It’s only 150km from Nairobi to Nakuru. It should be a short drive, but the terrible roads make it a three-hour journey and when the over-crowded matatu left the capital, I left the good life behind.
Nakuru has about half a million people. The population swells daily as huge numbers of homeless children arrive, hopeful for a small amount of food, a dry bed – or anything. In reality, a number end up sleeping – sometimes for their entire lives – in one of the local dumpsites.
These slums are like nowhere you could imagine, nor would you want to. Men and women are high before 9am, having licked acid out of rotting batteries to help them forget the world in which they are forced to live. Their children are helpless and can do little more than look on, in many cases observing what their own lives will become.
While the juvenile population increases, the adult population can’t stop dying. Ten per cent of people have AIDS; about 12 rapes are reported each day; and the average life expectancy is no more than 40. Ironically, the retirement age is 55.
One of life’s luxuries occurs between 10am and noon each day – that’s when there’s running water at the orphanage where I worked. At the orphanage I was a teaching assistant with the nursery class, teaching children aged three to eight. A tiny classroom was the learning stable for up to 35 kids a day.
No matter how many World Vision ads you’ve seen, no matter how much you’ve travelled, nothing primes you for the harsh realities of this environment. There is simply not enough food to go around – and what there is, you wouldn’t give to your dogs.
Meals are served twice a day – if it can be made to stretch to everyone. The watered- down vitamin supplement is served out of cooking pots and as the contents of the pots diminish the children start to push and shove. If the kids don’t hurt each other as they fight for the leftovers, the cook no doubt will as she keeps order with a piece of hose pipe.
Lunch is better. More often than not there are enough bland beans to go around, but, the children aren’t allowed to take food home. One cup can be stretched to feed a whole family but if the children are caught sneaking food out they are made to return it. The penalty for trying to feed loved ones is that you too will go hungry.
I was told this experience would put my life into perspective. To be honest, I try not to think of any of it in terms of my reality.
Seven-year-old Farida has had worms since she was about three months old and is so malnourished and so tiny that she could walk between my legs when I held the skipping rope. I don’t want to put into perspective that medication to treat her costs about $5. I don’t want to put into perspective the fact that a couple I met were struggling, but considered themselves lucky and blessed – because they make about £5 a day. Rufus and Gladys struggled to put aside 50Ksh ($1) a week for their daughter’s education.
I don’t want to put into perspective that there were no erasers in the nursery class because no-one could afford to buy them. I bought five and the kids thought they were great – so much cleaner than using your finger and some spit to fix mistakes. Class became so much more productive.
Volunteering really was the most exhausting yet exhilarating month of my life. Working in the Third World, you see things that you want to forget immediately, but know you’ll remember forever. In a weird way, there’s something heart-warming, yet also heart-breaking, about watching a little girl stop picking her nose with her right hand so she can shake yours.
Time in Nakuru has stopped but the need for money, education and basic essentials continues. When I left, I knew I would miss the kids far more than they’d miss their teacher but probably not half as much as they would miss the dot-to-dots, the erasers or the game of pass-the-parcel that only a foreigner could afford to bring.
Be grateful for what you have because there are other people who genuinely have nothing. Nothing, except for the hope that their future will be brighter than their past.
October 3rd, 2007