As he drove us to our appointment in what is known as the “Quarry Slums” Andrew Mnjama spoke passionately about his background in finance, his experience with micro-finance, and his desire to make a difference in the lives of the poorest of the poor in Nairobi’s slums, all the while, effortlessly dodging cars and people and ridiculously large potholes.
“What I have learned,” Andrew said, pointing to the women under the yellow umbrella in the photo above, “is that this women selling her crafts along the side of the road is more likely to repay a loan to help her grow her business than a more traditional business.” He spoke from experience and conviction. He spoke with the kind of conviction that only comes from passion. And he spoke with such kindess and hope that I had to snap the photo to make sure I had a visual record of this conversation. This photograph marks the moment I realized I could never look at the world in the same way again.
How Did I Get Here: From Disneyland To The Quarry Slums
“How did I get here?” I found myself asking this question a great deal as I travelled around Nairobi. In this case, the path to that moment in that car was clear. I was introduced to Andrew by a man from Colorado I have never met, Chuck Blakeman. And I was introduced to him by a woman I met only briefly at a Keller Williams Awards event at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. Her name is Sandra Corrigan. Sandra is an associate of Mariana Wagner, who asked me to attend the event with her as her “date.” It’s funny how life works. We really have no idea where the simplest of decisions will lead us.
Sandra read a Facebook post a few days before I was to head to Kenya with my family and felt compelled to tell me that I should give Chuck a call. I did. And that phone call led to the setting up of a meeting with a woman named Josephine Chavaseki, who, with some help from Chuck’s organization and The1010Project.org, has built the Fairoaks Academy on land located right next to the Quarry (Mathare) slums. The Fair Oaks academy is a Primary School, with several additional rooms dedicated to technical colleges and skills training.
The Recalibrating Continues
Andrew had never been to her project, so he asked me to wait in the car while he made sure we were in the right location. I snapped the photograph on the right as I waited for him to return. This is the entrance to the primary school.
After my educational car ride and my rude awakening to the fact that I had been living with a worldview that was myopic and ignorant at best, my senses and emotions were on overload. Simply put, I was raw. And every step I took around the grounds of the school peeled back another layer of ignorance and preconception.
Josephine is an amazing woman, with a bold vision for Fairoaks Academy. She greeted me instantly as a friend. As we sat in her spartan office talking about her work and her vision, I felt truly connected to this woman and to Andrew, who was sitting next to me. The world suddenly seemed very small.
She was anxious to show me the school. And as we entered the primary school courtyard, the children were playing (photo). When they saw me they all began chanting in unison, “mzungu,” which has come to mean “white person.” They were staring and smiling, and in truth, they were verbalizing what I was feeling. I was out of place, and experiencing the world from an entirely new vantage point. They made me laugh and smile. And comfortable.
One of the projects Josephine was eager to show me was their computer college (photo). In Kenya, colleges and universities are quite different things. But by any definition, before this day, I would never have described what I saw as a computer college. The lone student in the room was diligently working on an assignment as we toured. Josephine was very proud of the college and what it was doing to prepare its graduates to seek work. All I could think while standing there was how woefully inadequate it seemed.
I had more computing power on the phone I took that photo linked above with than all of the computers in that room combined. And yet, the student there appeared delighted to be learning. And what I was delighted to learn, as we walked from room to room, and as I looked at the faces of the children and the teachers, is that the quality of the education being given could not be limited by the weakness of the facilities. It could only be limited by the will to teach and the desire to learn. Neither appeared to be lacking.
Quarry Slum Entrepreneurs
Josephine asked if I’d like to meet some of the business people in the Quarry slum, and I of course, said yes. The walk from her school to the entrance to the slums, a 3 kilometer square that is home to more than 300,000 people, was less than a quarter of a mile. But it was like walking into a alternate universe. Because the government has failed them, the slums have their own rules, their own law, their own feel. And I felt every bit of the mzungu I was. An aimless wanderer.
One of the business owners Josephine introduced me to is named, Florence. I will never forget her. Florence, a graduate of a medical college, runs a chemist shop. It’s a makeshift drug store, where she helps diagnose illnesses in the slums. The “pharmacy” is a tin shed-like structure that is smaller than my bedroom closet. It looks out over the “street” pictured on the right.
There is almost no product on the few shelves Florence could fit in the space. Florence pays $3000 ksh per month for this space, about $36 at today’s exchange rate. Most months, she said, she does not make enough to cover the rent. Her single lightbulb, hanging from a ragged wire, costs $400 ksh per month. The electricity to power that bulb is provided to her via an illegal electrical hookup, and her “security” costs another $200 ksh per month. Paying for security, by the way, is not an option. If you don’t pay for the security, the security company will make sure you pay for it in other ways. This is life in the slums. It was dark and scary, even in the midday sun.
Florence’s husband is a teacher. He teaches at a school outside of the slums and they live in one small room behind the chemist shop. I learned this fact after we had begun to walk back to the school. Even as I write this, I can feel it in my gut. I can’t imagine living in that space. I can’t fathom it. But they can and do. And that realization was just one more nail in the coffin of my old worldview.
Struggling With My New Worldview
Everywhere I looked, from that day forward, I saw business men and women. In the face behind every sugar cane cart, I saw an entrepreneur (photo). I saw a man or woman, striving to make a better life (photo) for their family and doing everything, the only thing, in their power to make that happen. And I’m still processing it all. In fact, I’m not even sure I know why I’m writing this.
What I do know is this, I’m not looking at the world in the same way I did before I met the wonderful people of Kenya. I find myself laughing at the activities we get all worked up about here in our comfortable world. I find myself recoiling from the hype of social media, the same hype I’m quite certain I’ve helped fuel in the past. And I find myself longing to have my family simplify even more than we have each time Rocky has returned from Kenya. I understand her motivations now. I get it.
Her next trip with Mothers Fighting For Others is in April. And while I have always wished I could go with her on each of the trips she has taken, this time I wish it for a different reason. My worldview still needs more recalibrating.