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My Kindred Country: CARE In Kibera

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As I write my final blog entry, I am somewhere over Canada. I have been traveling for close to 24 hours. The past two weeks have been some of the longest, most heart wrenching and most beautiful days I have ever experienced. I am coming back a changed person. The things I have seen I will never forget. I have a fire in my belly that”s consuming me and I want to tackle the world.

It”s going to be a bit of culture shock, coming back home. Just being in the Paris airport felt a bit off. It was clean, bright and modern, full of glass and leather lounging chairs. The people there smell like expensive, flowery colognes, not of body odor and dirt. Not like the death smell of Kibera.

Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa, is something that cannot be put into words. It is literally growing to encircle the city of Nairobi. Like seeing children rummage in a dump, Kibera is an image that will continue to haunt me. CARE”s office in Kibera is right in the heart of the community. You have to walk to get there, and by the time you do, your cuffs are covered in mud and filth and other things you don”t want to think about. There is no garbage collection in Kibera. There is no sewage system. After a few minutes in Kibera you just breathe through your mouth and act like the toddlers running barefoot about you’”just pretend it”s not there. If you think about it, you”ll get sick. There are several times I think I will.

Seeing the CARE sign indicating our offices fills me with pride. One of the reasons I was so drawn to CARE in the first place was its approach to development. They focus on empowering people’”particularly women and girls’”to lift themselves out of poverty. They work in the community and are led by the community members themselves; some 95 percent of our country staff is from their country they are working in. They know the language, the culture. They grew up in these areas. The beneficiaries are their neighbors. Each CARE person I meet immediately becomes my personal hero. This is not just their job. It is their purpose for being.

Take Emmah for example. She runs CARE”s Sweeting Justice Program in Kibera. Many women in Kibera aren”t even aware they have rights, much less that they can get recourse for any violations of those rights. Emmah works with women in Kibera to help them move forward both legally and personally from the violence they experience on a daily basis.

Before working in Kibera, Emmah spent three years at Dadaab, a refugee camp of some 300,000 people, the largest in the world. It”s meant to hold 90,000. She says Kibera is worse. In Dadaab, there was some sort of governance, some sort of infrastructure. There is nothing in Kibera. I see that first hand at 4:30 pm, when the mud streets of Kibera swell with rushing people. Outsiders rushing to get out before dark. Insiders rushing to lock themselves in. There are no streetlights in Kibera and once it becomes dark, it is a free for all. Rape, violence, theft. Although Emmah works every single day in this community, there is a look of anxiety in her eyes as the time approaches for us to leave. We need to get out of here, she says. Now.

I ask her how she continues to work in such conditions every day. Doesn”t she get burnt out? Feel like it”s hopeless? She looks me straight in the eye and tells me if she helps just one person, it”s worth it. Then she can push forward, because of one person.

But there is a lot more than just one person that Emmah and the rest of the CARE Kibera staff has helped. I have the incredible honor of meeting three of them, Ruth, Violet and Agnes. They are part of the Sweeting Justice program. During the election violence of 2007, life in Kibera was a complete madhouse. They were all raped by multiple men, men who they could not identify in the darkness. As a result, each of their husbands left them; it”s a shame to be married to a violated woman.

At first I feel awkward, as Emmah goes back and forth translating for us. I wish there wasn”t a language barrier. These women are sharing the most intimate details of their lives with us, complete strangers. I ask Emmah to tell them how grateful we are to hear their stories, that we want to know so we can tell others, and hopefully prevent things like this from happening in the future. They tell us about how CARE has helped them; through counseling, by educating them on their rights, by training them in the group savings and loans model so that their dreams of running a grocery stand could come true. How they feel, even after all that happened to them, there is a reason to move forward, a reason to keep going. It”s interesting to listen to them because it”s obvious they are in different places of recovery. Ruth sits at the end, shy, speaking mostly to her hands, whispering her answers. Agnes responds emboldened, looks me directly in the eye, smiling when she talks about her future. They say having the support system that CARE has provided has been critical. Before they would have suffered in silence, alone. There is a strength in numbers. They are three of the strongest and bravest women I have yet to meet. At the end of the interview, they ask Sarah and I a few questions. Women to women, they say, what is your advice for moving forward? And I realize then that while our circumstances have put in completely different places, at the end of the day, we are all women. There is power in your voice, I tell them. Don”t forget that. I certainly won”t.

We walk down the road to the Local Links supported HIV Youth program. Local Links is a CARE program that focuses on OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children). They do this through targeting their caretakers via Group Savings and Loans programs, Early Childhood development programs, and HIV/AIDS education programs. In Kenya, 6.4 percent of people are HIV positive. In Kibera, that number more than doubles to 14 percent.

Today, a group of teenagers are watching a video on HIV stigmas and myths. The myths around the disease run deep in Kenya. HIV is seen as a curse in many places in Kibera, and in Kenya in general, with the result that many people seek the counseling of witch doctors. Pastors sometimes use the bible verse "The wages of sin are death," which they use to condemn HIV positive people. CARE in Kibera works with positive pastors to have them do outreach in the community and debunk myths.

This particular youth group was formed by a now 29-year old woman named Irene. When she found out her status her aunt made her use different utensils to eat. She formed the group to help teens come to terms with their status and spread the truth around living with the disease. CARE provides educational support and materials to groups like Irene”s; the video we watch and discuss was produced by Local Links. There are lots of questions, a lot of confusion remains around a disease that is so prevalent.

Our last visit of the day is to a Group Savings and Loan program. The women share their successes, their challenges. A total of seven million Kenyan shillings (approximately $87,000 USD) have been saved since the program in Kibera started in 2004. Three groups have grown to more than 400 groups, each including up to 12 women. The women own hair salons, grocery stands. They are proud of the independence; their income has earned the respect of their husbands, their neighbors. Their lives are still difficult, some days are a struggle. But they can afford to feed their families, and this is in and of itself an accomplishment in Kibera.

My time in Kenya has come to an end. I am leaving Africa with a different perspective than the one with which I arrived. I feel blessed and humbled to have had this experience and am so indebted to my many CARE colleagues both in the US and in Kenya for encouraging this experience. I have seen the challenges that we face, and I have seen the solutions that CARE is providing. My trip may be ending but my journey is just beginning. And to my kindred country, for welcoming me so graciously and showing me all your beauty and heartache, I say “Asante Sana!’

Posted by nclark@care.org on Nov 16, 2010 10:33 AM US/Eastern

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