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Going Inside Kibera Slum (Part 3)

The conclusion to my 3-part story of  inside Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera, and travels into other slum areas around Nairobi:

After listening to these courageous HIV-positive women, I buy about a dozen of the blue, green, yellow and red beaded pins the women make and sell to raise money for their public education campaigns. They put some of the money in a fund for medical expenses when one of them develops full-blown AIDS. They smile, grateful for the donation, and I thank them for letting me into their inner circle.

Once outside and in the light, Brother Cleo and I are surrounded by children. It’s as if smoke signals announcing the arrival of a priest and an American woman had gone out while we had sat indoors for a little while. Like the women I just met, the children all stare at my camera; the easiest way to end any awkwardness, I think, is to offer an impromptu photo session. Indeed, the laughing begins as the camera lens clicks. Only a few (more self-conscious, teen girls) walk away, camera-shy.

The laughter of children. It’s the same joyful sound no matter where you are.


Brother Cleo and I leave to go higher up the hill to visit with one of the families Brother Cleo has been ministering to. The parents and their young children live in a lean-to, made of plywood and scraps of tin. A pot of water boils on tabletop gas burner.

According to The Slum Project, water mains cross underneath the 1 million people living in Kibera Slum to carry water to surrounding golf courses and estates, yet the utility companies do not provide access directly. Instead, Kiberans must either purchase water by the liter from water brokers, at prices that can be upwards of 20 times the price paid for metered water in the city. Many who can’t afford that walk to locations outside Kibera with cheaper water and haul it back to their living quarters.

A pile of lettuce sits on a table. The family offers us lunch. Brother Cleo whispers to me, “We’ll eat later, back at McCauley House.”

Taking Brother Cleo’s cue, we smile and politely decline, saying we have plans later for lunch.

With visitors, sharing what you have — however little that may be — is part of the Kenyan culture here. But in Kibera there is very little food to go around. According to The Slum Project, Oxfam, Concern Worldwide, and other aid agencies, Kibera is in a state of prolonged food crisis.

Spotting my camera, the family is eager for me to take their picture, and ask to send it back to them after it’s developed. They have never had a family portrait before. They stand proudly outside the back of their home, near a kiln that backs up to other shacks.

After the photo shoot, I thank them for inviting me into their home. Brother Cleo and I keep going up – into the commercial center of Kibera. Even after being here a few hours, I find myself, still, unprepared for the rivulets of sewage that flow down crevices in the hillside. Again, I clutch my trousers at my hips to save the bottoms from soaking up the wetness.  Just a half-mile away, where I’m staying inside the Holly Cross seminary, restrooms with clean, flushing toilets work perfectly. So much could be done to extend the city water and sewer lines here, but it doesn’t happen.

Instead, malaria and cholera and typhoid spread through the community. Diseases that don’t have to exist.

We step into the courtyard of one of the schools the late Mother Teresa set up decades ago, then walk along the railway at the “top” of the slum, where we see the farm animals, the garbage heaps, and the makeshift shops with boom-box music drowning out other shops’ boom-box music. They sell car parts and underwear and everything else in between.

After snapping at least a hundred photos, I’m officially overwhelmed.


Before we leave Kibera, we stop and visit a family who has received seed money from the McCauley House priests to start and run their own businesses. They live at the bottom of the massive Kibera hill, where the open sewers drain into the field and form a kind of moat around Kibera. This family tells me that their small snack cart near downtown Nairobi, purchased with the grant money, is doing well. They introduce me to their 20-year-old son, who has just begun studying at Nairobi University. His parents beam with pride as he talks about college.

Much of his success – and his parents’ newfound success as well – can be traced back to a teen center that the McCauley brothers run near the seminary. This is where young people from Kibera can just be teens; some, in time, end up introducing their  families to the priests. The teen center is our last stop for the day. It’s a plain building painted yellow on the outside and containing big open hall inside where teens can play music, dance and support each other. A priest is always nearby to talk. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one.

When we arrive, we’re greeted by a few young men hanging out in front.

“Brother Cleo!”

They offer hugs, high-fives. This young priest is a trusted friend.

“Hey there!,” Brother Cleo answers, smiling.

Brother Cleo pats them on the back, asks how they’re doing. The priest on duty at the center comes out and waves, then goes back inside. A few girls watch me peek through the open doorway, giggle, and return to getting the space ready for a dance party they’ve scheduled for later that evening.


Over the coming days, we would travel all over Nairobi to visit more projects run or supported by the priests. I got the sense that Brother Cleo walked with me as if he were trying to see this place with fresh eyes, like mine. We visit a boarding school for impoverished girls and spoke with the headmaster and a few students; we go inside a health clinic crammed with patients who would be seen regardless of their ability to pay.

All of these places receive money that the priests raise, and everyone asks if I would kindly tell my friends back home to donate, too. Brother Cleo never pressured me to give any money, or make any promises to anyone here. He just wanted me to see it from the inside. With Brother Cleo gently leading me forward, I could scratch off the ugly surfaces of the slums. And in doing so — in facing the hard realities — find a greater sense that, yes, something could be done in the slums.

This would not be my last experience in a slum. It was only the beginning.


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Going Inside Kenya’s Kibera Slum: Part 2

Part 2 (of 3)  from my journeys in Kenya’s Kibera Slum:

While photographing the Holy Cross priests’ primary projects in the slum is my main “job” here, I’ve got other, more personal reasons why I’m here. I’ve started to lead volunteer vacations abroad in the last few years, and it’s time to test the limits of my comfort zone, and more importantly, see potentially what I and a group of volunteers could realistically do to help in a slum full of people in need. I’m not so naïve as to think that all slum cultures are the same, but I know I want to try and understand the needs of this one.

(Three years later, married and no longer traveling solo, I’d lead a 14-member volunteer team to build houses in a slum in India.)

For someone who was raised Catholic but has never practiced it as an adult, it was a minor miracle that I had lined up an insider-tour with the Holy Cross priests. As a general rule, single women are not allowed to sleep overnight in a Catholic seminary, nor are they (especially if they’re white) advised to walk into Kibera Slum alone. But my timing is good on both fronts. Nearly every one of the seminary brothers are away at a conference in Uganda, and Brother Cleo has offered guide me inside Kibera.


The harried bus driver appears, as promised. I thank him profusely and give him a slip of paper with the number of Brother Cleo. They speak, and then he hands the mobile phone to me. The voice on the other end sounds like soft, cool rain. He was simply waiting for me to call.

“Oh yes, the buses are always late from Tanzania” he says nonchalantly. “How was your journey?”

“Good, long,” I say, just happy to hear his voice. “I’m so sorry we’re here so late.”

“No problem, we’re not far away. Maybe fifteen minutes.”

Brother Cleo tells me to stay put, and assures me he will find me here.

The bus pulls away and I am alone, watching hotel guests appear and disappear. This is a popular stairwell. I do my best to ignore this drug den hotel that I’ve found myself in and instead focus on pressing my fingers into my swollen foot. It has grown in size all day, and I’m worried I might have to go to the hospital if it doesn’t get better soon. Twenty minutes later I’m greeted by Brother David, a young seminarian. Brother Cleo is waiting outside, he tells me, in the car. It’s not safe to leave the car parked at night in Nairobi; idling is better, with the doors locked.

“Colleen! It is so great to finally meet you after all the e-mails!” Brother Cleo says as I get into the car, turning his head around in the driver’s seat to look me in the eye. His eyes are warm, his cheeks round and full.

I smile, and tell him I completely agree.

Once we’re on our way, both priests want to know about my trip, my climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, my swollen foot. I am just grateful to be in the car, grateful that they care, grateful that these kind men are the people I get to spend the next two days with.

After winding up and out of the city, we reach McCauley House. The big metal gate in front locks only from the inside, so of the brothers comes out to let us in. Tall brick walls, topped by razor wire, enclose several buildings that surround a grassy inner courtyard. The whole place sits on a rise overlooking Kibera, which is on its own big hill, less than a quarter-mile away.

Before we pull the car all the way in, Brother Cleo rolls down the window and points to a few lights in the distance. It’s as if Kibera has a protective edging stretched around one side: a long, narrow field a mile long, but less than a quarter-mile wide.  Cross the field the short way, and Kibera is closer than one might think.

“That’s Kibera,” he says simply, with the calm, even voice I will become accustomed to in the coming days. He knows this place – this famously awful place — is what I’ve come to see.

“We’ll go tomorrow,” he says.

From here, I listen to Kibera rumble. The whole place murmurs and creaks, like a giant old computer running too many software programs all at once. It’s like the sound right before the computer locks up completely. But so far, Kibera hasn’t died. It’s been churning like this for years, components maxed out, struggling keep everything and everyone going within. What is striking, at night, about Sub Saharan Africa’s biggest slum is not what you see (there are few lights), but this organism you hear.

It is nearly 10 pm, but the seminary kitchen is still open, most likely because of me. One of the brothers, as cook-for-the-night, feeds me a mildly spiced African soup and a side of vegetables and rice. After dinner, Brother Cleo then leads me to my room, at the end of a long, dark hallway in an empty dormitory wing on the far side of the grassy inner courtyard. It feels miles away from everyone else. I have a hunch I’ve been put out in the “back 40” for a reason, but that’s just fine by me. The quiet is heavenly.


After breakfast the next morning, Brother Cleo and I cross the no-man’s land – the border field. My foot, as if miraculously healed by my presence in a holy seminary, is no longer swollen. And so Brother Cleo and I walk, side by side, the first of many walks we will take, crossing a footbridge over a dirty, garbage-strewn moat, then up into Kibera, its own city on a hill. I expected to go “down” into a slum, not up.

From a distance, Kibera is a sea of rusty shack roofs atop a giant pile of dirt and a garbage dump. From close-up, it is much more: a living city, more densely populated than New York,  a city that belches smoke from thousands of cooking fires and reeks of farm animals and garbage. All of this is mixed with the aroma of butchered raw meat, and steaming vegetables cooking at alley-side stands, and a thousand other smells I can’t indentify.

Perhaps more than anything else, Kibera reeks of wet, wan waste. Everywhere, goats and cows and dogs rummage through the garbage. Most of us in the developed world don’t have to live with the stuff that we tuck away, or bury, or sanitize, or burn. We cast away all those moist, mushy things that smell bad: the dead things, the rotting things, the bloody things, the stained things, the cast-off things. In Kibera, though, life happens in tandem with the inevitable waste of life.

The first thing that shocks me, after the smell, are the open sewer trenches everywhere, hundreds of them. Some are only partially dug. These gullies are full of garbage and plastic bags that create unnatural and dangerously mobile dams for the sewage. Overflows are common. I’ve made the mistake of wearing sandals and linen slacks, and I grab my pant legs at the hips to hike them up out of the way as I step over overflowing sections.

According to the Kibera Slum Foundation, Kibera residents who can afford it pay for shared toilets that may get used by many as 500-1,000 people; about two-thirds employ the “flying toilet,” which involves defecating in a plastic bag and tossing it into the air during the night. It’s no surprise that disease – especially stomach and intestinal illnesses –  runs rampant here.

As diseases go, HIV gets the most media attention, with as many as one in nine Kibera residents infected. Still, few receive proper treatment for it. Brother Cleo and I make our way to visit a women’s HIV support group.  Ten women are gathered in one of the member’s homes for a regular meeting. The home is made of corrugated tin, and inside sits one table with a plain, threadbare cloth and one couch with a ripped slipcover. It’s eerily dark inside, despite the late morning glare outside. The women, sitting in the dark corners of the room, shyly introduce themselves one by one.  All tell me how many children they have. Children are a big part of one’s identity in this part of Africa.

Some have as many as eight children to care for, but today they are here to brainstorm ideas on how educate other Kiberans about HIV in an effort to save their neighbors. A few cough. Most look tired. So far, one woman in the group has died of the disease. The women stare at me as I cradle my camera with its big telephoto lens in my lap. I wrap my arms around it, instinctively trying to make it look smaller than it is. The sale of this camera could buy medicine for all of them, at least for a little while. I feel guilty carrying something so expensive in this place, and their eyes are piercing. I know they don’t mean to make me feel bad, but I do.

Brother Cleo talks to them about a door-to-door campaign where they will be talking to Kiberans on how to prevent HIV. The women will be passing out flyers about safe sex practices.  This is a first for me: Catholic involvement in a safe-sex campaign. I’m excited about this, to know this “secret” that is undoubtedly saving lives here.

Part 3 will conclude this story next week.


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Finding China, beneath the yellow fog

Part One (of two) from travels in China

Most of the world is aware that in Beijing, the fog is not the cool, lilting, low-lying cloud we wish it were — you know, the kind mysteriously enveloping bonsai trees and waterfalls in all those old Chinese landscape scroll-paintings. In Beijing, the fog lives in tandem with honking car horns and hot, sticky humidity that drips off your forehead.  Only at night does it feel ethereal, and only if you lie to yourself that it drifted in off the Yellow Sea.

Beijing’s ever-present fog is pure pollution – tons of toxic particles hanging suspended in the city’s air from cars and trucks and factories.

Pure pollution. It’s an oxymoron fitting for modern-day China, a country already full of ironies. Long-steeped in what was once pure — ancient tradition, spare living, Confucian morals and healthy diets – it’s no secret that China, in some places, is polluted on the outside, and sometimes on the inside, too.

China’s bear-hug of capitalism has been strong and fast, and no number of no-drive days in the cities (an obvious public relations scheme by the government) will make any noticeable difference.

But dissecting the multiple forces at work that have made Beijing China’s version of Los Angeles is another story for another time and place and destination.

This story is about little Jinshanling, and how the smog and all that it represents is starting to poison her.

Jinshanling is tucked in the shadow of the Great Wall of China, more than 150 miles away from Beijing. The tiny village, with fewer than 200 people, is a pocket of civilization older than most civilized places in the world.

My husband and I are here as newlyweds on week two of our honeymoon, hoping to see a slice of old China. We wanted to really see the Great Wall, to find a section where we could take in the grandeur without a lot of people around. The big question: how do you do that in the most populous country in the world?

Answer: Google it. Even Jinshanling can be found on a Google search.

What I found, really, was a local tour company that for a few hundred dollars would provide a Chinese guide, two nights’ stay in Jinshanling, one night of camping inside one of the Great Wall’s abandoned watchtowers, and an eight-mile hike on quiet, sometimes crumbling sections of the Great Wall to the village of Simatai.

The company wanted full payment by wire transfer to China before we left the United States. My husband smelled a scam, but I pressed on.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

I pause and say nothing. Instead, I turn my head to the side and smile.

I would let him answer this one himself.

“We show up and no one comes for us at our hotel in Beijing and our money is gone.”

I agree, yes, that could happen.

We wire the finds.

And so here we are, in a van, less than 18 hours after touching down in China, winding through the country roads on the way to Jinshanling. Three hours drive from the city, and the pollution-fog lingers among the corn stalks and hovers over the fruit trees. It sticks to the hillsides like an ugly cloud of cigarette smoke obscures the walls of a pub. It makes my skin feel like the floor of a fast-food restaurant.

This far from Beijing, I naively thought it would be gone by now.

Guiding us is Beijing lcoal Hai Li,, an ever-smiling 30-year-old, and our non-English speaking driver. Also with us is a 40-something couple from Australia, the only other people on the tour. (I suppose most people do not prefer to blindly wire money to China like we do. Their loss.)

We hadn’t expected all this to go so smoothly.  But neither did we expect Old China to be so effortlessly enveloped in New Beijing’s sticky dirt. Of course we knew long before we bought our plane tickets how rapidly China, especially its cities, is developing. The dizzying pace of all the construction makes me wonder how one of the world’s healthiest populations is going to deal with all the crap in the air and water and soil.

* * *

For three hours, during our long smoggy drive, Hai Li sat quietly in the front seat of the van.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she would offer up what seemed like government-mandated propaganda.

“The government says more freeways will bring more progress to all of China,” she says as we speed along the eight-lane thoroughfare out of the city, built in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But once in Jinshanling, she transforms into a deft guide. But Hai Li’s tone softens once we are in Jinshanling, where she makes quick work of convincing two soldiers posted at the town gate to let us all inside – even though it’s just about to get dark and all the tourist shops are closed.

We’ll be sleeping on the Great Wall tonight. But first, I walk down the center of the only street in town, the main one, and I instantly love Jinshanling. I feel lucky to have found her, still quiet and uncrowded in the 21st Century. I hope she stays that way a little while longer.


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