Korogocho, like its counterparts, is an overcrowded slum that is rampant with flies, sewage spills, poorly constructed sheet metal homes, crime and disease.  Those things, which may be obvious to the eye (and nose), are often reported on.  The stories that are less often told are of ebullient, happy children running to give you hugs, cozy homes that are a testament to the love and care of family despite harsh circumstances, and indefatigable men and women who are working toward a safer community.  You don’t need a particularly keen eye to witness these inspiring tales unfold before you – you just have to go and see for yourself.

Yesterday was my turn to go and really see.  I have been to Korogocho a number of times before, but today I had the opportunity to walk through the community with a woman named Naomi, someone who is quickly becoming a hero of mine.  Naomi lives in Korogocho and works as a community health work officer for a CBO called Ujamma.  As we walked through her neighborhood she told me about the eight children who are currently living in her single room house and the day-care she started next door to take care of other young children who were idle or left alone during the day.  In the middle of our conversation she turned away when a small girl ran up to her who was, like most Kenyan children, totting down the street completely overdressed for the weather in a ski cap and mittens.  Naomi laughed as she picked her up and then gave a coy smiled as she asked me, “What do you think of our home?  People say we are poor because we are in the slums, but I don’t see that…”

After an hour with Naomi, her neighbors and her many children, I commented that she was a richer women than most I know.

Naomi’s tiny home is a revolving door of children, and many of them who have been abused would otherwise still be left in a vulnerable situation.  You see, Naomi is also an IJM referral agent and is a previous winner of IJM Kenya’s Champion for Justice Award, which is given annually to a member of the community who would not otherwise be recognized for going above and beyond the call of duty to seek justice for others.  Not stopping at just taking children into her home, she reports cases to the police, brings them to the hospital if emergency medical treatment is needed and contacts organizations like IJM who can help in the areas where she can’t.  She is a shining example of one women doing extraordinary things with the little resources she has been blessed with.  Now that’s infectious – and a reminder to me that more resources should be directed toward identifying and empowering these men and women, but especially women, who are renewing communities from the bottom up.

Best of all, Naomi also has a fabulous laugh and exudes a warmth that instantly puts you at ease.  It’s hard not to see her community through her eyes after spending just a few minutes with her!

Here are a few shots from today, and a few more reasons why I believe it is quite possible to live in poverty without being “poor”, at least not in the way we typically tend to understand their lives from our idyllic telescope in the West.

Naomi and her spunky smile.

Korogocho “rowhouses”.

Miriam playing outside of Naomi’s house.

Like sidewalk chalk!

Naomi’s home is always full of children.

Little boys in the home day care.

Brothers playing after school.


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A friend forwarded me this blog post yesterday, an interesting commentary on the perspectives of poverty.  The author notes a false dichotomy that I see to be all too true in the images and feeling we export from Africa back to the West – the idea that poverty, or our conception of poverty, is mutually exclusive from joy, family, happiness, laughter and a whole life.

The truth is that these things exist side by side, every day and life continues to roll along.

I think this is a really interesting project and that the author is right on both counts – NGOs do need revenue to survive, so many of the these fundraising or marketing campaigns are geared to only tell one side of the story because there is a belief that donors are much more likely to give money to a project that is helping the despondent looking child they see in pictures as opposed to the smiling man holding a cell phone.  The logic is, images tug our hearts, which can tug open our wallets – and which image is more likely to tug yours?

There may be some merit to that.

But when we primarily export images of starving children, trash filled slums and dirty water, we let the rest of the world believe that is the whole of the African life is poverty and destitution and that your $25 a month is going to solve it all.  Oversimplification can create a terrible misunderstanding about the struggles and our role in helping to solve them.

This week I went to see a documentary called Good Fortune about the effect of development projects in both Kibera and a rural village in western Kenya.  The take away, for me, was that our best intentions are not always best for Africans – that sometimes aid can do more damage than good.  Not all aid is bad.  Not all aid is good.  And not that aid should cease.  There is just no perfect aid project.  Not do I think development will ever occur without creating some suffering along the way – it is always a painful process, something we often fail to internalize.

We should do, then, is realize that our concept of rich and poor is deeply Western and deeply biased.

After the film had ended, the producer told a story about one of the characters in the film, who wondered why everyone kept telling him he was poor.  He makes less that a dollar a day, so by our standards he fits the mark of povery.  But in his own words,

“I look out at my field every day and see 500 cows that I own.  I’m not poor, I’m rich!”

And it all starts with our view of the West in relation to our view of Africa – the tattered and torn Africa we usually see in photos.  These pictures tell us they must need whatever we feel like offering.

We justfy many things in the name of doing good, because they are good to the Western mind.  But we rarely stop to ask questions like, “how does our bias and culture affect the form and method of aid and development in Africa” or question “who it this really benefiting?” and “are we doing more damage that good in the process?”

It’s all about perspective.

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to visit the Outreach Community Centre in the Mathare slum.  Outreach runs three primary schools, on secondary school and a children’s home for vulnerable children.  It is estimated that nearly 500,000 people live in Mathare Valley.

Most hilarious moment of the day was when a little boy, no more than three years, ran up to me, stared at my white leg and slowly reached out to touch it – just to make sure it was real skin.  I can understand his skepticism.

Here are a few photos from the visit!

Over 400 students attend this primary school in Mathare.  Every class we visited was ready to present us with flowers.  Invisible flowers, that is!  Kids turning air into roses in this picture!

Secondary students preparing their songs for Vice President Biden’s visit to the school the following day, as part of his tour of Kenya prior to the World Cup.

Class six students at a the primary school in the heart of Mathare.  So many songs ready for visitors on command!

Magdalene, who runs Outreach with her husband, with her husband tell me while looking out over the homes of Mathare residents, that even if her work is only a drop in the ocean, she knows how important and precious those drops are – they are her students.

Bags of maize from the World Food Programe.  Outreach feeds over 1,200 children meals every day.

Outreach Children’s Home.  This is the dorm for girls, which I was told was constructed with funding from the US government.

A second dorm for girls was constructed with a grant from the Italian government – clearly an upgrade.  Our tour became a little bit awkward when the Home mother found out I was American…

Sweet children, sweet faces!