Tag Archives: Nairobi

piga picha.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Shouldn’t this axiom be the anathema of every (print) journalist? Perhaps not, and yet it’s definitely mine. After all, I write. I believe that writing is one of the most effective ways of communicating—of sharing news, experiences, ideas, challenges. But this maxim disagrees: Prevent wasted ink, wasted time and carpal tunnel; snap a picture instead, it says. In my mind, the saying surmises that no matter what I write, no matter how much time I spend trying to craft a gem of a sentence or a perfect paragraph, one click of my camera could accomplish the same feat.

But pulling out a camera in Kibera is the equivalent of wearing the perennial “KICK ME” sign, as looks of disparagement shoot my way. I might as well show up wearing a banana suit or some other ridiculous attire. When I pull out that Canon, I feel like the slum tourist who callously invades another’s home, snapping away at artifacts of his or her daily life. The camera is a reminder: Remember, I’m a journalist. Remember, I’m not from here. Remember, beware.

I delayed it for as long as I possibly could. So long, in fact, that Genesis began to wonder where my camera was. He assumed that pictures are a component of my project. He also assumed that I might be reluctant to unmask my camera, for fear that those around me might then begin to resent my presence. He was right, as he has been all too often.

Soweto East is bustling, teeming with people who hasten up and down the only road in Kibera. The occasional vehicle hoots, and pedestrians scuttle out of the way. I’m surprised by the number of people I see in Soweto East, one of twelve or thirteen villages in Kibera. My astonishment is based on an interview with a staff worker at the KENSUP Secretariat, who reassured me that Soweto East is nearly empty now that its former residents have been relocated to a decanting site while their neighborhood is renovated. She assured me that Soweto East remains virtually vacant, that I might find a dozen people there, but no more.

She’s wrong. Since their relocation, others have moved in, claiming those shacks as their own. Genesis and I joke that we should take a picture and show it to my liaison at the Secretariat. And then I decide that I will.

Enter the camera.  I have a paranoid-but-not-altogether-delusional sense that I’ve suddenly made myself more noticeable, tenfold. Using my budding photographic skills (not really) and the few techniques that I’ve mastered (really, only the Rule of Thirds), I snap a few quick pictures and put the camera away, eager to revert back to my not-so-conspicuous ways.

Genesis says, “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

But it was, and I’ll just have to pretend that I didn’t notice the stares.

not another poverty story.

I made my first of several visits to Kibera this week.  It is infamously known as one of the largest slums in Africa, an epithet that has boosted the slum’s repute as the place to go for any journalist looking for a quick story on poverty in Africa. Andrew Cawthorne sardonically writes that in Kibera, we’d be able to find an “Africa poverty story” in half an hour. Or less, I say.

The Government of Kenya approximates that Kibera’s population is 500,000, but this is the most conservative estimate. Local NGOs and most residents triple this amount, setting the number closer to 1.5 million, half of Nairobi’s population. Regardless, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. Kibera’s residents live on an area of land roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, five percent of Nairobi’s total landmass.

Upon the culmination of my first day in Kibera, I was asked to describe what I saw: Was it dangerous? Was I scared? And did I take pictures? (The answer to all of these questions: No.)

Of Kibera, what can I say that hasn’t been said before? I could paint you a picture by conjuring up all of the tired and cliché (but nonetheless heart-wrenching) images of poverty and slums: children with distended bellies, shacks made of scavenged metal scraps, heaps of garbage. All of this has been described before, and more eloquently and poignantly than I will even bother to attempt here.

***

“You see these children, and it’s just heartbreaking to think that they will never have a home like you and I do,” she told me. Her words struck me, and immediately I wanted to retort, “How do YOU know?” I like to think I’m a firm believer in the “anything-is-possible” philosophy, the mantra that encourages us to dream big, because our wildest dreams can come true. But in hindsight, she’s probably right. Fine, she is right. Poverty isn’t going to disappear in my lifetime, and Kibera, as it stands today, isn’t going to vanish in the next ten years, whether or not the Government of Kenya will admit it (They won’t. I asked).

***

I’m following Genesis through the maze of Kibera’s alleyways on my first day here. He shows me a rift has been re-purposed to serve as a dumping ground.

Children barrel their way into the garbage, searching for scraps. One thrusts his arms into the air enthusiastically, displaying his creation for his friends to behold. He’s fashioned a toy out of an empty bottle, a plastic bag and cardboard scraps, attached by a maze of wires. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” That’s what they say, right? And that’s literally what he’s doing — turning trash into treasure. Sort of.  As I observe his obvious pride in his innovation, I realize that this is — and will probably always be — his equivalent of a new toy train set or those Matchbox cars that every boy seemed to love when I was a kid.

I look back. Genesis is already several paces in front of me, and I must catch up. I get to move on.

In recent years, Kibera has become the all-you-can-eat buffet of slum tours, where tourists can sample everything on the laundry list of issues plaguing the slum: lack of sanitation, water shortages, health hazards and diseases, the sale of illicit alcoholic brews, a lack of access to education, HIV/AIDS. These tours exoticize slum dwellers’ day-to-day lives, making a mockery of their situation in the least amusing way possible. (For more on the evils of slum tourism, read this article by Andrew Cawthorne and this op-ed piece recently featured in The New York Times.)

I don’t blame them for resenting the trigger-happy tourists that traipse through their neighborhoods, for these unwelcome visitors aren’t the least bit hesitant about pulling out their cameras and snapping away. They’re fascinated by the novelty of it all. Never before have they seen the likes of Kibera’s multi-purpose shacks and mud-ridden pathways, which are worlds apart from their own green lawns and paved concrete streets.

I feel a compulsion to distinguish myself from these one-time visitors, who flock to Kibera on slum tours that are growing increasingly common.  I grimace at the thought of being confused with just another tourist who visits Kibera on a whim. Still, I know that no matter how much time I spend in Kibera, I will never fully understand what it means to live in Kibera. Because I’m not living it. And although at the end of this project I will have spent countless hours here, it still won’t be enough.

But thankfully Genesis trusts me and my intentions, and this reassures me. He doesn’t know who or what will bring change to Kibera, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop trying to make a difference in whatever way he can. He encourages me to ask him questions, no-holes-barred. And so I ask.

anatomy of a name.

So, I decided that my blog needs a name. And that as an ode to my time in South Africa and Mozambique, it deserves something more than “Nazish Dholakia’s Blog,” which I haphazardly created to serve as only a temporary placeholder while I mastered the workings of WordPress. After five months, I think it’s time is up.

Over the past weeks and months, I’ve struggled to find an appropriate name. I wanted something more than a vague title; no nonsense about journeys or travels or the road that is life. So the one I created in my days of ineptitude has had to suffice.  Until now. Drum roll, please?

fifty-three.
(I realize you’ve already noticed it at the top of this Web page. Humor me.)

Let me explain. Yes, it is Herbie’s racing number in The Love Bug, an indisputably great movie (at least, I loved it when I watched it at my end-of-the-year celebration in second grade). But more importantly, it’s the number of countries in Africa. Actually, even this is contested; it depends on whether or not you count the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Sporcle doesn’t, Wikipedia  does. I side with what the majority of Google hits declared.

So why fifty-three?

When Ghana played Uruguay in the Quarterfinals, commentators heralded Ghana as Africa’s last hope of World Cup victory. But these commentators didn’t point out that Uruguay was the last South American team still standing, and surely Mexico was never relegated as the last ray of hope for the North American continent. Sure, these differences might have something to do with the way this World Cup was marketed as an African World Cup, a first for the continent. But I can’t help but think it also has something to do with the way the rest of the world lumps all 53 African nations, its one billion people who collectively speak 2,000 different languages, into one category.

Sarah Palin, in all her glorious idiocy, may have thought Africa was a country (I’m believing the rumor mill on this one, especially because it comes from that oh so reputable network, FOX), but I think her ignorance only betrays the more pervasive misperception that Africa is Africa. And this forgoes the reality that Stellenbosch, South Africa and Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya really are worlds apart. So why is there a tendency to overlook this?

Then again, I realize that this sentiment is not necessarily falsely and forcibly imposed upon the continent. I know South Africans, Kenyans and Tanzanians who rooted for Ghana precisely because it was the only African team still standing. But to underestimate the distinctiveness of each of Africa’s 53 countries is, well, ignorance.

In blogging over the past months, if there’s been anything I’ve tried to accomplish it’s been to shatter those hastily conceived misperceptions of what “South Africa” is (or really, what many outside South Africa thinks it is). Fifty-three is my metaphor of choice.

And I guess if/when I decide to venture beyond the continent, I’ll have to start brainstorming all over again.