Nairobi, Kenya – January 2016
This is part two of a three-part journal about my month in Kenya volunteering at a children’s foundation in the infamous Mathare Slum. I wrote about my first day in Nairobi here.
Day Two (Wednesday): The day got off to a quick start. We had a brief staff meeting with an outside adviser who continually told us that we had to make our pictures and stories go viral, as if that isn’t what everybody posting to instagram, twitter, wordpress, blogspot, reddit, facebook, tumblr, youtube, and pinterest isn’t already unsuccessfully trying to do. Writing the most profound and catchy article of the month, combined with taking a stunning photo that tells an amazing story, won’t get a second of attention online if Kanye West tweets something stupid that day or buzzfeed releases a list why people born in the (insert decade here) are the best. Us though, we would do it. We would be successful. We just needed to go viral.
My coworkers were amazing. All volunteers, all welcoming and charismatic, and all with great ideas. I lucked out by landing in a workplace with Eric, Viv, Sharon, and James all working there. Life is good when your friends are your coworkers and your coworkers are your friends.
We went to lunch at a hotel near the office. The small restaurants that dot the roadsides are called hotels, each selling traditional Kenyan food for incredibly cheap prices. I got lentils and chapati, a circular piece of bread that is fried generously with crisco. Then I asked for water. I was told to grab a cup from the bucket near the seats. They looked clean, but were still soaking wet and were sitting uncovered in the sun. And there wasn’t a sink to wash them in nearby. I grabbed the driest one I saw. A pitcher of tap water rested on the table. It’s apparently unhealthy to drink tap water from African slums, but I didn’t see any other water so I downed a glass. When in Rome…
We spent the rest of the afternoon at an internet cafe in a Somalian enclave of Nairobi. They have fast internet and don’t charge by data, making it a much cheaper option for work than using mobile data. We uploaded lots of pictures to the Mathare Foundation website as well as printing documents and researching upcoming events.
While there, Eric showed me a recent CNN article about his foundation (found here), as well as an interview on NTV AM Live, a morning show on Kenya’s largest network that is equivalent to Good Morning America (embedded below). He showed me photos of a QTV special the previous month (found here), as well as a site showing his nomination for a Commonwealth Youth Workers award (found here). This had all happened within the last 75 days. To say that I was happy to be working at a nationally recognized and respected organization was an understatement. The world of voluntourism is often filled with disappointment.
We walked back to Eric’s apartment through the slum, with children gathering around to shake my hand and ask “How are you?” until they created a unified chorus of “How are you? How are you? How are you?” The children speak Swahili at home but are taught English at school, with “How are you?” being the first thing they learn. I shook everyone’s hand, replied “I’m fine, how are you?” at least 100 times, and let children hold my fingers or arm when they grabbed me. Eric warned me to stop holding hands with children as they might follow us too far from home and get lost.
Day Three: I got a haircut in the morning. The barber was charismatic and the haircut was fast, looked good, and cost me 50 cents. After this one of the other volunteers took me into town to buy a pillow and towel. There weren’t any quality ones available in the slum. As soon as we stepped into the market, I was greeted by shopowners yelling mzungu come here, mzungu you’re very mzungu, mzungu are you lost?, or simply mzungu! Yelling a discriminatory word at me and then demanding that I buy something from you is a bold sales pitch. I walked through the stands until finding someone who called me mister, then asked him if he sold towels.
*Mzungu is a Swahili term for a person who is lost or wandering, originally used for European colonists who would get lost in the African forests. It is now used in Kenya for all white people. It’s not racist though, because a handful of professors decided that the word racism is no longer related to race and now only refers to matters of class or power.
I selected a shoddy towel plus a pillow and pillowcase and was charged 2,600 Kenyan shillings (roughly $26). The currency conversion in my head was off by a zero and I later thanked myself for not bringing very much money. I ended up having enough money for the towel, though the man selling it held my money and tried to shortchange me (mzungu, I need 100 more schillings so I can buy a Coke) until I demanded all of my change. We left and I promised myself that I wouldn’t go to that market again.
I walked back to the apartment after work with Eric, stopping every 30 seconds to talk to somebody. Eric knows everyone. I didn’t mind, everybody was welcoming and it was also great to have more time to take in the sites, smells, and sounds of Mathare.
Day Four: Today was Saturday, meaning it was time for the children’s photography class. The organization has events only on Saturday and Sunday so that the children aren’t forced to miss any school.
Eric and a volunteer named Tobias taught a class about the technical aspects of the camera (isolation settings, shutter speed, etc.) to the children. The class was followed by Eugine, one of the students, showing me a collection of photos that he took. Each photo had a story, with themes of crime, lack of sanitation, and the lack of educational opportunities ever present. Eugine’s presentation wasn’t rehearsed, but was better than what most of my classmates offered during my undergrad days.
We slept early that night, as football training began at 7:00 the next morning.
Day Five: We were at the training pitch at 7:15. While all other times are approximate, the 7:00 practice time was followed. We showed up later than most of the kids, but nobody complained as we brought the football boots with us.
Today featured two scrimmages. Our team dominated the first match. The starters were rested for the second match and we lost, though the difference in coaching was obvious. We had four coaches: two men who had been through a coaching clinic offered by the famous KNVB (Dutch football federation) and two women who played for the Kenyan women’s national team the year before. Their players seemed to instinctively know where to move after passing and the right passes to make in the defensive end, which aren’t skills you pick up on the playground.
At 10:00 I caught a cab to church, paid double what I should have, and had a child show me which buses to take to get back to Mathare.
I returned to a performing arts class. The children were rehearsing dances to a handful of modern and traditional songs. The computer was in one room, the dancers in another, meaning that the entire office was booming with music. I was sad to see the kids leave after the lesson but ecstatic to hear the music turned off.
Day Six (Monday): Since the children have activities on Saturday and Sunday, Monday and Tuesday would serve as my weekend.
I reserved a cheap hotel room near the city center and started walking. It was four miles there and I wanted to catch the sights, sounds, and smells of the city on the way in. The yells and chants of mzungu intensified as I got nearer to downtown. They were easier to ignore after I put on headphones.
I spent that day exploring central Nairobi, which is the country’s business and government center. While Mathare and the area near city center are… interesting, the center could be a section of Phoenix, Santiago, Athens, or any other large city. The national archives, supreme court, and parliament were all within a couple blocks of each other but were too crowded to visit.
At around midnight I left the hotel. I went to a small kiosk just down a dark and empty street to grab something to drink. Two men approached. One stepped in front of me and faced me, while the other stayed behind. They both talked loudly in Swahili, laughing and saying mzumbu four or five times. Mom, please skip ahead until after the photo.
After five seconds I’d had enough.
“You have something to fuckin’ tell me?” I asked in the deepest voice I could muster. “Because I’m right here. If you’re gonna say it, then fuckin’ say it.” I turned around to face the man behind me, stared into his eyes, and yelled. “What’s stopping you?”
They looked at each other then walked away silently.
As soon as they were out of sight I apologized to the kiosk owner. “I’m sorry for yelling and cussing at your business. I’m usually not a jerk, but I have to stick up for myself here. I hope I didn’t scare off customers. Sorry.” He shrugged and asked if I wanted to buy anything else.
I’ll get robbed eventually. It’s inevitable with where I go and how I live. But it won’t be because I’m an easy, scared target.
Day Seven: I explored more downtown today, getting angrier and angrier as people grabbed at me. Kids grabbing my arm or calling me mzumbu are fine, they grab each other all the time and don’t understand how obnoxious the word is. But adults should know better. “No thank you,” I politely tell a man who offers me a safari trip. He then grabs my arm and tries to lead me into his agency, leading me to grab his hand, step chest-to-chest, and growl do not touch me loud enough to make my point.
The pattern escalates 10 minutes later. As I step onto the stairs that lead up to a bridge crossing a major road, three young teenagers yell mzungu! and sprint after me. The first grabs my arm. “Don’t touch me please,” I ask. He lets go. Then a second grabs my shoulder and tries to turn me around. I turn around, look into his eyes, and growl, “Do not touch me.” Another teenager grabs my upper arm and I snap. I grab his wrist, pull him towards me, and yell. “DO NOT TOUCH ME. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” He did. They all back away. I felt bad. They were just kids. But there were three of them versus one of me, and if they were angels they would have been in school on a Tuesday morning instead of hiding in the blind spots of a staircase.
As I climbed down the stairs on the other side of the bridge, a child approaching from the other side pokes my hip and runs away, laughing maniacally. I tried not to smile but didn’t last long. We laughed together and I gave him the change in my pocket as I walked past him. What a perfect troll. You can’t be upset at somebody who makes you laugh.
I spent that night eating healthy things that were unavailable on the food island where I worked, then slept early to get a head start on work the next day.
For more information on Mathare Foundation, please visit their website and consider donating.