If you think you’re too small to make a difference,
you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.
– African Proverb
The Seed Foundation
It would take me no time at all to confirm the literal truth of the African mosquito proverb. In Rwanda, my very first stop on the continent, on my very first night, even my fully protective mosquito netting at the Parador Hotel would prove no match for a single “mossi,” which is all it takes to utterly destroy a good night’s sleep. By the time I arrived in Kenya I’d learned to close my windows while the sun still shone, be a bit more strategic about lowering that mosquito netting, and had mastered some tactical maneuvering when entering and exiting its protective confines.
All it takes.
Between Rwanda and Kenya alone I’ve spent more than a few nights swinging blindly in the dark, smacking myself all over, digging madly at my ears, the buzzing so intense at times that I’m sure a mosquito’s broken through my flailing defenses and made it all the way to my auditory nerve. More than once I’ve abandoned the cooling breeze of a ceiling fan for the hot and airless confines of a bedsheet pulled up and over my head, like a toddler hiding from the bogeyman. I might have even donned a portable mosquito headnet once or twice.
But it wasn’t until I met Aouki Padox, tour guide for my walk through Nairobi’s Kibera settlement, and founder of the nonprofit Seed Foundation, that I would begin to understand the proverb in its more philosophical context.
Lisa and I had been driven through the Kibera slum back in 2006, on our way to visit a memorial to Dan Eldon. (Settlement is what the more politically correct call Kibera. Slum is the word most everyone else uses.) Kids rushed to the roadway as our taxi rolled slowly though, waving and smiling and staring and knocking on the glass and putting hands and fingers to their mouths, hoping for a snack or a shilling or two. Our driver told us to keep the windows up, which felt at once heartless and wise, my natural instinct being to open the doors and empty my pockets and take them all in my arms, which admittedly would not have ended well. To call what we saw that day overwhelmingly unimaginable sounds like hyperbole, and yet it still manages to be an understatement. For most Westerners, Kibera must be seen to be believed.
The truth about Kibera depends on with whom you’re speaking. It has either around 200,000 residents, or well over a million. It’s either Africa’s largest slum, or not even the largest in Kenya. Its residents either cry out for intervention and help from the government, or want to be left alone, governed (a decidedly loose term) autonomously, by its residents, by leaders of the thirteen (or is it thirty?) villages within its borders, or by its singular, unofficial leader, Raila Odinga, a man who has been described by some as the second most powerful man in all of Kenya (a ranking he might tell you is one too low), swaying government elections, influencing local and national policy, even inciting or quelling violence, depending on the personal value of one over the other. It is also more than possible that come August, 2022, Raila Odinga will be Kenya’s next President.
Kibera is surrounded on all sides, on one by encroaching urban development, on another by highway. On its third is the Ngong Forest. And on it’s fourth, a high-end, private golf course that also abuts the home of Kenya’s late President Moi, its lush green fairways offering a stunning visual contrast to the dirt roads and the mud and wood and metal dwellings of the shantytown slum that swallows the horizon.
The land on which Kibera sits is owned by the City of Nairobi, and while it occasionally takes back swaths for the development of high-rise apartments under the guise of providing better housing for settlement residents, the dirty little worst-kept-secret is that none here can afford to live in them. That’s not such a foreign a concept for most Westerners to grasp. The difference being that at home, development of low income neighborhoods generally means displacement of its residents to other areas. For those living in Kibera, however, there’s nowhere else to go, so that means each time the 2.7 square kilometers of living space shrinks, it’s simply less room for a population that continues to grow.
There is limited running water in Kibera – clean water even more scarce. A handful of residents have “somehow” secured private water lines, access to which they sell to the few who can afford to buy. There are natural water sources that run through the slum, but they teem with litter and all sorts of refuse. I was told that during heavy rains, their banks often overflow, and it’s not entirely uncommon for animals and even humans to be swept away, their bodies taken downstream to the deceptively lush wetlands in the distance, an area called “the dam,” where they are often left. Despite what lies within, many residents still eat and sell the vegetables they plant and grow along these very riverbanks.
Open pits line the sides of many of the roads, the basins filled with a mix of mud and plastics and trash of every conceivable type, including what I’m told – not surprisingly – is human and animal waste. There is no formal sewer system here, after all. While we walked one road, a middle-aged woman came out of a corrugated iron shack wearing a colorful and pretty patterned dress, with clean-looking flats. She emptied a plastic basin of waste water into the open pit beneath her wooden footbridge before walking casually back inside.
Chickens and cats and dogs scramble in and out of the pits. The occasional toddler as well, I’m told, with the caveat that that is one of the reasons covid cases have been so low in Kibera, because of the immunities such exposure results in over time. I instinctively wanted to argue that logic, but was drowned out by my own past voice arguing that the reason American kids have so many goddamn allergies these days is, in part at least, due to the fact that they simply don’t eat as much dirt as we did in my day. Of course, at home, 20% of our children don’t die before the age of five, 40% of those due to diarrheal diseases.
I do suspect the low covid numbers are also due to several other factors, of course. Other than one old clinic I saw during our walk, I am told that most medicine in Kibera is privately administered. No prescriptions are required. Simply walk in, ask, and receive. So it’s not such a stretch to imagine that those suffering from the effects of covid aren’t seeking treatments or tests, certainly not outside of the community, where services would be administered at government facilities. I also imagine there are many here who are unaware of exactly what covid even is, and why or how it is any different – or any more dangerous – than the illnesses and dangers they face here on a daily basis, ones that result in an average life expectancy of just 30.
There is no official police force in Kibera. Yes, Kibera is part of Nairobi, and Nairobi has a police force, but they come only when absolutely necessary – after election violence inevitably erupts at the direction of leaders within or without, for example. And when they do come, it’s in force. Day-to-day policing is instead done by Kibera residents, punishments meted out by the same. Lynching and even burning alive of criminals for the most egregious of crimes is not some extreme relic of the past, but a simple matter of fact. Such justice is delivered with little if any media coverage, nor complaint from residents, the evidence and existence of the punished individuals disappearing into the landscape, into the trash and dirt and dust, into the dam. And yet, oddly – and exactly because of the threat of such mob rule – I am told Kibera is in fact quite safe (in the light of day, at least), with comparatively little crime. Comparative to what, I didn’t ask, but even crime and punishment are relative, I suppose.
Why the government hasn’t fixed the problem, eliminating a shameful blight that lies smack dab in the middle of a city visited by millions of tourists and countless dignitaries, a city and country into which billions in aid has and still does flow, is a much more complicated discussion and debate than can be addressed in this simple little blog. One thing that isn’t debatable, however, is the stunning squalor in which the residents of Kibera live. I passed through it with Lisa in 2006, and now I can say I have walked it, seen it, felt it, and smelled it firsthand.
All of this brings us to Aouki Padox, founder of The Seed Foundation and The Seed School, and who, along with Seed School teacher Brian Muganzi, led my tour of Kibera.
Our walk started on somewhat hallowed ground, walking across the tracks of the original and still functioning “Uganda Railway,” which first reached Nairobi in 1899, opening up this wilderness to adventurer-seekers, big game hunters, the famous, and those who hoped to be. Instead of nations building railways, it is said this railway built a nation. Today, it operates as a freight rail running through the Kibera slum, an area considered too dangerous and costly for passenger trains, the tracks being uprooted nearly every election cycle. While admittedly a simplification, this is, in part, why today’s elevated passenger rail runs through the beautiful Nairobi National Park.
We were more than occasionally stared at as we walked – these two Kibera locals with their American mzungu – but it was in a manner that always felt more like curiosity than with anything approaching ill will. I felt quite safe, in fact. We walked and talked openly and honestly about everything we were passing and seeing. No topic was off limits. Padox and Brian were setting the tone, describing the challenges and uphill battles the people of Kibera face, for what is likely to be generations to come.
An hour or so in, after a soda break at a roadside shack, we cut off one of the main roads and began walking through a maze of narrow alleyways, between and behind and around shanties of metal and wood, buildings of mud and painted concrete. The two moved comfortably through what appeared to be backyards and courtyards, if they could be described as such, until we came back to a main road, where in the distance a multi-floored, unfinished concrete facade arose from the busy dirt road ahead.
Padox told me that when coronavirus hit and the world – even here in Kibera – came to a halt, that was the time he decided to put his plan for expansion into action. In 2019, The Seed School was a single level building, hardly distinguishable from the shanties around it. Today it is a three-story work in progress, but a functioning one, currently home to over 150 students and eight salaried teachers each weekday, occupying the first and second floors. At capacity, it will serve 200 students on three floors, including a fully functioning kitchen and two bedrooms that Padox hopes will one day serve as a home for a volunteer teacher, and an AirBnB accommodation for anyone seeking an adventurous and educational stay in the heart of one of Kenya’s most challenging environments. I told him he’d need a writer with superb skills to sell such a bold idea, and I was of course hired on the spot. I still have to google what pro-bono means, but when you break it down, who wouldn’t want to be referred to as a Pro, and who wouldn’t want to be compared to legendary rocker Bono? After all, he and Cher ruled the airwaves for more than two decades – so count me in.
At first blush, The Seed School doesn’t seem fit for occupancy. At second and third blush either, actually. But this isn’t America. It isn’t even Kenya – or Nairobi for that matter. This is Kibera, and the rules are different here. So I followed Padox and Brian through a front entrance and into a dim, unlit hallway – the walls, floors and ceilings all unfinished concrete. Down the hall and into a side room we went where, much to my surprise, I was suddenly greeted by uniformed, smiling, waving students, working at desks in a room illuminated by natural light shining through a barred window.
The classrooms at The Seed School are Pre-K to Grade 6, the students aged 4 to 16, and all seemed happy and eager to say hello to the visiting American. I know what you’re thinking – probably because I’m so damn charming. And you’d be right. But also, maybe, because no matter where you are in the world, kids are all the same, and any diversion from classroom studies is a welcome relief. Or, just maybe, because a visitor to a place like The Seed School means potential help, whether by word or wallet. These kids might be young, but they’re growing up faster than many of us had to, and they know that foreigners can represent help in one way or another, from a treat to a shilling to a possible way out.
All of the students here receive two meals per day – breakfast and lunch. That answered an earlier question I’d posed to Padox, in part, at least, which was how, in a community as challenged and as vast as Kibera, do you make sure your students even show up each day? Food is one answer. But education, creativity, and, it seems, fun, are also driving forces for kids who might already understand far too well the challenges and extreme odds they face.
At the end of my building tour, I would be treated to singing and dancing and instrumental music, all by kids performing with a skill beyond their years, and I would of course be asked by their wonderful teacher, Beenta Akinyi, to take part. Those who know me well will likely assume I politely declined – and I could have, I suppose. But a quote Dan Eldon had written in one of his art journals popped into my head at that moment, “It is foolish and hazardous not to dance in Africa.” So I heeded his advice, and dance I did. Luckily for all involved, the only video is of the children, at least as far as I know, which means the dance moves of this rug-cutting mzungu will forever be relegated to fireside lore, handed down for generations to come. All I ask, children, is that you be kind.
But before my star-turn, Padox, Brian and I would walk to the unfinished third floor, and then the roof, where I would see the solar panels which power the school, the battery supply which store their energy. I saw the water tanks which supply the kitchen and sinks and showers, filled (for a price) from a nearby pipe. The panels, batteries, and water tanks will all need to increase as the building expands.
But that expansion, and the construction, are all currently on hold, for now. When there is money, supplies are purchased, workers are brought in, and construction continues. When it runs out, construction stops, and the workers go home. Maybe for a month. Maybe three. Possibly longer. It depends.
To finish the construction, Padox estimates it will cost around $80,000 USD. To run the school annually, as it is, including two meals per student, per day, supplies, and salaries for its current teaching staff of eight, the estimates are less than $30,000, a stunning bargain when you consider that covers the feeding and education of more than 150 students per year, not to mention a living wage for the teachers and their families. And maybe even more important, $30,000 pays for the chance for a life away from the clutches of Kibera, where even making it to adulthood is far from guaranteed. When you think about it, if even one child makes it out at that cost, it’s a win.
I realized later that when Padox and Brian were talking about the challenges facing the kids of The Seed School, they were also talking, albeit more humbly, about the daunting challenges they themselves have taken on. If I had walked through Kibera without seeing The Seed School for myself, I would tell you now that even the idea of it would seem absurd. But as I learned in Greece, when given the opportunity to try to make a difference in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, we have two choices. Do nothing. Or do something. Padox, Brian, Beenta, and the rest of the teachers, volunteers, donors – and even the students themselves, have decided to do something, and all it takes is one look at The Seed School and these wonderful students to see that they’re already beating the odds.
If one little mosquito can drive a man 10,000 times its size to sheer madness, imagine what more this amazing group of determined individuals can accomplish in Kibera, and in the lives and futures of its children. And then imagine what it would be like to say that you were part of it.