“Mzungu, mzungu! How are you, how are you!”
I am walking along the street behind CFK when I pass by a group of schoolchildren, standing outside their school’s gates in their forest-green uniforms. As I stop to greet them, they swarm me, hands outstretched, all very insistent on finding out how I’m doing. I laugh and say, “Sasa?” the Swahili word for “now” that is often used as an informal greeting in Kibera. “Poa!” the children reply, looking both surprised and delighted that I was speaking their local slang.
After handing out a few more handshakes, I am able to extricate myself from the mob of children and continue down toward the railroad tracks. I passed by the same huge garbage pile that I had seen on our journey to Taka ni Pato. Today, a couple more garbage fires are burning, and I sputter as the smoke fills mt lungs. The children walking by don’t seem to notice the smoke (potentially because of their proximity to the ground), nor do the dogs picking their way through the smouldering trash.
I am headed to Soweto West, a village in Kibera that I have not yet visited. Were I alone, this would not bode well for me – there are no street signs in Kibera, or even street names, for that matter. The dirt paths wind around in a seemingly never-ending maze, with mud houses sometimes packed so close that there is barely room for one person to squeeze through. If I ever got lost in Kibera, I would probably never find my way out. Luckily, I have Cathrine today as my guide.
Cathrine is a project worker with the Sexual and Reproductive Health department at CFK. One of the program’s main focuses is maternal health – teaching mothers in Kibera how to take care of themselves and their babies throughout their pregnancy. This is done through a system called care groups, which are weekly meetings of 10 to 15 women, run by a Community Health Worker. We are on our way to one of the many Soweto care groups now.
We reach the road dividing Soweto West from Kianda, and soon spot a middle-aged woman in a long green short-sleeved dress waving at us. She has crow’s feet that are intensified by her warm smile, and her graying black hair is pulled up into a tight bun. She introduces herself to as Angela, shaking my hand. “Karibu, you’re welcome,” she greets me. She then leads Cathrine and me to a bright blue building on the main road, which consists of one very tiny, very dark room. Inside, a pregnant woman named Rose welcomes us to her daycare.
Eight children are taking a nap, lying widthwise on a twin bed in the corner. Another little girl who couldn’t be more than six holds a sleeping baby in her arms. She smiles at us curiously as we walk in. We take a seat on one of the two benches set up along the walls. Within a few minutes, the pregnant women begin arriving – about eight of them in total. Cathrine introduces me and another intern in Swahili. I am able to pick out the word wanafunzi – students. “Jina langu Campbell”, I say in broken Swahili, immediately wishing I had used my Luo name instead. After the introductions are completed, Angela sits on a chair in the middle of the room and leads the discussion. Today they are discussing warning signs of pregnancy. Cathrine quietly translates the rapid Swahili in my ear.
Rose is the first to speak. She has issues with her cervix remaining open, and has had three miscarriages as a result. She’s now worried that it might be happening again. While I didn’t understand her words, I could see the pain in her eyes as she spoke about losing her children. Angela recommends she go to Tabitha Clinic to get some medical attention. Another woman is concerned about the baby always lying on one side. She says she hasn’t felt it move in a day or so. A more experienced mother tells her not to worry, that the same thing had happened to her. Then one day, the baby shifted and before she knew it, she was in labour.
I feel uncomfortable being in this room. It wasn’t the heat, or the children staring at me, or the details about womens’ cervixes. I felt like I didn’t belong there – and, really, I didn’t. I’m not from Kibera. I don’t know anything about pregnancies. I don’t even speak the same language. This unease was compounded by the fact that the other intern was snapping pictures of the group throughout the meeting. Cathrine had asked her to take photographs of the care group for the CFK website beforehand. Even though the women had consented, it felt wrong, almost voyeuristic, taking photographs of them as they shared the fears and struggles of their pregnancies. I tensed up every time I heard the shutter click.
As we leave, I shake everyone’s hand. Rose, the young mother who owns the daycare, clutches my hand with both of hers and looks up at me. “I am so happy you are here,” she says, as though she had been reading my mind throughout the entire meeting. “Asante sana.” I thanked her, blinking back the tears stinging my eyes, and stepped back out into the Kibera heat.
Angela insists on us visiting her home before we return to the CFK office. She guides us through a street behind the daycare, and opens a small gate into an even smaller alleyway. She gestures to a door on the left, and I duck beneath the low doorway to enter my first real Kibera home. Angela’s entire was about the size of my first-year dorm room. Pieces of white lacy cloth draped the walls, presumably to cover the mud walls lying underneath, and another piece of cloth hung towards the back of the room, partitioning the space into a bedroom and a living room. I sat down on one of the two small couches, whose cushions were as solid as a rock. There was no kitchen, just a small charcoal stove used for cooking. A large jerry can in the corner provides the water for the home. A miniscule TV sits on a shelf in the corner, upon which Angela’s youngest daughter, Lucy, is watching a wedding show. Angela introduces us warmly as her “new friends”. We stay for chai, milky Kenyan tea, and Angela tells us about her family. When we finally leave to go back to work, she urges us to come back anytime.
Rose’s genuine welcome and Angela’s hospitality made me realize that much of the insecurity I felt about not being wanted in Kibera was coming from myself, not from the people around me. My fear of being judged or of people thinking I don’t belong had been keeping me from really integrating into the community, from getting to know the people of Kibera – the reason I came here in the first place. Truth be told, I will never fit in completely. It’s time for me to accept that and move on.
I am a mzungu, always have been always will be. I will never completely understand the lives of those who live in Kibera. They see the world through a totally different lens than I do, filled with experiences and memories and tribalism acquired in a world far away from my own. But still, I’m realizing, the fact that I’ll never understand shouldn’t keep me from trying.