I don’t have any pictures of this visit, but let me start the day from the beginning.
Upon arriving at the school, I had a meeting with the Anne, the principal, and learned a little more about the students themselves. Some of the children at the school simply just showed up one day. Pangs of hunger suffocating fear of reproachment, they followed other children to school, their two year old language skills barely sufficient to explain they had been eating dirt and sleeping on the stink encrusted filth that slimes the pocked lanes of Kibera.
I asked her if some of the children are HIV positive. With many of the mothers relying on prostitution as their only form of family income, the answer is of course, yes. Harder still is that the known students are only those that have been tested. Most have not. When homeless toddlers come wandering to the school, Anne will always take them in. And she will always have them tested. Those are the ones she knows.
I ask her if any of the students have been raped. The answer is yes, but it is always hard to know true numbers, because most of the time shame overwhelms the courage needed to seek help. Thus, the only hard evidence of it is when a young girl becomes pregnant. Anne walks me to the back of the classrooms, to a private area, where there is a 6 month old sleeping soundly on a sagging sofa. Her 14 year old mother is in one of the classes I just spoke to. She had told me she wanted to read books so that she could go to university.
When walking through the classes, some students are sleeping on their desks. Others still are using their thin wrists to keep their nodding head propped up. When I asked why, the answer was so direct I felt almost embarrassed for having thought there could be another explanation. They are hungry. They did not eat today, and some did not eat yesterday. The school cannot supply meals for the students, so they must go home at lunch to eat. But home is a relative word, and meals an accomplishment, not a routine. So they sleep. Not simply to pass the time in a state that doesn’t register the hunger pains, but because when you go for that long without food, your body slows down.
I try to inspire them. Give them words of encouragement, anything that will give them the confidence and determination to keep their heads in the books. To forget about their surroundings, to truly believe that if they work as hard as they possibly can now, they will get out of this poverty trap. My words are somewhat drowned out by my accent and I try to remind myself to speak slowly and enunciate.
We finally go down to the bottom floor, which feels like a dungeon. Here, the youngest ones are learning in the dark. In one far corner are the babies, sitting on the dirt floor amongst plastic litterings that make up much of the ground in kibera. Technically, they should be three, but one is as young as 20 months. A few are fast asleep on the floor, immobile even to my stroking their cheek. I am told they are likely sick. Could be malaria, perhaps HIV. Some are suffering from malnutrition, their eyes bulging and little balding patches developing on their soft heads from where hair has fallen out. A dream of Anne’s is to have a feeding program, so that even just children under 8 can get porridge at the school. Enough to keep them alive, attentive, to help them grow. Yet even daily food for children has to fall under the category of a dream.
At 4:30 it was time to pack up, to meet my driver. We leave the school, arm in arm, surrounded by 12 students and one gate guard. Halfway through the one-minute walk Anne’s stiffening arm brings me to attention. Five meters in front of us, a man is pointing a gun directly at me. He yells at me not to move as six more break through the children, another one with a gun, and kicking my legs, knock me to the ground. The children have scattered and I am dragged out of sight of the car, which is only about 50 meters ahead of me. They peel my bags off of my shoulders, looking for a belt around my waist, a watch, anything that can fetch a price. I learnt from the police later that witnesses said there were at least 10 men with guns involved.
So this is Kibera. Merciless and lawless. This is what the children are raised in, and what they face every day. Despite looking up the less desirable end of a barrel, despite having all of the camera equipment and footage now floating through the unnavigatable web of Kibera’s underbelly, I am okay. But I am not the one that has to live in Kibera.
And yet, with a donation of simply 500 books, a primary school, where rape, AIDS, and hunger are family facts as opposed to stories or blog posts, these children managed to increase their performance on the national exam an extraordinary amount, simply by reading. If there was ever a reason to believe in our cause, this is it. Books matter. If they can make a difference in Kibera, a place where I was confronted with violence after stepping one toe in public, then they can make a difference anywhere. Rather than instill me with fear or defeat, this has motivated me. The children are trying, their grades are improving, and I know we can help. We already have.