I never thought I’d fall in love with a slum. When we got to Nairobi I was scared of going out there. I knew it would smell bad, that the sewers would open, and the people would be destitute. Indeed, all that is true, but still I fell in love and I want to go back.
Korogocho started as a settlement sometime in the 70’s. All of the land in Korogocho is owned by the government. The people are merely squatters on this land. They moved onto the land as they moved into Nairobi for jobs. Most homes are shanties made of corrugated steel. They’re tiny and packed in practically on top of each other. There are some real buildings made of cinderblocks in the slum, some even two or three stories high, built by industrious individuals and owned by slumlords. There are also homes made of daub and wattle, ie rows of sticks held together with mud. None are well made. Almost all of them leak in the rain, have no running water, and have no heat (yes, it gets cold at the equator sometimes).
Korogocho is made up of nine villages with varying degrees of planned development. Some of the villages have wide roads, the sewers deep ditches along the sides of the roads. The homes in these parts are made of bricks and often have central “courtyards” with the different homes opening out onto the courtyard. This adds a bit of privacy and protection. Other villages are just corrugated steel homes put up slipshod with narrow paths between them. The sewers here are shallow and cut through the middle of the path. A communal toilet is often a shack made of a patchwork of steel with a platform placed over this sewer. During rains the sewer is not deep enough to hold the water as it tries to wind its way down the hill. If there is no hill, the water just stagnates. One of the villages is actually built just below the city’s sewage treatment plant, with its open settling ponds and treatment tanks. Between the village and the treatment plant is a market selling goods and produce.
The sewer adds to the smell, of course. So does the garbage. There is a garbage service for some of the villages. Youth groups collect the trash and charge households about 20 cents a week. The youth collect the garbage and dump it in the ever increasing piles on the side of the road or really on one side of the road. Cars and motorbikes need to drive around the garbage pile. In some villages the trash just carpets the ground. As the rains soak the garbage the stench of rot fills the air. There are often children searching through the garbage for goods to resell. Rarely (some say just before an election) those piles of garbage are moved to the city dump. The large city dump borders Ngomongo, one of the villages of Korogocho.
So how in the world could I love this place? It’s certainly not the scenery. But it is the people. They are happy and optimistic and willing to share their enthusiasm. They’re loud, and they’re playful. I fit right in. Many are working hard to make their community a better place. I went there originally to help my boss, Jake Sinclair, with his organization, Ujamaa. Its mission has evolved from aiding AIDS orphans to aiding a community that is helping its orphans and itself. Most of the people I met through Ujamaa were from the slums. These were people who embraced their lives and embraced me as well. Literally.
Everytime I walked into a room, almost everyone made an effort to come shake my hand. It wasn’t just a handshake. Their hand would start out two feet from my own and then make a loud clap as it met mine. The grasp was always firm and long. During the handshake I’d be often pulled in for a cheek kissing and a hug. It was always accompanied by a grin. I made so many friends, from health workers and guardians of orphans to the teachers of self defense all supported by Ujamaa. They welcomed me into their group as a lifelong friend. I have many new numbers in my phone.
I was welcomed into many people’s homes as well. All the homes had a similar layout. It started with the doorway without a door, just a sheet or a blanket to keep out the wind and to provide a bit of privacy. The front room always had at couch (bench with foam cushions) and at least one chair (bench with foam cushions). The corrugated steel roof let in a little light because of all holes, but the ceiling was softened by a sheet of lace or a modified mosquito net hanging under it. The back room was the bedroom. I rarely saw this as it was separated by a sheet from the front room. In these small homes seven or eight people would often live, sleeping on every surface, cooking over a small charcoal stove on the floor, eating and socializing around the table. The homes varied in their wealth; some had more space, nicer furniture, and more decorations. I was an honored guest in all of them. And like the handshakes the welcome was almost always enthusiastic.
The enthusiasm was carried onto the street as well. The slum is full of life. It’s full of people. It’s full of industry. There were businesses lining the roads: businesses in buildings, in stalls, and on blankets laid out by the side of the road. People were selling repaired bicycles, used shoes, axes of all shapes and sizes, and green beans and carrots cut up for an instant meal at home. There were food stands selling mandazi, chapatis, beans, and greens. Nothing was expensive. Delicious bananas were five cents a piece. Lunch was no more than 50 cents at the stalls; $1.20 at the restaurant was a splurge. It was bustling. It was thrilling.
And the children. Their poverty is disheartening. But like their parents they were infectious in their enthusiasm. They always greeted me, loudly yelling, “How are you?” They often ran up to touch me and shake my hand, smiling and jumping up and down. Hank and I walked by a group of preschoolers and kindergartners one day during their recess. They all raced to grab onto our hands. We had to peel them off when their bell rang to go back into their school. I was filled with joy and fell in love with Korogocho.