Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing 2016

As we walked along we were challenged to look up and notice what was around us… in my mind this was impossible. At every step, there was unimaginable filth: layers of plastic bags, bottles, broken containers. In between were faeces, rotting food scraps and more garbage. Through areas were well trodden, rough dirt tracks or brown murky water. As we weaved within the tin shanties, ducking wire and washing lines the smell became more potent, the layers of rubbish; thicker and the reality that this was home to over a million people; overwhelming – how could we look up?

Welcome to Kiberra Slum

Along with eight other professionals, I recently attended the Gone Fishing Kenya Program, an immersion conducted by Edmund Rice Foundation, which supports projects across Australia, Kenya, Timor, Philippines, Sudan and Papua New Guinea.

The ten-day immersion has impacted me more than anything I have experienced in my life to date and opened my eyes to the vulnerability of our human race and the strength of individuals who must fight for a better life.

We had the fortune to meet so many local heroes; amazing mums, inspiring teachers and students that smiled more than any I’ve ever met. We met rape victims, HIV patients, single mothers with eight children, dying parents and orphaned children.

The heart of Kiberra Slum is the Mary Rice Centre, a school catering for over 40 disabled students. The centre is in an old shipping container without power, water or a playground. These high-need students, seen as a curse to most, are taught with limited resources, training, equipment and support. Although the landlord is pushing them out, the staff sing, dance and love the student’s unconditionally. The ‘classrooms’ are full of energy, laughter and positivity. Every child is a gift and all achievements are celebrated.

Edmund Rice Foundation has secured a new site for the Mary Rice Centre, which will be a large, open space, high on the hill and a place that the staff will make home for the students and their families.

The majority of the urban poor in Kenya live in slums. In Nairobi, one of Africa’s richest cities, the slum population now makes up over 50% of the population while their neighbours live in mansions down the road. The worst example of this ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor is Mukuru slum. Without a sanctioned water or electricity supply, cartels illegally tap into local supplies through polluted pipelines and a criss-cross of lethal power-lines. Each household has an average of six members in a 3 metre square room and single mums head most of these families.

After two days in Kiberra, we were walking with our heads up and our eyes open, thinking we had seen it all…Little did we know what Mukuru had in store for us. As our group walked past the crowded rows of one-roomed iron shacks, we slowly put our eyes back on the ground. Whether it was the heat, tiredness, anxiety – all of the above, Mukuru was like walking into a living nightmare. Crossing the filthy brown stream, the stench of rot and a smoky haze signaled our arrival at the dump. On the horizon families were living there with the goats, birds and chickens all scavenging for the same food; amongst sewerage, garbage and, scraps of rotting food. Everyone shed a tear for the hundreds of thousands of families forced to live there.

On the outskirts of the slum, beyond the guarded gates is the oasis of the Rueben Centre. The Rueben Centre helps support the 600,000 people of the Mukuru community through its quality education, health, financial and social services. Edmund Rice Foundation is one of the major supporters and has assisted in creating an innovative haven away from the stench and chaos outside the walls. Many of the inspiring staff were once children who went to school at the centre themselves and although they managed to ‘break out‘ of the slum, still work tirelessly for their community. We spent the day in the health clinic and the micro-finance centre. There was a self-defense class for rape victims, a song-filled preschool (where children are safe to sleep all day without harm), dance and gymnastic groups, a sewing/knitting program to skill and empower teenage mothers. One of the most amazing initiatives is the agri business with lush herbs and vegetables and an intricate aqua-culture construction. We read in the library, where ancient books are like gold and we were mobbed in the playground where hundreds of children were playing with old tyres, rusty see-saws and a deflated soccer ball. The children are animated, unashamedly inquisitive, their love of life infectious. The children do not ever want to leave their oasis, and believe me… I didn’t either!

The people of these slums will have a place in my heart forever. They have taught me that with so little, you can have so much. So much dedication, strength, curiosity and love. The school buildings are decrepit; resources are limited yet there is a high level of respect and understanding between teachers and families. There is no doubt that community is more important than the individual, and because these children have nothing, they are grateful for everything. The community is sharing and working together to improve the future of the next generation through education, as it is their only hope.

I am grateful and honoured to have had the opportunity to walk with the people of Kenya. These beautiful, strong people have taught me more than I could ever have taught them.

From Little Things, Big Things Grow….

Rachel McDonald

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