Choices: Kibera and Kabete

Fran’s Kenya Diary – Thursday 12th January 2017

We are up early again to miss traffic, so Peter and Julie still haven’t seen the kids since we got back. We look for lions from the bypass, as you do, but don’t see any. The new bypass is a wonder of a modern highway in Nairobi and runs along the southern edge of city next to the boundary of Nairobi National Park. This has a bit of a fence which is apparently electrified, but doesn’t look that substantial to me. Lions were getting out into suburban roads during the construction of the bypass, but are allegedly shut in now.

We then cut through Kibera to the Ngong Road, our first view on this trip. Kibera, or Kibra, means forest, and was an area of land assigned to soldiers of the Nubian regiment who served in the British colonial army. Although the Nubians had the land, they were never recognised as citizens and have been stuck on the fringes of society. They have become the landlords of the slum. As the settlements are officially illegal, they have been ignored by the government and never received any basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity and schools. After the disputed December 2007 presidential election, there was serious tribal violence in Kenya, especially in the Rift Valley. Kibera is very mixed tribally, with different areas dominated by different tribes, and was one of the hotspots of the early 2008 violence after those elections. Work started on a new constitution after this, with the original regional provinces being dissolved, leaving a single tier of administration at the level of the 37 counties. The new constitution defines amounts of money to be devolved to each county to prevent central government official preferring their own tribes unfairly. It also finally gave citizenship to the Nubians, and hence Kibera now has voters and is of interest to the government and services are starting to appear very slowly. The government even has a programme to build new high rise housing to rehome the residents of Kibera, but the rent on these homes is too high for most Kibera residents, so those who are allocated one of the new flats simply sublet it to someone wealthier! We see these new blocks as we leave the bypass for the Kibera road.

Kibera from the bypass

Rooftops of Kibera

We loiter in Java in Prestige Plaza Shopping Centre in Ngong Rd for breakfast and go the Nakumatt there for food for two food parcels and snacks for the detention centre visit this afternoon. We then head to the SYN office and meet the staff. There are 6 staff, 2 women, Zainab and Lucy who run the clubs for girls, and 4 men, Chris, who has been with Peter longest of all of them, Hirum, Kelvin and another Peter. Zainab is half Nubian and grew up in Kibera as a Muslim, becoming a Christian in her teens. This caused a predictable falling out with her family, which is better now, but she lives by herself in her own house. She hopes to train to be a nurse. Lucy also grew up in Kibera and was herself a member of a Jitambue club in Star Rise Academy in Kibera. Both women grew up in Kibera schools, they know perfectly the practical and attitudinal issues the girls face in their everyday lives. Chris is engaged to be married and Peter will be busy on Saturday afternoon supporting him through the formalities of that process. The other Peter is a Kikuyu and has quite a different look from the others. The cultural mix in the team seems healthy to us given Kenya’s tendency to relapse into strong tribal factions.

SYN office

Chris, Zainab and Lucy

Kelvin and Hirum

SYN team meeting at the office

We visit 2 families in Kibera with the food parcels. We meet up with 2 men who are going to watch over us as we walk to the two homes. The families are those of 2 girls from the Jitambue club who have been identified as being particularly needy. The 2 girls have been excused school for the morning and will be going back straight afterwards. The visits are aiming to meet and encourage the families as well as deliver practical help. First of all, we go to Dinah’s home. She lives with her father, Ronald and older brother, Joachim. Ronald works as a security guard, but his passion is tailoring. He has a foot-powered sewing machine and is making made-to-measure clothing as a second job, as well as being an activity he loves doing. Joachim recognises Peter from when he was in a First Priority Club in school. He is now at university studying maths and would love to do a master’s degree. Ronald is also a pastor in a local Kibera church, and Peter invites him to a pastors’ support meeting that they run. Although they are living in the middle of Kibera in a primitive house, they now have an official electricity supply, but also an unofficial one, and they have a TV. They seem to be a very positive family. After talking to the family, we present them with the contents of the food parcel and pray for them.

Ronald and Dinah

Ronald with his sewing machine

Ronald’s home

Then we depart for Sharon’s house and Dinah leaves us to return to school. Sharon is one of about 12  siblings, with the eldest sister looking after the household. This sister was initially very upset when we turned up at her house,  thinking that someone coming who had something to do with Sharon’s school must be chasing late school fees. Their mother has had to return to her village for a family matter. Their father died some years ago. Sharon’s sister completed school a year or two ago and is now without work, staying at home. The eldest sister worked to obtain a driving licence, of which she is very proud and showed us. She had hoped she would be able to get driving work, but is always told she doesn’t have the necessary experience. There is a small boy also in the house, which I assumed the mum had had with a new man, but later am told is actually the child of the sister who recently left school and has probably had to practise prostitution to get by. As before, we present the food parcel to the family, who look a cross between delighted with the contents and a bit embarrassed. We pray for them and go on our way. On the one hand I feel very awkward at this very direct giving and receiving of a gift, but reflect that part of the point is not just to transfer the physical benefit of the donation, but also to build a relationship with the family, which would not be achieved with a more anonymous form of donation. Having dispensed our two parcels, we return to the office through the chaotic streets full of all of life, families with washing out, children running around, all kinds of businesses selling everything you need, even laptop repair shops, phone shops, food and services, open drainage channels its best not to examine at all closely, rubbish everywhere, cows eating the rubbish, chickens, you name it.

Sharon’s family

Sharon’s home, with her elder sister

We regroup at office and Zainab gives me the material for the Jitambue club we will be visiting the following day. I agree to think about something relevant to share for a 5 minute slot during the session. Then we travel to Kabete to the young offenders institute via a petrol station with some food for lunch. The tractor is having problems. One of the rear tyres is flat after 2 days. Peter wants the dealer to replace it as it was obviously defective when supplied. It also transpires the tractor was supplied with no jack or grease gun. Many phone calls and arguing happen as we drive around. Peter tells us he uses extra English words when trying to be assertive in such situations, they sound impressive. This is the kind of task he could not leave to John, the tractor manager in the village. John can handle the day to day bookings with the farmers and make sure the tractor is operated and maintained correctly, but not negotiate with dealers and insurance agents.

We arrive at the young offenders centre in Kabete, which is on the northern edge of Nairobi in a rather pleasant and peaceful location. The accommodation blocks are set amongst gardens with a large lawn areas. If boys have come here from places like Kibera, it might well seem like paradise, with regular meals thrown in it’s likely to be the best place they’ve ever lived. Maybe a peaceful location away from normal life is what they need to reflect on their situation and respond positively. We speak to one of the boys as we arrive who turns out to come from the same village in Siaya county as Chris. This boy says he is 15 and stole some beans. This is a national centre with the worst juvenile criminals from all over Kenya, so it seems likely that is not the whole story, but it’s hardly surprising if he doesn’t want to tell a bunch of random strangers who have just wandered in. He doesn’t look anything like 15 to me, all the boys look very young, but when asked later on, all are between 10 and 15. There are 103 boys there on this day. None of them come across as hardened criminals, more like lost little boys, but presumably they have done some pretty heavy stuff to be here. The centre is run by social workers rather than the prison service and the administrators are very pleased to have a group like SYN who will come and work with the boys and encourage them. They are all here for three months for assessment. They may be sent back to their families, to a children’s home, sent to an approved school (like Borstal) or enter the prison system. We see a list of rules on the wall which are not especially onerous, but some appear quite strange, like always using their proper names. This is apparently very important as gang culture encourages them to hide behind nicknames and deny their true identities. There is also a rule requiring them to only speak in Swahili or English, to stop them conspiring in cliques in their own tribal languages that the staff may not understand. We were asked not to take any pictures, but here is one from another site.

SYN have a rolling 3 month programme of sessions so that the boys will get the complete course during their time, though they may be starting at any point. The boys gather on the lawn in the shade of some tree for today’s session, which is the first in a new series and is on the fall of man from Genesis 3. Let’s all blame the nyoka (snake) for everything we do and not take responsibility for our disobedience. Is that a good idea? Peter talks about how your choices matter in life, how he nearly stayed with a group of 6 boys as a teenager but chose not to. We think he is building up to telling us they are all in jail now, but no! They are all dead now. He also dwells on obedience, which has our western sensitivities racing – what if the person in authority is the problem, if your parents are telling you to do bad things, then obeying them is not a good idea. Ultimately, obedience is to God and His ways. He talks about the Book of Proverbs counselling against laziness, that the slovenly will live in poverty and if God is telling you to get out of your bed and work hard, you need to obey Him and do it. I reflect on this, my deadly sin is not so much sloth, but gluttony. I am unhealthily overweight and have no control over food. I think part of me thinks it is such a trivial first world problem to have too much food that I don’t take it seriously, and it’s not really like I am depriving anyone else of food at home. Thinking of it in terms of gluttony and self-indulgence, as spiritual qualities, rather than just a health issue, strikes me hard.

We break up into groups of about 16 for a discussion, with one of the team in each group. We ask them some questions and they also ask some. Zainab is leading my group and she is talking to them mostly in Swahili. She asks them a question very matter-of-factly and about 7 of them put their hands up. She says to me she just asked them if any of the want to be saved. It is the same in the other groups. They take down all their names and pray for them. They will be given Bibles on the next visit. Then we distribute the fizzy pop and muffins, there is a shortfall of pop as we had catered for 96 boys, there must be more new arrivals since last time, so those at the end of the line get double muffins in compensation.

I am very struck by the stark life choices that face people in Kenya. Traditional Christian morality that can seem quaint and archaic in a western context becomes so much more meaningful here. Choices here often do mean the difference between life and death quite literally, whether from gang violence, AIDS, starvation, the spiritual death of hopelessness or 1001 other things.

We finish the session and leave for home, which is a long way across the whole city in the rush hour. We hit the really bad traffic as we get to the southern bypass as there is still some building work going on finishing it off and there is single lane traffic. It gets really bad as we come off the bypass and we sit in jams for ages before pausing at a supermarket for a few groceries. As we come out, Peter notices that the previously slightly dodgy nearside rear tyre looks a lot flatter than it did. It transpires that all petrol stations have service centres that can fix stuff like this and there is one just around the corner, so we go there. The mechanic phones for a second hand replacement tyre from a supplier and it is couriered by motorbike immediately. The mechanic is discussing US politics with us and seems to think we are American. We try to persuade him we are English. Half an hour maybe later, the new tyre is being fitted to the car and we are on our way again, if you can call it that, trying to decide which jam will be least bad. We get home about 8:30, just as Julie is arriving back from work on a motorcycle taxi. She has forbidden Peter to have a motorbike as they are too dangerous, so she gets some grief for this. Kids are already in bed, so Peter and Julie will have to wait another day to see them. We have a late dinner and collapse.

All posts in this diary series:


Getting There


To the Village Via the Tractor Dealership

The Health Centre

Village People

Choices: Kibera and Kabete

Women's Issues: Cups, Confidence and Cake

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum


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