poverty in Kenya and how traveling to some of the poorest countries has changed me
I went to Kenya for the month of December because it felt like time to go back to the place that has probably changed me more than any other. About ten years ago I spent several months working with an organization that helps teen-aged homeless kids get off the streets of Nairobi. Like I said, my time there changed me...it is the reason my fridge is typically pretty empty and hate wasting food, and why I will probably always feel a little culture shock when entering a big box retail store. There is something about sleeping with an army of rats in the rafts above you for several months that makes most other problems seem a little trivial. My time in Kenya is one of the reasons I am content to work for very little and why I have trouble thinking like an average American.
Anyways…I also went back to Kenya to gather research for a project I am working on about hope. I have never forgotten the stories of the people I met ten years ago. People who had been through hell, yet something about them is what I think of when I hear the word hope.
One conversation has stuck with me for years. sitting down to dinner with a friend she looked at me across the table and simply asked, “Have you ever been through anything really hard?” I looked back a little surprised and a little ashamed being that white girl across from her who had grown up with so much. The truth is I had been through hard things, but in comparison to her story these things seemed easy, so I just responded with a nod no. Then she said something I will never forget..."Then how do you know how to hope?”
There are an estimated 60,000 kids who live on the streets in the slums of Nairobi. While I don’t generally like to compare poverty, because it is hard to grapple with in any instance, the poverty on those streets is something I have not seen anywhere else (and I have been around friends). Kids as young as eight or even younger live in groups called ‘bases’ they are pimped out by older kids to beg for money or worse. The conditions they live in are worse than trash dumps.
They sniff glue because it is cheap. When I asked some kids why they sniffed glue when they were on the streets, they said, “We sniff glue to forget. You sniff glue to forget you are hungry, to forget you are cold. You sniff glue to forget you are alive.” One kid when I asked his name just said it on repeat…over and over…because his head was so full of glue he had no idea he had already said it. Some of these kids never recover from the glue they sniff.
I think the best way to explain this poverty is the smell...I walked into a room of these teenage boys. The smell was like nothing I can explain (and no it was not the typical room full of teenage boys smell.) I gagged several times being in the room. The poverty they live in is inhumane.
I started asking students that were in a program (that is helping kids recover from their time on the streets with education and skills training) what hope meant to them. If they thought it was important, and what it actually looked like. The answer was always the same. They would look at me in shock as if, um yeah, hope is important…then they would tell me their story.
One girl gave me this look and then said, “When I lived on the streets I was nothing…I had nothing. I didn’t even know who I was.” And then she said something that kind of surprised me, “I didn’t even have a favorite color.” To someone who barely had one meal a day, it was crazy to me that she thought to mention this…something personal, trivial almost. She explained how on the first night sleeping in those bunk beds at the school she realized she had hope that her life could be something and then she added, “A few days later the girls were talking about their favorite colors and I asked myself…you know what is my favorite color?”
One fairly mischievous (so obviously my favorite kid) was fourteen when I knew him ten years ago. He was only four feet tall because of malnutrition and glue. Now he is helping other kids get off the streets. Ten years ago we were not sure he could recovery from his extreme lack of nutrition and all the glue in his head. Now - he has 2 kids and 2 degrees. He said to me, “I knew I could do a lot of things. I went to school to become a computer engineer, but then I asked myself what do I really want to do?” He went on to say he realized he wanted to come back and work to help get other kids off the streets. He explained how hard it can be, but then he explained how the boys believe him when telling them there is hope because they have heard his story - they know it is possible.
Another girl told me about how her uncle abused her for years while she was living with her grandmother. How she ran away and was sent back several times and finally after running away three times she refused to eat if her family was going to send her back. She ended up living on the streets, but her cousin told her about this program and for the first time she realized her life could be something. She said she started to have hope. She explained how her uncle died a few years ago then added, “I forgive him.” I asked if she told anyone else in her family about what happened and she said no, but she doesn’t mind telling her story now because she forgives him. For a while she explained she didn’t want to talk to any men because of what had happened to her - now her closes friends are guys there (less drama she said :)
One of the warmest people I have ever met, who has taught at the program for over 10 years, talked about living in box containers in horrible conditions and getting paid very little when the organization started. She talked about how her dad didn't understand why she loved the work but paid extra for her daughter to take public transit to go work with these kids. She explained how this organization was different, how it felt like a family. She talked about the 5 year on again off again romance between her and her now husband who has also worked there for over ten years. She talked about all the other men who were after her, but this guy was different. He told her, before they were even dating; he was fasting and praying about them because he had this sense about her. This of course scared the hell out of her so she ran from it - even worked in a different city for a while. She talked about realizing she liked him for the first time. She talked about how important it is to let go of things. She also said, “Hope is important, people don’t understand how important hope is - it is one of the most important things!”
As we were passing by a quaint little town almost two hours from the city with wind blown hair as reggae music blaring, a girl pointed at a police station and said, "Look that is where we spent the night after we ran away from our home to go up country. We slept there before the police took us back to the city with my sister." She recalled the story as a weird distant memory. I learned later that she had one of the worst lives before she came to the program. She was beaten…then her friend added as if they all had been beaten…with metal. Her friend said she kept entirely to herself when she first came to the program, she did not want to get close to anyone – I couldn’t believe it because now she was someone who radiated joy. She wrote me a note the day I left which simply said I love you. Weird, because I felt like I barely knew her. Her sister still lives on the streets because she didn’t want to commit to living at the program. She didn’t want to give up the freedom she had living on the streets.
I am telling these stories mainly for myself. Sometimes it is difficult to understand how to mesh life when you have encountered stories like these in a personal way - it is true that they change you. They make you content to live with fewer things. They make you search for this sense of inner peace and joy that tends to flow from people who have lived in poverty or have been through times that felt like rock bottom. They have made me want to understand what this thing is that they all seem to have - hope.
I was reading Man's Search for Meaning by Frankl right before I left on this trip. He talked about life in concentration camps (I know even more unrelatable than the situations above.) He talked about people giving up hope, about people who stopped fighting. He said the thing that kept people alive, was having something to work for. Some work or someone - a sense that there was purpose in their life.
"It must be kept in mind however; that optimism is not anything to be commanded or ordered. One cannot even force oneself to be optimistic indiscriminately against all odds, against all hope. And what is true for hope is also true for the other two components in as much as faith or love cannot be commanded or ordered either. For the European, it is characteristic of the American culture that again and again one is commanded and ordered to be happy. But happiness cannot be pursued it must insure. One must have a reason to be happy. Once the reason is found however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather one in search of a reason to become happy."
For a long time I thought we are less happy in the States than those I encountered in developing countries because we have not been through anything really hard, but this just isn’t true either. Ours is a different kind of poverty, almost a poverty of loneliness and isolation.
But in a sense I think we go about looking for happiness in the wrong way, we actually look for it.
I have hit rock bottom at least a couple of times in my life and yeah it forces you to ask what you really want. Forces you to do really stupid things - or just not be scared to do them anymore.
Ever since I met these people in Kenya I have pondered, maybe this is what hope and happiness look like. They look a lot like grit and hard work - working for something you love even when you are literally living in dumps working for homeless kids. They look like realizing you want your story to be different and dreaming outlandish things. They look like praying like hell for something when it is impossible. They look like struggling and learning who you are (even if that just means finding your favorite color).
I wish sometimes my experiences in developing countries were more relatable. For myself even it is difficult to know what to do when you have seen so much.
There are still boys who spend their entire lives on the streets. Poverty is hard! People who live in developing countries have their own set of problems that look different than ours. I am not trying to sugar coat their lives.
But I do know, every time I come back from a place where people live in ‘poverty’ - I wish I was a little more like them. A little more warm and welcoming, a little more willing to work really hard for what I want and dream the impossible. A little more willing to live by faith and a little less willing to go and look for happiness just for the sake of itself. I have learned happiness is found in the most unexpected places and I think it might look a lot like hope.
Check out Made in the Streets https://www.madeinthestreets.org