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a question of justice? - Singing in the Flames

Date: 2006-09-27 00:20
Subject: a question of justice?
Security: Public
Location:Nairobi, Kenya

How are we to respond to the poor?  Assuming that we do not simply look away, what response do justice and mercy demand?

These are not academic questions.

Just a few kilometers from where I am writing this, about 1.5 million people live in the notorious Kibera and Mathare slums.  Half of them are under the age of 20.

Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums, sprawls across the valley below my office.  From that vantage point, one sees a patchwork of rusting corrugated metal roofs, clustered so closely together that the lanes between buildings are barely visible.  Each roof shelters a 10 x 10 foot shack made of corrugated metal, which may house up to a dozen people.  There are no services: no electricity, no streetlights, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no waste disposal.  When you go down into Kibera, the first thing you see is heaps of trash. The smell, an indescribable mix of rotting garbage and raw sewage,  makes your eyes water.

The slum filling Mathare Valley is similar, but suffers even more environmental degradation due to its proximity to the Industrial Area, as industrial waste is dumped in or near the river.  Higher up the valley, overcrowded and crumbling concrete apartment blocks look out over the the metal shacks.  Near the river, the most desperate construct shacks of cardboard and tar paper. 

There are markets, lively with street vendors and little kiosks selling food, clothing, shoes, handicrafts...music and dance bursting forth in unexpected places...energetic children playing in open spaces...but the fierce vitality doesn't hide the reality of dying infants, abused women, and exhausted and despairing parents.

Both Kibera and Mathare, like similar slums worldwide, are places where human dignity is constantly under assault.  Due to the lack of toilets, residents relieve themselves in black plastic sacks and then toss them onto their neighbors' rooftops.  (Locals call these "flying toilets.") There are a few blocks of pit toilets scattered around the community, but many are unusable due to overflowing filth.  They may also be dangerous.  Mathare girls tell horror stories about the "mambo kotto toilets " - a block of toilets behind a local primary school.  The name comes from the gang that hangs around the toilets; a girl who doesn't run fast enough risks being dragged into a stinking toilet, stripped and repeatedly raped.  "Flying toilets" become the only safe option, although you can imagine the public health implications of their disposal.

Many residents live in what the UN calls extreme poverty, subsisting on less than a dollar (about 72 shillings) a day. While few have formal sector employment (what you and I think of as jobs), nearly everyone engages in informal employment.  They carry water from the water-sellers, pick through trash for recyclable metal or glass, sell cooked or uncooked food...even young children work, coming home from school to fetch water or serve as house-girls.  Some residents earn money selling drugs or illegally brewed liquor, or themselves.  Earning a dollar a day is hard, and it's not enough to meet basic needs: it costs 21 dollars a month to rent a metal shack, and over 10 dollars a month for five liters of clean water a day.  Add to that the cost of food, firewood or kerosene for cooking, clothing, shoes, medical care (when available)...

Their poverty is compounded by crime, domestic violence, addiction, gender inequality, inadequate education, and disease.  In Mathare, 27% of the population is HIV+, the highest seropositivity rate in all of Kenya.  One in seven children born in a Kenyan slum will die before reaching his or her fifth birthday.  (Among rural children, the death rate is one in nine.)  Most die of diarrheal disease or influenza.  Schools are unbelievably crowded, with as many as 120 children crowding into classrooms built for 30.   Young girls often bring younger siblings to school, because there is no one else to care for them.  Out of school, they may be forced into prostitution to raise money for their families.  Children of both sexes who don't bring home enough money to their parents may be beaten, or thrown out of the house.  Street children, many orphaned by HIV, prowl the streets at night, forming associations that later mature into gangs.

All of this is sobering.  Add to it the knowledge that what I see in these two settlements is a tiny fraction of the problem.  Nearly  a billion people across the world struggle to survive under similar - or even worse - conditions.  A billion.  I can't seem to get my mind around it.  That's about three times the entire US population.

What does one do in response to such knowledge?

In my mind's eye I look out over Kibera and see my brothers and sisters struggling just to survive.  I don't want to forget, to fly back to Atlanta and my comfortable life, to shrug and say "what can I do after all?" 

Once, living in blighted East Germantown, Philadelphia, I thought I had come to understand something about poverty.  For over twenty-four years I worshiped and worked with a faith community that followed St. Vincent de Paul's dedication to the poor, not as charity , but as the work of justice.  It was that charism that led me into public health, and, eventually here. 

Now, I wrestle anew with the question: what does it mean to stand in solidarity with the poor? 

I'm no saint.  I like my creature comforts as much as anyone.  I doubt I'd be willing, as once I was in Germantown, to live side by side with my poorer neighbors in Kibera.  And I never know how to respond when someone says "I couldn't do what you do", when I feel that I don't do much at all, measured against the enormity of the world's need.   I'm here for such a short time; even if I get the two-year posting I'm considering, this place could absorb all I could do for several lifetimes.  I do what I can, but I will always wish it were more. 

So, my friends...

If I were a gifted enough writer, I would bring the slums of Nairobi to life for you, in all their mingled vitality and anguish, but I fear my words are hopelessly inadequate.  All I can do is tell you some of what I have come to know, and ask you again the questions with which I opened:

How are we to respond to the poor?  Assuming that we do not simply look away, what response do justice and mercy demand?


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The Cajun Gypsy
User: thatcrazycajun
Date: 2006-09-27 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't want to be one who just looks away from such horror. But how can we respond, those of us in more developed nations? Is there any meaningful way we can give help beyond simply donating funds to relieve immediate needs? Must long-term change in the situation be handled by the Kenyan government? And if so, is said government capable of doing so effectively? Can other nations' governments or the United Nations assist at all?

Solutions, anyone?
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User: brithistorian
Date: 2006-10-06 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't have any solutions here - and think that anyone who claims to is more likely just trying to sell something - but I'm glad there are people like you who are working to improve these situations. Keep up the good work, and keep writing about it - the more you're able to put a face to poverty, rather than just a series of mind-numbing statistics, the more people want to help. Thank you.

(By the way, I found my way here through thatcrazycajun's LJ.)
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one_undone: Angel in September 2006
User: one_undone
Date: 2006-10-07 10:35 (UTC)
Subject: My view
Keyword:Angel in September 2006
I, too, found you via thatcrazycajun.

I don't know how to respond to your question, except to say that it occurs to me that it isn't just the poverty that's the issue, so throwing money at it won't fix it. There's a lot that's "broken" in the scenario you describe. I think many Americans are ill equipped to help in situations of extreme poverty that occur outside the country because we are brought up with great ignorance of the difference in social and cultural mores that puts up invisible barriers to some of the solutions we might otherwise suggest. I was actually discussing this very thing last week with my son (BritHistorian and I homeschool our son Dylan) when we were talking about sex education and the spread of HIV and AIDS around the world, and I brought up an example I learned of in a college anthropology course, of well meaning but shortsighted healthcare workers bringing condoms to the people in Africa when AIDS first broke wide, and not understanding why nobody would use them in the villages, even after the workers tried telling the villagers that condoms could save their lives by preventing the spread of the disease. Condoms were helping to slow the spread of HIV in the U.S., after all. And men were visiting prostitutes and bringing HIV home to their wives. But when women would suggest to their husbands that they use condoms in their own sexual encounters as husband and wife, the women were dragged out into the village and beaten for adultery for suggesting it, because the accepted viewpoint at the time was that only a guilty woman would suggest such a thing. Some women were beaten to death for trying to protect their lives by using condoms. This was supported by the religious leaders in the villages as justified, too. The "simple" solution that worked well here didn't transfer well there, because "safe sex" was by far a more complex social issue with greater cultural implications in African culture than the average American realized.

So, to begin to fix the poverty? Could the average American know how to even begin taking steps to do so if a solution was out there? It would probably require knowing a lot more about the culture, the geography, the history, the current socioeconomic situation, the whole landscape of the problem than any of us outsiders do. It would require the cooperation of the government and the people of each region, which is in itself extremely difficult because there is so much civil unrest and violence throughout the continent. It would require a change in the way a culture views, values, and treats women. It would require protection for the weak and sick, without corruption in the ranks of those who are supposed to be doing the protecting. It would require time, which many of the people who need help the most simply haven't got, but it takes time to change perceptions and social and cultural practices. Education takes time. Change takes time. And THEN you can talk about the money. But without all those other things, no amount of money matters a whit. A hundred new dispensaries stocked with meds and supplies won't matter to sick people if nobody can reach them because they're guarded by guerrillas who want the people to die, or if they're so far away that nobody can get to them because the roads are so bad and there is no transportation for miles, or if the medicine doesn't matter because the people have no food or water to live anyway.

I'm sorry. I know this is a really long response from someone you don't know and who didn't know what to say, but I guess I did have rather a lot to say on the subject; I'm just not sure if any of it made sense.

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User: a_phoenix_afire
Date: 2007-03-03 06:31 (UTC)
Subject: The poor will be with you always
I still think you're gonna need a bigger boat. ;)

I been doing some perusing and I think I'm gonna be one very lonely right wing fringe lunatic on your LJ friends list. Oh well, not much new there. Stay safe, stay sane, love when you can, cry when you have to, be who you must.

How is it that no one mentioned the only thing that can possibly stem this flood of pain, filth, and despair? Sacred heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

Lord, heal these your children, cleanse their hearts and their homes, and lift up their spirits from the morass of fear, failure, and fatigue that the enemy has spilled on them for too long. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.

Say amen.

Matthew 18:19:
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.

Type atcha later.
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