One of the greatest joys of my recent trip to Kenya was sharing the experience with two of my children, Justin age 17 and Jacob age 20. I tried to capture some of the wonder I felt in a previous blog entry: Meeting Myself There.
Because of Justin’s most unexpected surgery, Tommy John to repair a torn elbow ligament, he joined the trip just before we left. Thus, he and I fortuitously ended up being roommates. Both introverts, we retired for the evenings as early as possible; but, before falling asleep, he and I hammered through one-on-one conversations about challenging questions related to the “roots” of poverty and what we can do about it.
In keeping with the well-known “starfish parable,” we both believe in throwing starfish back in the ocean, even if it only benefits the one (as Mother Teresa said, “God counts in ones”); but we also wrestle with how to keep the starfish from washing up on the shore in the first place. Together, we asked questions of one another and of any Kenyan willing to entertain our thoughts. I planned to summarize our reflections in a blog entry, but after reading what Justin wrote, I believe it is his voice that should be heard. I’ve included photos from our trip to illustrate the concepts he discusses.
Kenya Reflections, 2017
By Justin Briggs, age 17
My trip to Kenya was one that I found to be very profound and interesting. I went into the trip hoping to see the Kenya of my childhood again, yet I still desired to gain new perspectives on the country and see Kenya through an older and more mature mindset. I think both of these goals definitely occurred.
I was thrilled to see many people that I knew so well only a decade ago. It was very special to meet these old friends and exchange stories about the past and the present.
I saw all of the places that I remembered so vividly: Mother Theresa’s, both Sanctuary of Hope family-style orphan homes (SoH), and Mathare Worship Centre. All of this I expected and hoped to see. However, despite all of these great memories and amazing experiences, I began to have questions to which I hoped and am still hoping to find the answers.
One of the first things I noticed while driving through Kenya for the first time on this trip was how improved everything was. The city looked great, as did the highways and overall infrastructure of downtown. This was not how I remembered it 12 or even 5 years ago. It was amazing change!
Then a few days into the trip, we visited the Mathare slum, one of the largest slums in Africa. Nothing had changed. It was the exact same as I remembered it. Immediately I wondered: why has the rest of Nairobi developed so much, yet Mathare is the same? This is a question that I would ask several Kenyans while we were there. From these answers, it seems that there are several main factors.
First off, the Kenyan government is incredibly corrupt. It doesn’t take long to figure this out. Even during our short time in Kenya our driver was forced to pay off a police officer. Likewise, money put aside to benefit the slums often mysteriously disappears (into an official’s pocket). This money intended for the slums never gets to its destination.
The second reason specific to Mathare is that it just isn’t all that important to elected officials. It’s the smaller brother to the much more important Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. Kibera is the main attraction as far as slums go in Kenya. This is readily apparent in the fact that slum tours can be taken and are taken throughout Kibera. Therefore it is the main piece that politicians can use to their advantage. If Kibera is improving, then politicians get votes. It’s just not as important if Mathare or Korogocho (another slum we visited) improve. And Kibera fortunately is improving. The government has done a lot of work to improve the housing situation and clean up the slum. However, Mathare and Korogocho remain the same.
The final reason, also specific to Mathare, is a much more complex economic reason. As explained to me by a Kenyan lawyer, there is much more private property in Mathare than in Kibera. The government owns much of Kibera and as a result can displace people in areas they want to improve only to move them back when the improvements have been made. People can not be kicked off their own land in order for improvements to be made.
These three answers have only led to further questions. For one, is there any way to create sustainable change in Mathare and the other slums? Furthermore, can we as outsiders do anything to promote this change? These are two questions that I don’t have the answers to but want to find out. While I don’t completely know these answers, I do know that there are deep problems that exist within the culture of Kenya. The corruption is a prime example of this.
Furthermore, we as Americans, for better or for worse have the ability to change cultural ideas in Kenya. It has happened before. Fifteen years ago (when my brother was adopted), adoption was something that Kenyans simply did not do. Today in Kenya, adoption of Kenyans by Kenyans is growing more and more common. According to the input of a friend who once worked as a Kenyan adoption social worker, this change can mostly be attributed to influences from the western world, where people value adoption and think it is a wonderful thing. It is definitely apparent that we, as outsiders, can influence Kenyan ideas. How we do this, or even what ideas we push, I don’t know. However, this is one ability that we certainly do have, and a powerful ability at that. I know that a change in ideas is one that can help bring about a just government and hope for a better life for all Kenyans.
However, the ability to make change in Kenya certainly doesn’t just fall to us Americans. There are many incredible Kenyans working to bring about change for the people. We need not look farther than the incredible work being done at SoH. SoH has completely changed the lives of 24 kids: it has given them a family, opportunities to excel, and hope for the future.
One thing that I am certain of is that as long as people like the Karaus’ are continuing to do God’s work, hope exists in Kenya.