Something about the way she leaned in towards her friend drew my attention towards her. They were to sign in at the tail end of the session and that tiny movement between the two women piqued my interest. As the paper was going around, the next one in the queue shook her head and whispered something to her friend. And then the realisation hit me. She couldn’t read or write.....and it broke my heart.
The week has been intriguing to say the very least. Kibera makes another entry into the pages of my life. The sights, sounds and smells come back in greater detail as the slum becomes a cog in the machinery that is my work place. I find myself seeing things in a new light. While my first visit had shocked me and left me feeling empty, this one opened my eyes to the things I was missing out on.
I find myself weaving through the narrow alleys with my eyes trained on the signs. Every corner seems to have a chemist, shop, ‘hotel’ and NGO to boot. The first foray was all about getting in and out but now I can take my time and take it all in. On the first day we are working near a school. Little children are scurrying everywhere and the uniform is anything but uniform. It’s a mix and match of colours and patterns as the kids run around during their break. Earlier I had listened to them answering questions in that sing song voice that only children have.
Kibera seems to defy its very existence. Everything seems to stand out, stick its chest out and proudly proclaim how it’s there despite the odds. The examples are everywhere. The building we are in seems to defy the laws of physics. I’m simply at a loss to understand how this two storey set up is still standing. Power lines snake through holes and notches to bring light to these hidden corners. Support beams shake whenever the kids run upstairs. I’m scared and intrigued at the same time.
Parents stream in and they sit down. Some have their little children with them. Women easily outnumber the men. My colleagues prepare their materials and the session is soon underway. Slowly the participants are drawn out of their shells. Pretty soon they are laughing and sharing life stories and right there is where I’m hooked. I’m an intellectual snob. Knowledge is the altar at which I kneel. Here I find a different form of intellect. Not the one derived from books or scientific excursions but from the school of life. My jaw spends most of the session on the floor.
Three hours go by and soon goodbyes are exchanged. The next two days are almost similar but then I’m learning that Kibera thrives on throwing balls from left field. So days are similar but never the same. A requirement here is the ability to constantly reinvent yourself. Nothing proves this better than a colleague who wears so many professional hats that I can’t keep count. He is a secondary school teacher, runs an NGO, is a parachute specialist with some branch of the armed forces in addition to his responsibilities here. Walking around, everyone seems to know him. A jack of all trades, and from the looks of it, a master of them all.
I’m snapped out of my reverie though by some child who is barely knee height for me. We stare at each other. Both curious. Both unsure. She reaches out her hand and I stretch mine out. She smiles meekly and I return it. Contact.