I am a very fortunate individual. I have had an equal dose of reward and tragedy, enough to push my boundaries and give me the mental strength and agility to stay ahead of the curve ball of life. However, my two weeks on the African continent changed me more than my previous forty-eight years combined.
It was difficult writing this and that is why it took me two years to complete. I made several attempts and failed. I know well-written words show instead of tell, but mental growth is hard to capture in phrases. I will do my best to pass on memories with the same depth of emotion that I felt during my trip — hopefully in an entertaining way. This first part is a bit heart-wrenching but I assure you the next instalments are glorious. Thanks for reading.- Kelly MacKay
HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES: The breadth of the class spectrum from the top. First, I inherited this trip from my best friend. Her intended traveling partner couldn’t go and a series of unfortunate events within her family had crossed them off as potential companions. I was at least fourth or fifth on the list and I won the lottery. I only had to come up with a passport, a flight to Toronto, travel cash, inoculations and personal items. The safari trip was gifted to me.
Business class. I have always flown standard cattle economy — those flights are expensive enough — believing I was aligned with the majority of my Canadian peers at middle class. I instantly feel like I have been had. I want to see this scale. I think I may be on the lower end.
The revelation starts at the Air Canada lounge with its comfortable chairs, a free buffet and drinks. This is incredible. I didn’t even know this existed. Life is definitely better for those who can afford not just luxury cars and clothing, but upgrades on frivolous items like flights.
The Plane I have my own pod; a walled off recliner with a flat screen television. Hot towel service, a menu of gourmet meals, unlimited alcoholic drinks. I don’t have to ask four people on my left to shift so I can squeeze past knees and feet to get to the aisle to find the toilet. I don’t have to wait for the drink cart, for a pack of Peek Freans cookies. Are you kidding me? How is this possible?
HOW THE MIDDLE HALF LIVE. A viewing up from half way. We stay at a five star hotel in Nairobi. It is decorated with heavy wood furnishings and delicate fixtures polished to a shine. The staff are dressed in tailor-fitted uniforms. There are separate rooms off the main foyer that conjure up images of cigar smoke and brandy snifters. This type of palatial surroundings comes with an expectation of wealth, as we discovered when the concierge presented us with a recommended cab driver to take us “where ever you wish to go.”
We want to go to the National Museum of Kenya and the slum of Kibera. We haggle back and forth but his inflated price has us exiting the cab.
“But you are staying at the Sarova Stanley!” he says with his hands in the air. “We won the trip,” I tell him.
As his potential fare walks away, he yells out a more affordable price. We agree and climb back in the cab.
KIBERA, THE LARGEST SLUM IN AFRICA, A view to the bottom.
We arrived at a walled area sheltered from the village. Our first encounter is with a machine-gun-toting, camouflage-wearing security guard. I am suddenly scared. We exit the cab and stand around with our hands at our sides feeling uncomfortable. It is noisy here. An endless hum of generators and Swahili jabber.
I smell wood smoke, food cooking, diesel fumes, and a stink of sewer. Our driver has informed us we will have to hire one of the guards to take us on a tour. It should cost about $5000 Kenyan shillings — approximately $60 Canadian dollars. He went to arrange it but upon returning, quotes us $50,000 shillings. The guide insists it is costly to insure the safe passage of two white women through the slum. We declined the $600 tour.
Our cab driver says it was a shame we had come this far to not see it. He has relatives that live in the slum. He knows the area. He will give us a drive-through tour, but he will not stop within the slum.
Heaps of garbage are strewn about the ground. I wrinkle up my nose in disgust. Gulls and other scavenging birds dive down and pluck bits of food from the refuse. Many of the shanties are conjoined while others have mere feet between then. Most are smaller than what I would consider a shed. The are built of scrap wood, the gaps plugged with mud and bits of material, topped with corrugated metal sheets. I am glad we are in a vehicle and not walking through the filth.
We pass what appears to be a market. The road is so narrow, I could reach out and grab a sweet potato. We slow down to let a person cross in front of the vehicle. The driver toots the horn to hurry the guy along. Blankets are laid out with melons, squash, various fruits and vegetables. Makeshift tables display clothing, shoes. A few bright-coloured items seem new, but most of it looks second-hand. Radios, old electronic components, tires, some bicycle parts. Everything a person needs, and some things they don’t, looks available for purchase. I see a man stretched out on the ground. Asleep? Who knows?
Our driver tells us there is no running water or electricity to individual homes. The city of Nairobi owns the land, but most of the shanties are built by illegal landlords and squatters.
Monique and I have brought pencils and pens for the orphanage but they seem so insufficient that I want to stuff them down the back of the seat. The road is rough and dusty and we jolt about in the back seat. I search the endless line of shacks, and endless piles of garbage, but I see no schools. How would I recognize it? What would a school look like here? Every shack is same. There are people everywhere jostling for space. It is very crowded.
We roll by a building with a sign painted with the words BAR on a post. Someone has created a business at their home from two barrels and a wooden board laid across them. Paired with a few mismatched chairs. “A Tusker beer would be great about now,” I say to break the tense silence we have been stricken with. Our driver says they mostly drink Changa here. He explains it is a cheap distilled alcoholic poison.
A women lugs a plastic container. I assume it is water. Several lean dogs sniffing the ground one has enlarged teats — she must have pups somewhere. Several very young women are in the same condition, with babies straddling their hips.
I see a child, maybe three years old, walking on a garbage-strewn path. He or she wears some sort of cloth diaper on but no shirt or shoes. A little further we pass a few older boys rolling a tire back and forth between them. They are barefoot and ankle-deep in trash, but they are laughing.
The views blur by. I see a public pay toilet sign. I give that a moment’s ponder before the next cruelty rattles me. A hair salon, with a promotion on manicures, pedicures and hair extensions. These extravagances would be the least of my needs If I lived here. And yet … Who am I to judge?
“There are a lot of young children here,” I say aloud. Our driver says there is a very high incidence of drug addiction. HIV and AIDS is still rampant, many people die leaving children as orphans. Most girls won’t reach 13 without being raped, then burdened with unwanted pregnancies. Many subsequently turn to prostitution. There is no hiding here. No safe place. I wonder to myself, How do you keep rapists and pedophiles out with a curtain covering your doorway?
I take no pictures, I am too ashamed, the guilt of having so much. I become very aware of my Asics runners, New Balance shirt, prescription sunglasses. Theses items may be very ordinary at home, but they might be worth killing for out there. How dare I complain about my station in life?
THE LOOK OUT. A different view from the top Our driver speaks fast and his English is mixed with a Swahili accent. I can’t catch everything he says. He states: “We have completed our tour of Kibera.” We exit the defined mess with a bit of relief. Our driver speaks again but I wasn’t listening, I was too traumatized. “You see it all,” is the part I caught.
We drive a long way out of town on a decent paved surface. A suburban setting, there are small shops and mini plazas surrounded by fields and farms. Lots of potted plants displayed in front of what looks to be landscaping businesses. We enjoy the more pleasant view as I try to reset my emotional compass.
I notice a riding club and a golf course. Quite posh, I think to myself. Our taxi veers at the last minute off onto a narrow dirt road. The buildings and cars fade from view in the cloud of dust behind us. The car rattles along on this ever narrowing trail. We swerve occasionally to miss a pothole. Thick stands of trees lean in, creating cover over the path with a jungle like view now on each side. We continue driving into the belly of isolation.
A nagging though creeps into my mind followed by a constriction in my chest. Have we made a mistake? Monique and I look at one another drawing the same dire thought. Are we in trouble here? the worst scenarios form in my mind, extortion, abduction, rape, left for dead. The vehicle accelerates down the path. My stress increases.
I speak up in my best dominant outdoor voice. “WHERE ARE WE GOING?”
He says, “I take you to the look out, to see all of Kibera.”
I retort with, “Well this road is freaking me out a bit.”
He laughs, “Oh you think you’re in danger.” He laughs out loud again, a little heartier this time.
“No, no, you will see this is the road to the lookout.”
He was true to his word, thank frig, because I’d nearly soiled my pants . We stop on the bluff of a hill. The expanse of shacks is numbing.
“How many people live here? I ask.
He says the UN estimates one million but the census says fewer than 200,000.
It felt like 300,000, easy, to me. Everyone is outside moving around in a confined space. I tell him, “In Canada, you don’t see that many people outside.” Even in cities like Toronto or Montreal with large populations, we have more space than people, here it seems reversed.
Our driver says they are putting up new low-income housing, He points to one new complex on the horizon on the outskirts of the slum. “The government is trying to get rid of Kibera.” He shakes his head and tells us that people get an apartment but, if they can’t get a job to pay for it they will sublet the apartments and move back to Kibera.
First day reflection.
We lay out on the lounge chairs around the heated pool at the Sarova Stanley Hotel and ordered Tusker beers and kept them coming. Silence prevailed as we absorbed what we had experienced. A horrible lifestyle had played out in front of us, and we were the lucky ones, to see it and not live it. A roll of the dice or if you prefer, but for the grace of god, there go I.
A Culture of Poverty.
I was shaken by the living conditions in Kibera. Their lifestyle is a culture, as much a culture as Cape Breton is too me. My first impression is there is no fixing this. This isn’t living; it is survival, and everyone within the slum lives the same way, which normalizes it.
My mind rolled with the big question; How would a person get out of here and break the cycle? How can they possibly understand there is a better life? I didn’t even know how luxurious business-class travel was and I live in the First World.
Forgive me for saying it, but this is not a culture you want to preserve. God bless them all.
Join me for What Kenya did to Me. Part two
Happy travels from Maritime Mac