The Entrepreneurs of the Kibera

I pride myself (probably more than I ought) on looking at the world from different perspectives so that I can shake things up a bit. Just seems unusually restrictive and unfair to view things in one, sort of “status quo” manner propounded by the media or whatever outlet I’m viewing.

An article in the Denver Post this morning about rapper “Fiddy Cent” (sorry, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) visiting ‘impoverished parts of Africa’ is giving me an opportunity to share my process of viewing differently. Interestingly, the article comes out of Nairobi, Kenya. I am assuming before I read it that he saw the Kibera slums in Nairobi on his tour. I will read and return….

…. Yes indeed, 50 Cent visited the camps at the border with Somalia and then the Kibera in western Nairobi. He certainly sets an admirable goal of one billion meals to feed the hungry. The problem with one billion meals is that at the end of the meals, the people are still hungry. But perhaps with such an impressive number, other aid agencies will contribute is the thinking.

Kibera Slum Approach

Nonetheless I digress. Here is the thought that came to me as we took our own driving tour of the Kibera less than 10 days ago: These “orphan kids” (in the Kibera anyway) are orphaned because of war in neighboring countries like Rwanda I was told. The genocide happened in the 90’s and now the children we see are the result of the Rwandan refugees mixing with other squatters and the Kenyans and literally forming a new community. They interestingly have good body weight, they are mobile and can run, their eyes are clear, their hair is strong and healthy, their clothing is dirty, feet are pretty dirty (like the rest of us walking everywhere), and their teeth appear strong and healthy as they smile and say to me, “Come on, Mama, I need some” gesturing a need for food with fingers to their mouths. Mind you, they do not want my leftover Samosa. They want my western watch and earrings and leather hand bag and the American dollars inside. They know full well that their dusty and impoverished presentation will garner pity and thus some kind of monetary support from the “Mama” tourists.

But make no mistake – these are the entrepreneurs of the Kibera slum, and they are far wiser, tougher, and educated than the aid agency rumors in the media would indicate. My fear of them was replaced by my amazement of them as survivalists and humans. Oh, I still kept my wallet buried between me and Guled in hiding. You bet.

Kibera Slum Road

These “poor”, “slum” kids are far more able to survive than any of us here in my town under similar circumstances. The Kibera has developed a civil code of its own, developed businesses and survival systems, and developed protective measures to insulate family and shack. Sure, the survival code has elements that offend our Western (or Eastern for that matter) sense of justice and fairness, but I suppose when your country implodes and you run to a neighboring place for survival, the systems that develop will not mirror white anglo civil justice. Both Hakim and our driver JJ told me that if we walked through the winding alley-type paths of the Kibera, I would be mugged with 100% surety. I was pretty tempted to take up the challenge at one point actually. I laughed about that, saying I had nothing for them to take! Apparently, I just don’t think I do. The ingenious entrepreneurs borne of survival are able to find good use out of the most unimaginable (to me) things… like cloth, soles of shoes, metals, buttons, baubles, strings…. and I realized that my civility really has rendered me fairly weak in the survival world.

Kibera Slum Rooftops

I applaud Mr. Jackson for taking the time and offering resources to a humanitarian need. The majority of Nairobi money appeared to me to be in the form of humanitarian government aid, NGO’s, and private Trusts set up for humanitarian purposes. The indigenous folks live off the crumbs and the administrators of the programs drive BMWs and Mercedes and live in exotic homes. So be it. But what I would think might be a cool experiment is to approach the problem from the viewpoint that these little entrepreneurs are far smarter about some things, including the “business of survival” than they are poor and destitute, and perhaps “The Trump” might consider hosting a few on that TV show he does… “The Apprentice”…? I think that was it.

You can feed a billion meals, or you can feed maybe 200 million meals and take the rest of that money to set up vocational training and a few resources …. and some civil law training. The Kibera entrepreneurs will need that because the code of survival means that if you are hungry, take and eat, with no regard for “rights” in the Western sense.

I am frankly astounded by these young people, rather than feeling pity for their impoverished lives, at least in general terms. I feel momentary bits of pity for me and mine because I don’t know that I could survive with such vibrancy. I think I experienced a moment of awareness with a young boy as he put his precious 10 year old face into my window and asked “Mama” for something. I offered my leftover food and water. He laughed, looked up to the sky as he walked following our car, then turned and met my gaze full on and knowingly, and with a chuckle told me, “My stomach is satisfied fully. Mamas are good to me today. I will take the water.” He probably would have taken it if he were able to reach it.

And out of some place that I have determined was respect peppered liberally with Kibera charm, I acquiesced and gave him one of our unopened water bottles… and he accepted.

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