(An introduction to this post is offered in “A Shifting Perspective, Introduction“.)
Not all Peaches & Cream
The Pistis and surrounding low income neighborhood is as complex a social and political structure as anywhere in the U.S. Nothing is as simple as these people are poor and they need help. There are many contradictory facts and figures and realities, as there are in any culture, in any town.
The division between the better-off and the slums can be a single city block, even a street. On one side paved roads and walkways; on the other trashed lined, muddy ruts and pot holes, kids without shoes nor medical care at any level.
Since ancient times, the wealthy have sought refuge in the hills above the towns. Here too, what appear to be million dollar estates line the base of the large volcanic crater which defines one side of Nakuru, homes to successful local and Nairobi business families. The land on which Pistis and the surrounding neighborhoods reside is selling for as much as $40,000 USD per acre, the land lords (‘slum lords’) living off premise, renting the apartment compounds to the low income residents.
Last week I was approached by two young boys as I walked from Pistis back to my host family’s home. In the light sprinkle following a major storm, they asked for food. I responded, “Will you eat it, or will you sell the food to get money?” The first, more interactive boy Jackson reminded me of the troublesome punk in any classic Disney flick, baseball cap matching fast questions and even faster responses. He’s done this before. He responded, “We are hungry. We want to eat. Can you buys us food?” I offered, “I will buy you food if I can sit and eat with you. I want to know you are eating it.”
And so we ducked into a street-side butcher shop which serves meat soup and the Kenyan staple ugali, a grain mash with the consistency of playdough which is pressed between the fingers and then used to pinch or scoop-up the food. I learned that Jackson lives with mother and younger brother, his father dead. After the meal, he invited me to his home to meet his mother. We walked there together, jumping puddles and sloshing through the muddy streets. At some point, his friend fell away or decided to no longer accompany us. The thought of an ambush crossed my mind, but my limited street sense was not piqued. I looked over my shoulder and quickly mapped the path back to the main street; a little over a minute at a good clip, if necessary.
Further from the main road, the trash diminished, giving way to corn fields and grass lined roads. I asked Jackson if he was safe here, and he said that while robbers come into people’s homes at night, his neighborhood was safe. I repeated my question, to be certain, and he said again, yes, he felt safe. “If someone steals, the mob justice will find and kill them. The robbers are very many, but they know what will happen. We are safe in my home. It is ok.”
His home is a single room in an in-ward facing, four sided compound constructed of mud pressed between wood sticks with a tin roof. I asked if his mother would mind a visitor without warning, explaining that my mother would have been a bit upset when I was his age. But she welcomed me warmly, sending Jackson to purchase a bag of milk for hot chai and bread.
His mother repeated, “We have very little, but we are happy. We are so very happy. The Lord is good. We are happy.” She washes clothes when she can, in the evenings, but does not have full time employment.
We talked for an hour. She showed me photos of her family. Like Isaac, Jackson wants to be a fighter pilot and as #4 in his class of 40, he has grades high enough to attend college.
She explained that it was only five years ago that Kenya made education free, grades 1 through 12. But college remains an expensive endeavor out of reach for most. Through the military, however, Jackson may be able to gain college education and learn to fly. I gave his mother 1,000 shillings, enough to pay the $4 monthly rent for a couple of months while giving Jackson an opportunity to learn to use email and stay in touch through a local CyberCafe.
So it seems that rent varies from $4 to $40 USD and through other conversations, to more than hundred. The national standard for unskilled labor is 200 shillings per day; for skilled labor, 400-500; and for a contractor, 600-750 shillings per day which is just over $10 USD. From mud huts to volcanic block to concrete homes, from one room to many, most still carrying water daily from a local source for the cost of municipal water too great.
It was a shock for me upon arrival, to see the conditions in which people lived, worked, and played with goats and cows eating from piles of trash, feces of various animals made fluid with the rains, and open man hole covers begging the consumption of a small child without recovery. I mentally adjusted by replacing the existing roadways with asphalt, even a maintained gravel road and proper drainage. And then I was able to see the people and the environment as two, unique factors.
Wycliffe confirms that the issue of road repair, water and waste management is an on-going concern, moving into and out of hot-topic with each election. Just as in the States (or anywhere), the politicians make promises and then quietly move onto to “more important issues” once in office.
Wyclif’s brother David shared that improvement to the ‘slums’ (depends upon your point of view) in the past decade have been drastic, from no power and mud huts to municipal water and sewage (for those who can afford it). In a few years, I can imagine the roads being paved and the trash managed in an improved manner, but these are not small undertakings and someone will have to pay for it.
On any given day, in downtown Nakuru, on Kenyatta Avenue in front of Barclays Bank, you will find three to four homeless kids in their pre and early teens. Watch closely, for they are holding bottles of glue to their lips and mouth, getting high as long as the fumes will give up. Money received through rather bold begging goes to purchase more glue within minutes of receipt.
I didn’t see this happening at first, my pace in town always rapid as I raced from one hardware store to the next. But Jim and Ashley, two Americans who departed this past Tuesday morning after two months volunteering at Pistis, asked me to slow down and pay closer attention. I did, and I immediately noted the lingering smell of contact cement far too often.
Some affected children are completely incoherent as they attempt to talk, others passed out on the sidewalk or lying against the curb, pedestrians stepping around them.
The volunteer Jim would provide the demanded donation if he was given the glue and allowed to dump it, the empty bottle tossed in a garbage bin. But he knows they just went and purchased more. I will provide food if they request it, but not give money.
Wycliffe once invoked a small riot, ‘public justice’ or as Jackson called it, “mob justice”, following his emptying a large bucket of glue taken from a dealer. The dealer was very upset and made a scene. A crowd gathered, wanting to take action against Wycliffe for damaging property. But when he explained that he was stopping the dealer from killing more children, the mob turned and began to beat the dealer. He’d be dead if a police officer had not been close by and stopped the event from unfolding to its ultimate end.
I have been told you really don’t have to worry about things being stolen by day, pick-pockets aside, for public justice is real and those who steal are stoned or beaten far faster than the proper judicial system would handle the situation.
Prostitution, however, appears to be prevalent, myself solicited in one form or another a few times. Sometimes a woman approached and boldly winked or followed my stare until I turn away realizing more was being communicated than curiosity and the long eye contact that is common here, between everyone. Once a note was passed to me at a CyberCafe, asking to have coffee some time, contact information provided. But the intention was obvious, for she had walked in with one man and out with another. I am saddened by this situation for the obvious reasons: women should not have to use their bodies for income compounded by an AIDS epidemic in many parts of Africa.
What Comes of Disparity
My host family has been vocal for their concerns for my safety here, by day and especially by night. As ignorant as I may be, I have not felt unsafe at any time, even when walking alone at night. My confusion for their concern, for their stories of what has and does occur is compounded by my experience of eye contact, hand shakes, and laughter in so many interactions, from the boda boda (bicycle taxis) to shop clerks to the children of Pistis.
Some twenty years ago I was with the Guardian Angels (a citizen crime fighting organization) in Phoenix and Chicago. During this year I gained a valuable, even if brief insight into a life of fear and pain. The few street fights I experienced, the citizen arrests, destroying of crack pipes, the bullet that just missed my ear — that was a year in which I was afraid for my life just a few hours each night, a few nights a week trying to improve the living conditions of South Phoenix. Even today, I maintain limited ‘street smarts’, always watching the hands of those who pass for quick movement prior to my close proximity; I turn my head to follow those who raise my awareness, making eye contact when possible; car engine back firing still invokes memories of gun shots in my body’s muscle memory.
For that one year I began to understand how complex and twisted the physiological wiring must be of someone who has lived with that fear every day of their entire life. I would not even know how to address that pain, were I to work with the children of the inner cities of the U.S. It likely takes someone from the streets to help others from the same.
Here in Africa millions are dying in battles for land, water, and ancient ethnic struggles for power. Many of those not directly involved in conflict are just barely getting by, literally hand to mouth day after day as the phrase “paycheck to paycheck” does not even apply. Every day I walked to Pistis I passed small children covered in coal dust, head to toe, their fingers searching piles of remnants left by the vendors for anything that will burn. Others light a fire in an empty lot, a sheet of corrugated metal heated to melt the rubber from the soles of used shoes. Their hands wrapped in plastic or cloth bags to protect them from the high temperature and molten goo, I am told they can sell the end product to … someone.
Yesterday a boy ran up to me and walked by my side. He said very clearly, “Give me your camera.” I laughed and said, “Sorry. No way!” He hesitated, dropped back a few paces and followed me just out of reach. After a few more steps, I stopped, turned, and confronted him (the best way to deal with a potential pick pocket or robber, in my experience), “May I help you?” He stopped, looked up at me, our eyes meeting briefly, “Uhh, no thank you,” and then quickly scurried by on my left, jogging to the next gate. He grinned and watched me go by as I grinned back.
He’s hustling, as he must, to bring something home for his family or simply to eat. His motive is clear, do what it takes. But when he grows up, will he give into violence to achieve the same? Or will he find safe haven in a place such as Pistis where his future may offer college in place of selling soles of used shoes.
One late night, John the gardener/cook/carpenter escorted me from Pistis to my host family’s home. I felt comfortable once on the main street, decently lit by vendor’s shops and cars, my head lamp illuminating the uneven ground, casting shadows into the gaping, open sewer pits. But John insisted he remain with me door-to-door. I asked why, stating I could handle myself if someone approached, even physically attempting to take something from me. He replied that it was not one, but a half dozen or ten that concerned him, small street gangs that take from those who appear to have something of value. I am no Jackie Chan and those are not favorable odds for anyone, but in the middle of the street? In front of the shops?
Wycliffe later stated that just the week before I arrived, a block from my family’s home in front of the cyber cafe, three Sudanese refugees beat to death a fourth, the body falling into the open, stone lined storm sewer ditch.
Before I could pass judgment I realized the same thing happens in our country night after night, in every major city. Our ten o’clock news showcases knife attacks, gun battles, police stand-offs and drug busts, drive-by and school shootings, making famous the villains who perpetuate violence and fear.
But in Nakuru, I do not hear gun shots by night as I did so often in Phoenix and Chicago. I did not see gang graffiti marking territories nor did anyone flash gang signs in my passing. I know nothing of the drug trade beyond buckets of contact cement emptied into small bottles, nor gang violence as a rite of passage, if it exists here at all.
In Kenya, smoking is illegal in public. I saw a total of three, maybe four people smoking cigarettes during my entire stay. I never witnessed a can of beer, empty or full, other than those on the shelf at the super market. When I attempted to introduce the U.S. tradition of bringing a bottle of wine to dinner for the two families who invited me, I was asked, “What is wine? How is it made? Does it have alcohol?” This was not a language barrier, but literally a complete disconnection from what dominates years of the lives of what I believe is the majority of youth in the U.S. These Kenyan’s had never tasted, let alone seen a bottle of wine.
I explained how grapes are pressed, yeast added to convert sugar to alcohol. I referenced ancient Egyptian and biblical times for subject association. While I drink alcohol maybe a half dozen times a year, I found myself speaking with pride of Fort Collins, Colorado, home to New Belgium and several small breweries, a craft of art and science that carries a strong heritage. I was both flabbergasted at their lack of knowledge for the oldest drink in the world (next to water and milk) and at the same time pleased by the realization that the generation that sat before me would not be plagued by alcoholism, drunk driving, nor low grades due to hangovers.
I have to wonder what happens as this rising African economic power gains momentum. Does the disparity between the wealthy and the poor increase? Or does free, quality education truly offer a balance and new level of equality and hope? Is escalation a natural path for social evolution? Does the distribution of glue bottles eventually give way to meth labs?
I am by no means an expert in the social, political, and economic functions of growth, but I ask the questions and try to understand.
The Violence Stops Here
The modern Kenyan children grow up on American television. The World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) and American cartoons dominate Saturday mornings. In the evenings, even from an adjacent room it is simple to determine if a U.S. program is airing for the gun shots ring clear. It scares me, as these programs portray guns as power and that power is to be gained by force. Four years and countless hundreds of thousands of dollars later, two television superpowers continue to occupy court time for the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast on national air, but the blood of humans spatters onto the pavement or a wall in nearly ever major U.S. movie and television drama. (Personally, I prefer breasts over bullets any day of the week.) Yes, we have a wide variety of programs, some exceptional, but they are not often what find their way to distant lands nor are they what people are drawn to night after night.
Student Project Africa Network (SPAN) was started as a conduit for support to Pistis and others in Africa, founder Rebecca having witnessed the whipping of Pistis’ girls as punishment. One of SPAN’s primary functions is to help reduce this kinds of violence, and to help find equality for men and women in a country where female circumcision (mutilation) remains accepted and gay and lesbian relationships are finding similar discomfort as in the U.S.
Last year Kenya adopted a national law that bans corporal punishment (whipping, caning, beating) in the schools. Rebecca, Cameron, Jim and Ashley and I have all worked to bring caning to an end at Pistis, but still receiving mixed stories from students, teachers, and the management about how certain situations are handled.
One afternoon I gathered the boys for an impromptu meeting and learned that when they came to Pistis. They shared that in retrospect the strength of punishment helped them to transition to a life where stealing and fighting were no longer needed. They added that the older boys now help the new arrivals adjust, whippings reduced to a “fatherly demonstration”, meaning contact without breaking the skin.
I countered that it didn’t matter, that it had to stop completely. I came to tears trying to explain to them that when someone becomes able to hit another human, it is violence out of experience, habit, even tradition, and lack of alternatives. Kenya, as does the entire world, needs the next generation to reduce its violence. It starts here, it starts now, with them. I would offer the same to any group of children anywhere.
In speaking with adults about this, the response is often, “But if you do not beat them, what do you do? You must punish the children, or they will do it again.” I was reminded of conversations I have had with parents who have or have come close to beating their children, expressing the exhaustion and exasperation to which they finally give in. The training starts with the teachers, in order that alternatives offer the reward of success, motivation to continue down an alternative path.
I asked them to consider how much pride they could carry if they could tell their wives and children they deliberately chose a new path, one of equality and non-violence. And then their children’s children could be told the same, and their children too. Three generations later, all of Kenya could be free of domestic violence and the generational pain that comes with it. They nodded, but more likely in shock of seeing a grown man cry than the subject which I broached.
Unfortunately, it won’t be this simple. The kids are under the false impression that there are five times more woman in Kenya than men (a quick Google search shows 51% women), an easy selection for them all. They have little desire for a life long partner, rather temporary and multiple “girl friends” likely resulting in multiple sets of kids and families as is prevalent here.
The Mormons could learn a thing or two about polygamy in Kenya where it is a norm, divorce unacceptable for it breaks the law of God. A man often takes on two or three wives and families for his dissatisfaction with the first and/or reproduction through the others.
I do not know where one draws a healthy line between providing labor and providing funds as a volunteer and carrying the convictions and norms of one culture into another. I am not a missionary. I do not desire to convert nor even change anyone. I just want to provide encouragement and instill hope, in the children of Pistis and in myself.
I do believe there are universal truths that transcend all humans, that violence at any level is unacceptable, and that drug abuse is very, very sad independent of the substance abused. As for one wife or three, there are thousands of years of cultural evolution at play. It is not my place to judge. My concern is for the equality of men and women, boys and girls.
But no government overthrow, no military might can force equality nor grant freedom of spirit to anyone. It must come from within because it is desired.
I have been asked by my family, Christa, and by those with whom I have lived here what I have given and what I will take away. The answer is both complex and simple, a summary of these blog entries and the personal emails sent to my family; and this — Jackson’s mother says she is happy in her mud hut, without running water, without electricity. I believe her. As ignorant as I know I am for the complexity and depth of what is fully around me, I saw hope on the faces of those who shook my hand every morning when I ducked through the blue painted metal door into the Pistis compound. And that is what ties all of us together, independent of where and how we live. Hope for something better.