Monday, August 04, 2014

Kenya: Methare Valley

Methare Valley is a sprawling slum in Nairobi. Half a million people live in this slum. Narrow zig-zag pathways snake between endless ramshackle, make-shift metal housing units where ducks, chickens, and goats lap sewage water that runs in sometimes random places. Low hanging power lines link across the zig-zag pathways and water trickles in the cracks on the ground as you walk creating a constant hazard.
There are far fewer actual roads than the population density requires and the roads are poorly kept. It feels disorganized, unplanned, and uncontrolled. Forget about zoning and HOA rules. This place feels like a free for all. Poverty closes in on all sides as the slum stretches for as far as the eye can see.
The main road passing through the slum bustles with activity. Venders selling their wares and food fill the streets, some of the very engaging and some aggressive as they seek to make a day’s wage. If they can make a couple dollars, they have had a good day. One person cooked french fries over an open fire in the street. They looked pretty good, but I passed by not giving in the temptation.

The smells of the slum were a strange mix of delicious food, raw sewage, and diesel exhaust. The smells were pungent and savory all at once and there was the slight feel of carnival excitement. It appeared as though the smells were invisible to the locals, but what was not invisible to the locals was our group of white Americans walking through the slum.
In the midst of the immense poverty, there was beauty. The beautiful children with smiles on their faces played in the streets perhaps oblivious to the extent of their poverty.
Young women with habits looking like nuns enjoyed delicious popsicles as they walked down the street after Sunday worship.
The main focus of our visit was to go with a Made In The Streets staff member named Jackton to visit his father, who still lives in the valley. He lived in a very small place situated deep into the valley. Snaking between the puzzled together houses made it impossible for a newcomer to have any idea how anyone could know how to get there get there or how to get out. All 15 of us found a way to squeeze into the home of Jackton’s father, a space no larger than my bedroom. He told us stories of living in the valley, how he worked as a mechanic, and how his wife lived in the up country on their land in order to protect it from thieves.
Many of the children who are at Made In The Streets once lived in the valley. It is a place they call home and it is filled with a strange mix of memories for them, some good and some bad, just like the mix of smells.
It is overwhelming and humbling to walk through Methare Valley. In one sense it feels hopeless. How could there ever be enough economic input the lift this slum from the withering poverty? On the other hand, it appears that for many of the people there, the poverty is more of a problem for me than it is for them. Regardless, the experience in the valley felt like both a gift and an indictment. It forced me to understand myself outside of my most common context, to be in a place where I know that the social forces of poverty are so far beyond the power I have to change it that my own sense of power diminished to some more appropriate level. My privilege became as obvious to me as the color of my skin walking the streets.

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