar and even the fly infested fish skeleton – and whatever flesh is still sticking between the bones after the fish processing factory has taken off everything we would consider edible – costs about 50 KES. How do you even start serving one meal a day that gives every digestive entity in your family at least the impression it has chewed and swallowed edible substance?
Yesterday I had trouble sleeping at night and was kept awake by contemplations about a boy we met. We played Frisbee with the twelve year old, smiling ,well-behaved and well-spoken Kenyan Frisbee talent Charles Odhiambo. The boy played barefoot because his shoes were too small and since two days he lived on the street. On our way to buy him a soda and some bread while gently squeezing my hand he told me his story. His father had in a drunken fight killed his uncle and was consequently in jail, his mom and the two youngest girls fled, while Charles’ brother and him were staying in a place of which they couldn’t afford the rent. Before yesterday they were both put on the street and ever since, Charles had not heard from his brother. Yet, Charles had a smile from ear to ear during every minute that he brightened our moods with his cheery presence. He did not ask us for anything but merely accepted what we offered him. Being a street boy in Kisumu is a tough life in which theft and rape are no exceptions. I felt like I had a heart of stone when I hugged Charles goodbye at the end of the evening without knowing if he would make it safely through the night, or the next one; or if I would find him the next day. I was almost homeless one night and Rio De Janeiro and got overwhelmed by this immense feeling of loneliness, helplessness, perhaps fear, but this boy was alone in the world. I wish I could have taken him home, tucked him in, given him supper, sang a lullaby and given him a well-meant goodnight kiss. But instead the boy crossed the street with his sprite and bread, not knowing where he would next feel safe. Cody (an American friend of ours) knew a place ‘Agape’ where street boys are schooled, sheltered and reintegrated. For a second I felt like a five year old seeing Santa when I saw he showed up the next day (alive and smiley as we had met him). We took him to Agape. Though I know he is in good hands now it still makes me feel uncomfortable when I think of it. More than him having a next meal, I just want him to feel loved and cared for. The kid deserved better. Any kid deserves better.
The curious thing about all of these stories is that I actually think we mind more than they do. People here smile and praise the lord for every happy moment, and overall seem decently happy. They live day-to-day, hour-to-hour, or moment-to-moment but they also appear to manage to be happy in that moment without worrying all too much about the struggles of tomorrow. Though I believe this attitude probably slows down their development process, and they could probably spare themselves a lot of problems if they think about the fact that there is a higher chance there will be a tomorrow than that there will not be, in a situation like theirs, not thinking about the future might be the recipe that pursuits their happiness and sanity best. I often wonder what Africa will look like in ten years, and if it would look more like our world, would it have any happier people than it does now? One thing I have straight about my vision regarding development is that African’s future ought to be dreamt, designed and built by Africans. In ten years who will have been the protagonists in Africa’s recent history the African or the foreigner? I hope we will just be a nice footnote. Today I don’t think many Africans have realistically been given the opportunity to be the protagonist in their own history. Their stories today might be heart-shattering, stomach-turning, and goose bump triggering today, but in fact I really enjoy seeing and befriending them. Many of these people are strong individuals I look up to. I hope that by listening to them I can develop enough insight to help give Africa a chance to sustainability and ownership of their happiness tomorrow.

ps. I wanted to upload pictures but the internet is not my friend today so it will be for later.



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