Kenya. Giving Bach The Dignity

Kibera is one of the largest slums on the outskirts of Nairobi. A small missionary community has been living there for almost twenty-two years. They have created the ‘Bank of Trust’. The idea is ‘to encourage people and push them towards economic independence’.

A man stands by a big garbage pile. He wears ragged clothes, but he’s reading a newspaper: he found the crumpled sheets among plastic bottles and stinky food leftovers. He reads as if he were not noticing the destitute scavenging through the rubbish. The man is an intellectual, but he lives in Kibera, which is said to be the largest slum in Africa: an ocean of shacks interrupted by gutters and increasingly narrow alleys.

A maze, a few kilometers away from downtown Nairobi, which grows day after day like an octopus, eating everything its tentacles can reach. Nobody knows exactly how many people live here: estimates range from 200,000 to one million. Few manage to leave this place and many more join this desolation daily. Before getting here, in a shack, they dreamt about a better future: now they have fallen prey of local landlords who even ask them to pay a rent for the huts. They end up living for years among dirt and misery and their only wish is to return home, to rural Kenya, to a green and boundless landscape, where the horizon is the only limit and people own their land.

This is also Monicah Awinos’s deepest desire. The dirt road leading to her shack passes by the dumpsite, where the awkward newspaper reader stands. Monicah wears rubber sandals but she’s proud. She just received a €50 micro-credit loan from the “Bank of Trust” and she has been able to give back what she borrowed earlier. Monica, 39, sells tomatoes, potatoes, charcoal and chips she fries herself. Every morning at 5.30 she goes to the market, then she opens her ‘shop’ waiting for customers.

“My husband came here to find a job, but at home life was cheaper, here we must pay for everything”. Monicah speaks softly and, from time to time, with an embarrassed smile. She feels uncomfortable because of her poverty, because of that worn out sofa in the house she shares with her four children. Their only belongings are inside some plastic bags hanging from the wall. In a good day, Monicah can earn about 200 shillings (€2). Her husband does not work on a regular basis but together they manage to survive. The rent of their hut costs 1,500 shillings (€15) a month. 

Douglas Yungo is also part of the “Bank of Trust”, which is not an official lending institution but an association of small savers. Douglas speaks good English and calls his shop a grocery, but he also sells something which is precious in Kibera: water. In the slum, water pipes and sewers can only be found in public toilets. For any other purpose, water must be bought. For six shillings, Douglas also offers the possibility of taking a shower behind his shack. “Our purpose, when we created the “Bank of Trust” was to encourage people and push them towards economic independence”, says Fr. Jairo Alberto Franco. He is a Yarumal missionary. His congregation bears the name of the Colombian mountain town where it was founded in 1927. They have lived for 22 years in Kibera in three small houses in the slum. The missionaries share small rooms they have a common kitchen and some showers. A yard with a long bench leaning against the wall is their dining room. 

“Kibera is the best school also for our seminarians – Fr. Jairo says – here we are in close contact with the poorest and we can serve them at our best”. In Kibera, one can have first-hand experience of what being a missionary means. Pascale Ochieng is one of the young seminarians: visiting the sick is one of his tasks. Other seminarians are active in the “Bank of Trust”, in small Christian communities or in inter-religious dialogue. “Living with these people means giving them back their dignity”, Pascale said. “If you are available for someone, you put yourself at his level and that’s the only way to understand his problems”. 

“No dump”, someone wrote on a wall, in a desperate attempt to give some order to this chaos, where the train to Mombasa clatters along the tracks and people seem to be in perpetual motion. Or, at least, everybody but one: the newspaper reader, now leaning against a wall with a newly found paper treasure he is about to read.