The Other Side of the Tracks

 

Home to over one million individuals, Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. This huddled mass of tin shacks and trash piles sits adjacent to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, offering a stark contrast between the city's rapid economic growth and the people that have been left behind by it. Abject poverty characterizes life in Kibera, with residents constantly struggling with crime, hunger and illness. Children growing up in this slum are especially vulnerable to this cycle of poverty.

Kibera is composed of 14 different villages. Pictured here is Linesaba which means “tough warrior” in Nubian.

Kibera is composed of 14 different villages. Pictured here is Linesaba which means “tough warrior” in Nubian.

In order to break this vicious cycle and help alleviate Kibera's inequality, Cross World Africa teamed up with the YMCA Kibera School in 2015. This partnership initiated the “YMCA Food Bank and Scholarship” project and has expanded through the years to meet the growing needs of the students. The goal of this partnership was to provide children living in Kibera with the resources they needed to succeed in school. The hope was that through increased access to education, these children would grow up to end the poverty afflicting their hometown. Fast forward four years and I was able to see the fruits of this partnership firsthand.

The YMCA in Linesaba serves over 400 students. Here, children from the younger classes greet us at the gate.

The YMCA in Linesaba serves over 400 students. Here, children from the younger classes greet us at the gate.

On day one of Cross World Africa’s 2019 field work trip, Project Leader Kenneth Owade toured our group around the school grounds and allowed us to meet the students. We visited the kitchen that preps two meals a day, six days a week for over 400 students ranging in age from 2 to 15. At the start of our partnership in 2015, CWA sponsored 25% of the YMCA Kibera’s food bank needs. We had a goal of increasing our support to 50% by 2018. As I turned the corner of the hallway that emptied out into the courtyard, I was shocked to see bags of maize and beans stacked high. Surrounded by teachers and students, Kenneth announced with a broad smile that CWA had succeeded in raising 50% of the YMCA’s food bank needs for that year. Mission Accomplished!

From left to right: founder Kevin Thompson, President Eric Garvin, and Project Leader Kenneth Owade with Cross World Africa’s food donation of maize, beans, and rice-staples of the Kenyan diet.

From left to right: founder Kevin Thompson, President Eric Garvin, and Project Leader Kenneth Owade with Cross World Africa’s food donation of maize, beans, and rice-staples of the Kenyan diet.

As Kenneth continued to tour us around the school, he opened the door to a classroom which read “sewing room” above the doorway. This classroom was part of the Fashion Incubator Sustainability Project (FISP for short), which promises to help teach students how to design and sew clothing. The uniforms worn by the YMCA’s students are created by this program within this classroom. Through the support of our donors, we were able to gift eight Singer sewing machines to the YMCA last year.

Walking through the classroom door into the dimly lit room, I could see these black and gold machines on full display as talented young girls used them to craft new skirts for the students. While some of the women in this program are recent secondary school graduates, many are dropouts who are unable to finish full time education because of life circumstances like teen pregnancy or extreme poverty. Over the course of the one-year program, they are trained on the sewing machines and graduate as licensed tailors with the knowledge and skills to open their own store. As part of their curriculum and training, they are asked to sew uniforms for the students at the school. This year, CWA provided the necessary fabric and supplies to dress all the kids in the school at no cost to the families, which removes one more financial barrier in the way of these kids finishing their education.

After departing from the sewing classroom, we were able to leave the YMCA Kibera students with one last special gift: Socks. This spring, Bombas, an apparel conscious company guided by a “purchase one/donate one” ethic, partnered with us and donated 1,000 pairs of children’s socks. Two suitcases and three flights later, our team hauled them all to the center of Kibera. And boy, was that precious cargo! The children were ecstatic to receive a brand-new pair of Bombas performance ankle socks, waving the apparel above their heads and showing off their new gear with bright smiles and laughter. Dancing even ensued. It was a true celebration, and a reminder of the power that resides within each and every gift.


After saying goodbye to the students and teachers, Kenneth guided our team outside the school grounds and into the narrow alleyways of Kibera. The change was instantaneous. Foul smells and tragic sights accompanied our walk through the slum. Mud paths were lined with refuse and polluted water. The tin shacks housing families and businesses barely exceeded 100 square feet. It was a harsh reminder of the trials and tribulations facing the students that attend the YMCA Kibera, and reaffirmed CWA’s commitment to providing the school the resources they need to continue their mission.

After walking some ways, Ken led me up the alleyway onto the train tracks that separate Kibera from Nairobi. As I stood on these tracks that were built during the colonial years, I felt perfectly poised between two worlds. To the east was a golf course, lush and green, with carefree players enjoying an afternoon round. To the west was corrugated tin roofs for miles, burning trash, and the terrible reality of abject poverty. A wall stood erected between the two, as if it could possibly hide the disparities between the wealthy and the poor. What exactly does it mean to stand on the wrong side of the tracks? Perhaps we should shift the stigma of poverty to the wealthy. It doesn’t matter which you side you come from, but it does matter what you do with it.

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I turned back to Ken, former director and now lead volunteer at the YMCA, and asked him about his time growing up in a slum, how he made a successful life for himself and his family, and what motivates him to come back to Kibera.


“It’s simple”, he said “it’s in my heart. We owe one thing to the children: support”.