Journal Entry June 13, 2007
We visited Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, second largest in Africa- 2 million people. We didn’t go to Mathare Valley like we were scheduled to because a cult (Mongeki) has been violent recently.
I don’t know how to accurately describe Kibera- I’m not quite sure I really know what I saw. As Janelle [team member] said, it was all very surreal, like I was walking through someone’s worst nightmare. I should have been crying, but I wasn’t. I should have felt either angry or sad, but I didn’t. It was like walking through a movie set. How could anyone actually live in a place like that, where sewage spills out, and ten people live in a house smaller than some American closets? I found myself feeling distanced, glazed, even numb to the injustice staring me in the face. We walked through Kibera as though we owned it, and my only instance of it feeling real was stepping into the house.
The other big feeling in me was anger. It was the British colonizers who started the Kibera slum in 1901. They wanted to have a place to keep their Sudanese soldiers in case they had need of them. Once again, colonialism is the big source of problems.
But one of the things I have loved about Kenyan Christians is that so far, taking care of the poor doesn’t seem to be an option. It’s a part of their culture as Christians and lovers of Jesus. Forget my recent thoughts about heaven and hell- these Kenyan pastors [in Kibera] love the Lord and are willing to give the Gospel to the poor. Sure, I don’t know exactly what that Gospel is, if it’s the colonial leftovers about health and wealth, or is it something deeper and truer. I guess I’ll find out.
Some interesting America influences- A man in the Kibera slum was wearing a nice suit and on his lapel was an American Flag pin. That was so sad. The other sad thing was pulling up to the slum and hearing “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira.
There’s a reality of poverty in Kenya that most Americans will never experience. I can’t claim to be an expert or that I have some sort of moral high ground because I’ve been to a slum. I was only there a few hours, and even though we visited a couple other slums on the trip, I don’t know Kibera, I don’t know Mathare. We saw Kibera for a couple hours during the day, when life is tolerable. People doing laundry, children in school. What we didn’t see was the night. We didn’t see the crime and the child prostitution, we didn’t see the mothers abandoning babies in the sewage gutters because they cannot afford to take care of them. I wish I could say that I saw past the poverty and saw their spiritual richness, but I think that even saying that would show my true colors as a rich white Westerner. Saying that I didn’t really see their poverty is like putting on blinders. I do believe that people in such places must have great faith and that God must give them a special measure of grace in all things (Jesus does say that the poor are blessed afterall), but in only a few hours, my job was not to assess their spiritual wealth. I had to be hit with the evil and the sin of poverty there. But I wasn’t, at least not right away. I don’t know if it’s because of movies or pictures I’ve seen, but Kibera didn’t knock me over at first and it should have.
I think all Americans should wrestle with guilt when they encounter poverty, especially on that scale. I don’t think that it’s healthy to feel guilty forever, but rather to wrestle through feelings of guilt over our unnecessary possessions, our needless consumption and our overbearing wealth. Working through these issues, I think, allows us to come through to a better option than guilt or passivity. It lets us love.
One of the profound points that Dostoevsky makes in The Brother’s Karamozov is that each person is responsible for every other person’s sins. The point of this is not to feel guilty over other people’s actions, but rather to remind us daily that we are all connected. Humanity is not an archipelago- a large group of individual islands- but rather it is a living breathing organism. Like MLK (I think) says, my humanity is bound up in yours. The people of Kibera and slums all over the world (including the US-and yes I believe it is fair to call some places in the US slums, even though they’re on a different scale) need us to want to take responsibility for the existence of poverty. “It’s not my fault” is not a valid response to the question of economic injustice, or any type of injustice.
I will return to the “It’s not my fault” problem at a later post about our trip to visit the Missionary organization. In the meantime, Lala Salama (sleep peacefully).