INTO THE ABYSS
Four months after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie jetted into Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa to pick up their adopted child, Zahara, a group of less celebrated Americans were circling the city in a Boeing 737, their noses pressed to the windows, marveling at the unexpected patchwork of lush, green fields.
For us, Addis was just the beginning of our journey. We would travel by road more than seven hours south of the city, in search of a place not marked by any map.
Our purpose was to investigate the humanitarian work of World Vision, the international Christian relief organization, and to determine how we could lend a hand to the effort.
I am not a missionary. I’m a former journalist turned corporate communications director. Until recently, I had never wanted to go to Ethiopia. The nation once known as Abyssinia was, I believed, an abyss of poverty, torrid weather, frequent famine and hopeless people.
What had led to the trip was a lifelong interest in Africa’s natural history, and an admiration for the work of World Vision. A friend had introduced me to an idea of expanding World Vision’s model of child sponsorship into a region-to-region sponsorship. The aim was to concentrate child sponsorships and special-project funding from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to an area of great need, thus intensifying and accelerating the impact.
We had asked World Vision to choose a place. Our only requirement was that it be an area in Africa affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
I cringed when an Ethiopian community was selected. But then, it occurred to me, what better place to test the quality and potential of humanitarian work than a place whose name is synonymous with hopeless poverty.
Then, as I steeled myself for the journey, I began to become irritated. How was it, I asked myself, that a nation described as the “Cradle of Civilization,” is incapable of feeding its own children? How is it that one of the oldest civilizations in the world has a mean life expectancy of less than 40 years?
What, I wanted to know, is wrong with those people?
Our group was to join two other groups for a special conference in Nairobi, Kenya. At the end of the conference, one group would visit a community in Rwanda and another would travel deeper into Kenya. These groups were focused on building church-to-community relationships in which a single church focuses on a single community to sponsor children and help support special projects.
Our Lehigh Valley group was headed for Quacha Birra, Ethiopia, in the highlands of the Ethiopian state known, oddly, by its initials, SNNPR.
The state’s name hints at the answer to one of my questions about Ethiopia’s troubles. Our trip would shed light on my misperceptions of many of Ethiopia’s troubles.
But first, other misconceptions of Africa, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the dangers of poorly practiced charity, would be dragged into the light. Our first stop is Nairobi, Kenya.
We land in Nairobi just before dawn, sleep-deprived but wide-eyed in anticipation. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is named after Kenya’s first president, the man who led Kenya to independence from Great Britain in 1963. The day he was elected, he was in prison serving a sentence of hard labor for his role in the revolution.
The airport’s faded avocado-green linoleum tiles look as though they date to the 1950s. Two flights of steps lead arriving visitors down to noisy luggage carousels. As I descend the steps, litigious-minded American that I am, I notice that the aluminum trim on the steps has pulled loose and poses a fantastic tripping hazard.
By the time we have cleared customs and collected our luggage, Nairobi rush hour was in full, frenetic fury.
In conversations since the trip, the first and most frequent question I’ve been asked is: did you feel safe in Africa?
The answer: Yes. Except when we were driving.
Imagine driving 50 mph on your town’s main street. Now imagine driving 50 mph on your town’s main street during a street festival. Now, replace half of the festivalgoers with untethered donkeys, goats, oxen and cows.
That best approximates the African driving experience.
With one hand on the wheel, one hand on the horn and the accelerator pressed to the floor, African drivers are in constant swerve to avoid colliding with potholes, pedestrians, animals and vehicles both moving and broken-down on the road.
As our bus speeds into a traffic circle in Nairobi, I see a small Toyota pickup truck, bearing two vastlly different-sized front tires, careening towards us. Thinly strapped in the center of its bed is a cement mixer.
I literally close my eyes and wait for the impact, but there is none. I crane my neck to see the lopsided pickup speeding off ahead of us, blue-black smoke trailing it.
Later, someone observes that Nairobi rush-hour is a marvelously efficient competitive system that works beautifully until it doesn’t work. Then it efficiently produces a catastrophe.
For most, however, the morning commute involves neither motor vehicles nor roads.
Rush hour moves across Nairobi like a massive migration through brushy vacant lots and open fields. The two- and four-lane roads leading from the airport have no sidewalks, so those who must walk along them–including small children–are mere inches away from speeding cars and trucks. Where they can, most walkers use paths away from the roads.
Children carrying books, men in suits, workmen carrying lunchpails, they all stride in the efficient, purposeful manner of one who does it everyday.
They pass ramshackle vendors selling everything from clothing to two-foot lengths of sugarcane for snacking.
Like airports everywhere, Nairobi’s is skirted with industrial areas and poor residential neighborhoods.
I wince to even call them that—residential neighborhoods. Many are mere shacks composed of scrap cardboard, plastic and tin., tightly wedged together.
These slums are one of Kenya’s great ironies. They are immense. They are immeasurable. Kibera, Nairoi’s most notorious “neighborhood” cannot be found on any map. It doesn’t officially exist.
But estimates of Kibera’s population range from 500,000 to 800,000. Its residents can find a place to call home there for as little as $4 per month. You can imagine what that buys.
Actually, you probably can’t imagine.
One thing that $4 won’t buy is access to a communal toilet pit (there is no standard plumbing). The poorest of the poor in Kibera, as in other squatter neighborhoods, employ the “flying toilet.” Their waste is collected in plastic shopping bags, tied closed, then flung as far away as possible.
It’s said that one-half to two-thirds of Nairobi’s residents live in squatter neighborhoods offering no sanitary facilities or police protection. At any moment, hundreds of homes occupied by thousands of people can be bulldozed. The occupants would have no legal recourse.
Why do people live in these places? Many are refugees from neighboring Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia. Many are refugees from small Kenyan villages where their future—especially if they are female—is severely limited by tribal traditions.
Many come to Nairobi so their children can go to school and they can find work and a better life.
Poverty in Kenya–like in many parts of the world–is difficult for Americans to comprehend.
In “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World,” (Routledge, 2004) journalist Robert Neuwirth reports that, despite the abominable filth and disease, the greatest concern slum residents usually have is the fear that they will be driven away.
Without money, property or rights of any real consequence, these people need a place—someplace—from which they can operate. And they do operate.
Throughout Nairobi, evidence of entrepreneurialism is everywhere. As you might imagine, in a land of much walking, shoes are great commodities. They are sold—new and used—everywhere. Practically every block you can find someone sitting on a mat, surrounded by a pile of shoes, busily cleaning and making repairs.
Recyclers carry huge collections of aluminium cans and plastic bottles. Vendors sell new and used clothing, fruits and vegetables, live chickens, hubcaps, string and wire—anything you might need or want.
The American concept of poverty—it quickly became clear to us—is embarassingly naïve.
Driving in one of Nairobi’s lower-middle-class neighborhoods—which struck us as bleak and appallingly dirty —one of us shuddered and asked our driver if he knew anyone who lived there.
His response stunned us: “I live here.”
Here was a fellow whose clothes and deportment firmly stated “middle class.” In the awkward silence that followed, I thought of the men in white shirts and black slacks I’d seen on our first morning in Nairobi, walking out of the shantytowns. I recalled thinking “how do you keep a shirt that white while living in a place like that?”
“And,” our group inquired gingerly, “do you like it?” Our driver answered without hesitation: “yes, I like my neighborhood very much.”
The scales began falling from our eyes. It would never have occurred to us that the chaotic pile of garbage we were looking at could be described as a “neighborhood.” In fact, the pile was many, many neighborhoods.
Social scientists are increasingly in agreement that where we see slums, the residents see the best security available. Inside the slums, social networks, communities of faith, extended families and informal micro-economies are growing, even flourishing.
Sociologists who spend time in these communities come back with surprising comments from residents—fears that they will be removed to cleaner and more permanent concrete facilities where they will be separated from the human networks–the friends and extended families–they have developed.
Suddenly, what is really required to help these people becomes more clear. But more on that later.
Throughout our time in Africa, the primary rule of the road seemed to be: drive as though you were just involved in a bank heist and always be ready for anything.
Rounding a bend, we rushed up on a disabled “matatu,” the small, popular, brightly-colored buses that many depend upon for public transportation. The bus was raised high on a jack and two men were indelicately pounding its undercarriage with large hammers. A dozen passengers—apparently commuters—were standing patiently in the shade of a nearby tree while the repairs were made.
It is more than the lunacy of the highways that keep you agog. It is a landscape that takes some getting used to. Instead of pigeons, you see—in relatively the same numbers—flocks of marabou storks. They are as intensely ugly as they are immense—adult males stand five feet high.
Yeah, read that again—five feet high.
In east Nairobi’s early morning coolness, they were everywhere. Huge flocks festooned acacia and lilac trees which, despite the October date and waning winter season, were in full bloom.
The birds are carrion eaters but, failing carrion, they happily eat garbage. In east Nairobi’s slums, where trash disposal service is nonexistent, they thrive.
The birds stand on the ground and burden tree branches, warming themselves in the sun. In one of those happy gifts from God, they are silent except for an occasional clacking of their beaks. Although they look as though they could make noise to wake the dead, the Marabou stock is mute. It has no voice box.
So, having read these early perceptions of Nairobi, you might think it’s a frightful place. It surely can be.
But the terrifying fades into the sublime as we enter the gates of the Safari Park Hotel.