There are many things I’ve learned to do without in Kenya. I don’t have a fridge, TV, oven or microwave. Not being much into cooking I’ve been happy to make do with a gas hob. No, the modern convenience I’ve probably missed the most is the washing machine. For nine months my weekends have inevitably involved a good dose of hand washing. It was ok. A bit of a hassle. My clothes were probably never really clean. I was told off by my neighbours a few times for not wringing things out properly when I hung them up to dry. I, in turn, confronted another neighbour who started stealing my pegs.
Then I moved house and met Beatrice.
Beatrice is a big, bustling, smiling lady who works with my flatmate Natalie at a school for children with disabilities. On a Saturday morning she comes to our house and does our washing in some magical way that makes the clothes soft and smell super.
Now, I’ll admit that at first I found it a bit uncomfortable handing over a task I could do quite sufficiently. Having a “house help” is very common in Kenya and there are good arguments it provides valuable income in a land where jobs are scarce. But I still found it a bit weird.
However, over the months I’ve gotten used to it and I’ve also gotten to know Beatrice. Last Sunday she invited Natalie and I for tea.
Beatrice lives with her seven – SEVEN – children and husband in a tiny one room building made out of tin sheet in Mukuru, a small slum just next to South B where I live. Five of the seven children are her own. Two are orphans who she has taken under her wing. One child has sickle cell. A further two are HIV positive. Beatrice herself was orphaned at nine years old and when no relatives stepped in to help she found herself head of the household, looking after her own five siblings, giving up school and selling mandazis to try pay for food and clothes for the family.
It almost seems unfairly morose to dwell on these sad facts as they in no way reflect the happiness of Beatrice’s home. Her family were utterly delightful. Over the course of the afternoon, we were entertained with songs and poetry recitals. Met the pet cat, met the neighbours and, despite our attempts to ensure Beatrice didn’t go too far out of her way for us, were given a feast of Tilapia (fish), ugali (ummm, maize porridge sort of) and skuma wiki (spinach). Visitors are considered angels so we had to be treated!
A few hours later it was time to make our way home and we picked our way back to main road. Mukuru is physically, undeniably, unpleasant. A stream of dirty grey water and sludge runs throughout forcing you to jump over it at regular intervals – and hoping you don’t slip! There is rubbish everywhere. The houses are windowless and cramped. But in the light of the setting sun, bustling with people, there was a part of me that had no desire to leave.
Warning: there is a real danger at this point that I naively and thoughtlessly go on to romanticise the nature of slums. But there are shades of grey and there are qualities of life there that are wonderful so I’ll push on as carefully as I can…
All told, Beatrice’s story is not unusual. Her family, like many, is making the best of a tough situation. Of course there is heartache and huge social problems such as crime, drug abuse and violence, stemming from the sheer toughness of survival here. But at the same time there is a lot of simply getting on with things. Which leaves me wondering where the strength and resilience people like Beatrice have in spades, comes from.
Beatrice often tells me she is ‘saved’. It’s a shorthand way of saying she is a born again Christian and it’s extremely common for a born again Christian to introduce themselves with their name and their ‘saved’ status before other facts such as what they do or where they come from. I wonder how much of the extraordinary strength people show is to do with an ubiquitous, unswerving faith that God is looking out for you and that a better future is in store?
Or how much of it is due to these situations not being so unusual as they would be in the UK? If something is comparatively “not that bad” is it therefore less destructive in some way?
And how much of it is due to the – usually – greater level of support from extended family and the community when times are tough (I’ve written about the amazing levels of support before… https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/harambee/)?
Everywhere you look in Mukuru, there are signs of enterprise: countless food stalls, tiny convenience shops, hair salons and make-shift mini-cinemas rooms to watch the big football matches in. People are everywhere. Yes that might be stressful for people accustomed to personal space, nuclear families and private homes. But there is also something undeniably great about it. In London I don’t think my social circle deviates all that much from the 25 – 35 year old category. Here people of all age groups mix together constantly, chatting, playing, selling, buying.
The whole world is out on the street sharing their lives day to day, leaving little room to stretch your legs but also little room for social isolation. I can’t help but believe this helps people thrive not flounder.