Written to a class of students ten years ago who had a difficult time–they complained a lot about their assignments and driving 10 miles to class.
To a Professor of Cross-Cultural Studies every destination is a new course in cultural knowledge. Every encounter is an assessment of skills. A new relationship is an opportunity to learn from others. While the sum of our experiences shapes our present, it is the significant encounter, that can change our perspective. It has been a number of years ago, but the situation is still the same. My Kenyan associate and I were invited to teach in a mountain town near Mt. Meru. It was a five-hour drive from Nairobi, a city where I lived for quite a few years. We set out one morning and drove the 200 miles. Continue reading
Most would not call it beautiful. The acrid smells of open sewage and rotting trash; the makeshift dwellings of mud, sticks and mabati; the in-your-face poverty seen in the out-of the-barrel clothes children wear are the first signs of ugly at the far end of beautiful. But “beautiful Mathare” is what Fredrick Muruka calls the panoramic view of Nairobi’s Mathare Valley from his fourth story one room dwelling overlooking the Valley that he has known since childhood. I would expect an artist to look at things that way, and to have a heart for the people who live there. He visits his mother–who lives down by the Mathare River–and regular paints there because of the quite and warm “atmosphere”.
Mathare is not the worst slum in Nairobi, that title goes to Kibera with a reported population of 2 million people and made famous in the book and movie The Constant Gardner. Mathare is certainly representative of the many slums in Africa from Cape Town to Cairo. Official reports place the population at 50,000–local reports place it at 500,000. I have known the Valley since my days in Nairobi in 1985 where my wife worked as a translator for western doctors in a small Baptist Clinic that no longer exists. Life is tough: 30%+ HIV, 70% unemployment, 80% of the children victims of violence and abuse, and only minimal access to education and healthcare. The Mathare river, a tributary of the Nairobi River, is full of sewage and home to chang’aa brewers (a home made “white lightning”) where the water from the river is syphoned into barrels of corn and cooked over open fires, illegally of course. Gang violence has increased, so extortion and house burnings only add to the disaster that occurs during the floods of the rainy season.
So what makes this Valley beautiful? If you ask Fredrick Muruka, it is the shapes of the mabati roofs and the splotches of green tree areas amidst them. It is the joy of working with children of the Valley, teaching them to paint. He is the volunteer Director of the Mathare Valley Watoto Wa Kwetu [Our Children community arts center. Click here for an excellent video of the Center and founder–or see below]. Muruka makes and sells curios for the tourist market to make ends meet while he paints prophetic abstracts when he can find the time.
There is a beauty in this place-though one has to look to find it. It is called hope and it is expressed mostly in the children and the resilience of people who strive to live with dignity. A new Kenyan friend Gideon reminded me that far worse than a poverty of wealth is a poverty of the mind and heart. Having grown up in both Mathare and Kibera, Gideon was still amazed at how both friends and relatives would choose to live in the slum when they had opportunity, as well as the means, to move up and out. “The food is cheap [inexpensive] and life is easy. And there is a fear that you could wind back here anyway if you to take on too much responsibility and things falter.” Continue reading