I am spending three months working in a community in Kisumu, Kenya. Kisumu is a contradiction of dusty streets bordered by lush, rolling hills. Modern expansion lives alongside traditional methods in this western Kenyan city. Driving to my house takes you along the super highway, a marvel of concrete and bridges. The highway forks into a dirt track that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountain bike adventure trail. Local motorbikes swerve through rain filled potholes and mud with great skill. Kenya may not have the world’s best education system. However, almost everyone is trilingual, learning English, Kiswahili and their tribe language.
Property is less rigidly enforced. Kisumu lacks an ownership registrar, and many plots of land have spray painted signs proclaiming “this property is not for sale”. At first, the law student in me was horrified. How do people count and protect their assets? Freely wandering goats regularly stop highway traffic. Yet all vehicles stop to let them pass. In the Obunga slum, people’s chickens and cows graze indiscriminately. No one watches them, or brands them, or herds them home. Yet they are never stolen. The little Obunga store that sells me drinks should charge extra if you take the glass bottles. Yet I have been trusted to return them days later without paying extra. Market vendors always give “a little extra” food for free, simply because it’s tradition.
In Kisumu, traditional systems coexist with modern expansion.
The tin houses that populate the Obunga slum surround the Akili Farm
The Akili girls have computer classes every week, but are still fascinated by videos of themselves on my laptop
The stereotype of poverty stricken families languishing in a slum, flies buzzing around their hopelessness like vultures, is rife in Australia. Now I am actually living here, I appreciate how harmful and belittling these stereotypes are. Ambition, ingenuity and entrepreneurship is everywhere in Kisumu. The unoffical motorbike taxis organise themselves at specific pick up and drop off points. They hold meetings to discuss their productivity. A local group set up a microphone and speakers in Obunga, using music to fundraise for a funeral. People live their lives here.
Generalising a community along lines of poverty (seeing only what they lack) completely misses the point, and disempowers the people who have the keys to their own advancement. The Kenyans I’ve met are diverse, and have multifaceted inner lives as complex as anyone in Australia. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to wrap our minds around.
The stereotype of children with distended bellies, eyes huge in shrunken faces, is also harmful. Charities use these images to evoke our pity. We sell pain, promising our White Christian perspective is the only route to pain alleviation. Pity evokes the white saviour complex that imbues much Western aid. From my point of view, selling pity is a fast track to disempowerment on a grassroots level. The girls at my project, the Akili Preparatory Girl’s School, live in a slum. They are bright, complex individuals, with dreams and potential. They eat ugali and kale for lunch, they play games in the local field, they have parents who love them. They are more than the simplistic photos of bare footed urchins we are shown.
The charity I work for, Mama Hope, puts the community at the centre of everything. Community leaders decide where funds should be spent, because they understand the complexities of their situation. Project staff (like the Akili Girl’s School teachers) direct my work, because in January I will leave. They are the ones who must live with my decisions.
So far, my greatest revelation is this: open mindedness allows us to see the beauty of worlds beyond our own. Your perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Broadening it means you get another piece.