Nairobi revealed

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Written by Pierce Gordon

I'm a brand new development scholar, one who just had his first real experience with abject poverty while visiting Nairobi. As such, I waited on bated breath for the experience that would leave me surprised, scared, astonished, perplexed, or disappointed, like the thousands of pages of readings told me I should have. I'm glad I didn't hold my breath.

The readings told me of the refuse in the streets, the coating of dust and fecal matter in the area, the crime, the lack of resources, and of course, the poverty. I had read of the Human Needs Project, the newly adapted NGO founded by Connie Nielsen, the movie star and passionate advocate, and learned about the failures of the development structure worldwide in assisting the poor. The main thing, however, that the readings failed to capture, was the most important that I will remember.
When I strolled through the streets of Kibera, as a different type of 'Muzungu' than what they were used to, my colleagues were astonished by things I wasn't. Karen Homes, the multiple-acre maid-assisted massive houses where we stayed alongside Kenyan politicians, were kitty-cornered by the Kiberan shacks. Others were amazed; I went to school in such a dichotomous area. Others were angered by the immense traffic backup of the Nairobi downtown sector; I grew up in bad traffic.

Others lamented the public services which lacked in Kenya, like buildings with a seismic code, or quality roads. My minimal time in rural China, our roads were delightfully atrocious, and cities like Detroit, where houses deteriorate daily, were too fresh in my mind to be surprised. I'm not saying the lack of amenities in Kenya should be taken for granted; I'm just arguing places are much more similar, if one is willing to look for the signs.

 The topics development 'experts,' suggested research papers, top-level officials, and seasoned travelers forget to mention, are the similarities of our societies instead of the differences. People live in Kibera, and are confused by outsiders coming to tour in their area. Scavenging kids who looked no more than five or six years old, took care of their 2-3 year old siblings, and do chores like buy 'drinkable' water for their family. Denizens see rich travelers, ask why they take picture of their homes, follow them around with broken english, and ask for food or money.

A friend, mentor, and master storyteller described the area as such: it has 'more entrepreneurs per square mile than any prestigious United States institution; if you don't work, you die.' Kibera's social fabric and mettle thrives stronger than the make ups of the many rich institutions I've seen.

This opinion of 'slum-shaming' isn't just shared by the international scholars, however; Kenyans share it as well. Our cohort was told by a charismatic, exceptionally quick businessman that work to advance those in slum areas are 'inherently flawed'. One must not work inside the slum, one must work to get people out of the slum.

However, our Kiberan friends tell a different story. We arrived at a software development institution working in a brainstorming session to find the biggest problems to develop technology for, and our Kiberan colleagues led the breakout discussions for their community. Though the issues are exceptionally convoluted, one of our friends put it simply: "We need opportunity." Not drive, not gentrification, not apathy, but opportunity.

The similarities doesn't stop in poverty, however. My papers about Kenyan dissonance speak about 'ethnic defragmentation,' or tribal disputes. Each dispute, as I learn more about their intricacies, sound more like many others I've heard. Generational land rights disputes sound vaguely like the same disputes on the Gaza Strip. Also, during the initial development of an Independent Kenya, an ideologically conservative Jomo Kenyatta argued for development without government assistance and a stress for ethnic over national unity, railed with Thomas Mboya, who believed government-led redistribution of wealth was eventually necessary, sounds drastically like current arguments between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. Though corruption is rampant in Kenya, many would argue those in the West are just much better at officializing and hiding their corrupt frameworks. Though differences between societies are vast, similarities are likely prolific, and not as visible.

Needless to say, my experience was a multidimensional journey into the depth of inequity, and the infinite tendrils through which it manifests. Each sixteen-hour day held a new lesson, more opportunities for advocacy, and newfound purpose. Though I will continue to work with this exceptional group from a distance, their spirit is sutured to my heart. My advice to the travelers? Travel in with no expectations, be open, and be kind. Don't hold your breath for 'slum expectations', the experience will change you more than you know.

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