Monday, March 7, 2016

Into the Mild: One Month in a Nairobi Slum

Posted By on Mon, Mar 7, 2016 at 3:00 PM

Mathare Slum, Nairobi, Kenya - February 2016

I arrived in January to work for Mathare Foundation, a foundation that gives free classes to vulnerable children in Nairobi's infamous Mathare Slum.

Day one was a shock. Nothing in the slum surprised me, but the chemistry I had with my coworkers was impressive and I'll always remember how I felt when I saw the 80 square foot apartment that I would spend the next month in, void of furniture or running water. 

Things calmed down the rest of the week. We settled into a rhythm at work, got to know the children at Mathare Foundation, and then I spent my weekend exploring downtown while battling salesmen and thieves. 

Week two got off to a quick start. I arrived at the office and immediately went over changes I had made to the website over the weekend. The changes were cosmetic and I spent that morning discussing menu layouts and photo organization with Eric, the founder and leader of Mathare Foundation. We made a list of changes, then went to a restaurant nearby for lunch. It was the more expensive restaurant in the area, I was told. I paid $1.75 for a bottle of Fanta and a heaping plate of pilau, a seasoned rice dish with diced vegetables and chunks of beef. The restaurant would become my daily lunch that week, while by breakfast and dinner were usually tap water and chapati, a circular fried bread. There was no mirror at the apartment but every weekend when I went into the city center I saw that my reflection was thinner and darker than the week before.

I spent that afternoon implementing the changes that Eric and I had discussed, plus emailing the previous webmaster with various questions. I had never done web design before and his answers varied from impatient to frustrated as I asked simplistic questions. Kids who had finished school popped in occasionally to look at pictures and ask questions. The rest of the month generally followed that pattern: mornings spent exchanging ideas with Eric, afternoons spent making changes to the website and speaking with students.

I had no life after work. Eric was working full days at the organization and then going to a neighborhood nearby to coach a girls soccer team, while I spent the time after work reading and studying Portuguese. I enjoyed both, but it was no substitution for a social life.

Instead I found Tinder. I abhor hookup culture, but I was a lethal combination of bored and curious so I gave it a shot. Soon enough I was receiving constant messages from women who were out of my league. A couple were trolls, one immediately asked me to take her to the most expensive restaurant in the area, but most were authentic. I was growing familiar with the slums from my time in Mathare and with the tourism scene from my time in the city center, so I only set myself up to meet women who I wouldn't see in either of those places. Everybody that I met was middle-class and college educated, but still had the same outgoing and welcoming personality that exemplified Kenya.

I'm glad I met who I met, but it was a bad idea. Explaining that you're looking for neither a hookup or a relationship was hard. Remembering how perfect your ex-girlfriend was with each new date was harder. Bah humbug.

I started to meet a lot of new people in the slum as well. Eric knew everybody, and the 25 minute walk to the office in the morning often took over an hour. We spoke to family, friends, teammates, and parents of students, plus anyone else who smiled. While I ignored anyone who called me mzungu, everyone we talked to was incredibly friendly and welcoming.

When a friend of Eric asked me what I wanted to drink, she went outside to buy a Fanta. I told her that I didn't want it, but she insisted. She refused to let me pay for the soda. “When you are my guest, you have to let me serve you,” she told me. Kenyan hospitality reminded me of my time in Georgia, where total strangers go out of their way to make you feel welcome. People like this give me some faith in humanity.

When Eric left town for a week to attend final classes for Young African Leadership Initiative, I decided to head back to my hotel near downtown and work from their wifi. I hated digging deeper into my savings to do so but the hotel was relatively cheap and I didn't want to spend a full month in Kenya without exploring more downtown. I promised myself to be more patient this time, to not get angry at people. To not needlessly escalate situations. And I was more patient. The constant calls of mzungu were easier to ignore this time around. These four days downtown were much more peaceful than the previous weekend.

I wanted to explore downtown, to take photos as I went. The police had other ideas. They first stopped me after I took a picture of the national parliament building, explaining to me that pictures were forbidden and looking through my phone to make sure it was deleted. An hour later I was stopped again, this time after taking a picture of the decoration on a wall at the post office. “You're not allowed to take pictures downtown,” a guard explained to me. “If you ever want to take a picture you must first ask the owner of the building. You're lucky the police are not here. I will watch you delete these photos and then we'll pretend that we never talked.”

I was disappointed but couldn't argue. Before entering any large stores, buildings, or parking lots, you had to walk through a metal detector and let a security guard look through your pockets. The larger hotels downtown had cars open the hoods and then looked under the vehicles with mirrors. While I felt safe as an individual, it was clear that there was a high threat level and the police were on constant watch. A Kenyan military base in Somalia had been destroyed by militants a week before. Kenya was now concerned about attacks inside Kenya by either Somalian refugees or Islamists. The result was armed guards everywhere, police checkpoints dotting downtown, and metal detectors in every building. I had never seen anything like it.

After a week of exploring downtown, working remotely, and bad dates, I headed back to the slum to link up with James, a soccer coach for the foundation. I stayed that night in his room deep within the slum and suddenly realized how good I had things with Eric. There was no toilet in the area, and the bathroom and shower were in the same enclosed slab of concrete. The people were friendly, but the neighborhood was in squalor. I was happy when Eric returned from his conference.

Work slowed down after Eric got back. It was both frustrating and satisfying. I hated being in the office without very much to do. But I was happy about how much work we had accomplished on the website. We had finished nearly everything we set out to do, hence there being very little work to do. I spent the rest of the last week making small tweaks to the website and saying goodbye to friends I hardly knew. I can't say that I knew Kenya after my month there, but I had learned a lot about life and the human spirit during my time in the slum. I tried to ignore thoughts of leaving and never seeing these people again.

Sunday was my last day. I helped coach the soccer team, then gave a goodbye to the students at Mathare Foundation.

I'll miss Kenya. The smell of trash and burning goat skulls may linger for a bit, but I'll never forget the joy of welcoming strangers, dodging cars and buses in a city void of traffic laws, and the friendly bartering competitions whenever I needed to buy something. I'll miss my coworkers the most, of course.

Onward to Mozambique.

For more information about Mathare Foundation, please visit and consider donating.

About The Author

Jason P

I am a Tucson transplant, U of A grad, amateur superhero, and a teacher. After finishing grad school with savings left over, I realized that I had nothing stopping me from exploring the world. I quickly put my charity project on hiatus and began working odd jobs across the globe in search of adventure, understanding...
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