poverty makes you invisible, but material wealth…?

“Poverty makes you invisible.”

When Kennedy Odede said those words at the start of our two-hour experience I had no idea how much I would burn with the thought that we – YOU and I – needed to change.

Recently I have revisited Tim Crothers’ “The Queen of Katwe”, thinking hard about his description of the life of people in that slum dwelling. It came to mind when we set off to see what Kennedy’s SHOFCO (Shining Hope For Communities) was doing in Africa’s largest urban slum dwelling – Kibera.

The leaders of the Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainability Department of Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Beverages Africa on this side of the continent chugged two buses down to the slum to see another way of supporting a community in need.

Before we set off we watched a brief video by SHOFCO explaining a little bit about what they do. I was close to tears at that, and knew the afternoon would be difficult.

We found Kennedy, well-spoken in an energetic way that belied his past, inside a little dark building obviously made permanent through evolution.

Kennedy in the centre wearing a massive smile, surrounded by my colleagues (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

“Poverty makes you invisible,” started his story how, on that very spot as an early teenager, he and his friends would stand atop a pile of rubbish discussing how to make life better.

Their thought of “better” was a refusal to accept that life could be so bad and final. Kennedy described the same things in the “The Queen of Katwe”.

The details are disturbing, but not as disturbing as our realisation that many of us don’t see or know them. Poverty DOES MAKE PEOPLE INVISIBLE, and THAT is more disturbing.

For two hours after that, we speed-walked through the Kibera that SHOFCO has created. I was in anguish – not at the suffering and poverty of fellow human beings in slum conditions; but at how little WE purposefully do to change things.

Kennedy, at age fifteen (15), was fed up of the rape, disease, hunger, desperation and despair, and lack of hope – so he started up a project to improve life in his community.

Atop a hill we stopped at a rubbish heap to catch a bird’s eye view of Kibera. Standing at that spot we could see every slum cliche: the dog, the grandmother and child, the boy pushing a wooden bicycle, the other dog with fleas, the child with a baby…maybe a teenage mother. The list was long.

A panoramic view of Kibera (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

The non-cliche stood out – a couple of water tanks painted blue and marked ‘SHOFCO’, with pipes leading from them to small outcrop buildings.

Kennedy’s colleague, Mona Karingi – who was Coca-Cola’s top Marketing Honcho a short while back and left to be part of this change – explained the system. Water in the slum is rare and so valuable that when the government eventually piped water into Kibera a cartel emerged that would cut the pipes and force residents to buy ‘black market’ cartel water exorbitantly.

It was easy for the cartel because the rubber pipes had been laid very shallow under the ground that consists of garbage landfill. That’s what the slum is built on.

Anyway, residents who had no money had to walk many miles to find water – increasing their chances of being robbed or raped. If you live in the city or the suburbs in an ordinary setting you will not understand how confidently people in slums speak of rape.

Kennedy unknowingly gave us a perspective when he said: “It’s getting better. In the past people would rape and then just go away; but now when they rape they have to run away and hide otherwise the community goes for them.” Did you see that use of the word ‘people’ there? Or did you notice that perspective of “better”?

SHOFCO’s solution was to create large overhead water thanks with an aerial piping system that ran on gravity. The cartels can’t climb high enough to cut those pipes; plus, the water is safer to use since it isn’t running through the garbage that is land in Kibera.

Those are actual pipes carrying water through garbage for fellow human beings to use for cooking, drinking and other things YOU do so casually. They are laid so shallow that criminal cartels cut them easily at any point they choose. (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

The water gets piped – clean – to water selling points at very sensible rates.

So far, the SHOFCO system has half the residents covered – half of one million people! – in Kibera alone. SHOFCO also has projects in nine other slums in Kenya.

We shook our heads in disbelief.

Our next stop was a section of the disgusting river, before we got to the SHOFCO Computer Lab where children are given computer and presentation skills for three months at Kshs1,000 (Ushs30,000) for the duration.

One graduate told us her story with a confidence I wished for all University graduates I know. She owns her own modelling agency. Having first come to SHOFCO for help after sexual assault she found herself going through “The Employability Programme” which got her to Barclays Bank and then M-Kopa Solar on short-term contracts.

Seriously – she came to SHOFCO because she had been sexually assaulted. Her portal to a whole new life she could never have imagined was this organisation run by youth who chose not to focus on television dramas, the internet, money and other juxtaposingly embarrassing pursuits.

The young lady pointed out that, sadly, there are not many companies offering to take up these graduates; most of the few that do are indigenous Kenyan companies. But the massive companies from all around the world? Ha!

See, these graduates from the slum are invisible. Poverty makes them invisible.

When we went up the stairs from the Computer Lab we found a room full of very silent youngsters. So silent that they were almost invisible.

We were in the SHOFCO Community Library, and we went silent ourselves. We were humbled. The work conditions here would shame you every time you complained about your stapler at the office not working properly.

It was full of children studying under the watchful eye of 29-year old David Otieno. Standing silently behind the counter, he didn’t project. He turned up at SHOFCO eager to help at age 19. Today he has a degree in Library Sciences and manages seven (7) community libraries across Kenya – five in Kibera, one in Nakuru and one in Mathare.

But get this – last year the library served 27,000 people! How can he be so sure? He showed us the records on the Library computer – using software we know as Salesforce – a cloud computing Customer Relationship Management App used by major global corporations!

Plus, SHOFCO issues the children with plastic membership cards that hold their info and that give them access to the Libraries (not just in Kibera). The level of organisation here is breath-taking. It is also quite significant because of the self-esteem involved, and the way it prepares these children for the wider world out there.

Maserame Mouyeme, Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainability Director for Coca-Cola Southern East Africa Business Unit (SEABU) – Left – shows her amazement that the SHOFCO Community Library uses plastic, chipped Membership Cards managed through Salesforce, and applauds David – Right – for his commitment (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

That day we found David managing a shift of 60 students – but sometimes they are as many as a hundred and he drags in more chairs so they can study. Most of them can’t study back in their little homes. At three shifts a day, he is clearly a superhero in supporting education in Kenya, from the most unlikely location in the country.

And no – he isn’t earning big bucks. He is giving back to a community that gave to him, so that young people like him can have the chance that he had. He didn’t go to a telecom or beverage or financial company. He joined SHOFCO.

We left, humbled.

Next stop, walking past more cliches of a slum…or simply, through the slum, was a water selling point.

Past many little buildings and hovels we got to a relatively large building flanked by even larger ones under construction. An old lady was filling her jerry-can and engaged in conversation with the young man managing the point.

He was expecting us. Endekwa Eutychus, 25, confidently showed us how water is dispensed at the point…using plastic cash cards and tokens. The system isn’t yet integrated so it links water units to the Library Cards, but that will happen soon.

Residents load money onto their Water Cards and simply use the card and a plastic token that gets tapped onto the wall to release a relevant number of water units.

“Those cards are important. Residents stand a lower risk of being robbed,” Endekwa tells us. Again, many of us don’t find this to be normal.

Endekwa (in white shirt) with a couple of customers buying water (Photo by Simon Kaheru)
Endekwa showing the token, contact water purchase system in operation (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

It was insane to see the entire system in operation – all the way to the infiltration system managed by Johnstone Mutua, 32. All these ‘kids’, meanwhile, grew up in Kibera, went away to study – University DEGREES – and came back like Kennedy.

The story is much, much longer. There are other big projects – like the 24/7 Safe Havens for victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and the unbelievably clean, organized Kibera School for Girls.

GBV cases won’t make sense to you – an ‘ordinary’ person. They are depressing to hear about here. Your imagination won’t suffice. But Kennedy is upbeat about the changes. Remember: In the past people would rape and just move on. But today a rapist has to run and hide. Society has improved. But the rapist still exists.

SHOFCO has established safe shelters for women and children and young boys. They work 24/7. This is the only department doing so – and I’m not not (deliberate) talking about the Police. They help victims get help and push the police to solve crimes then push the courts to adjudicate cases. They even keep copies of all paperwork in box files so that no government authority can use the excuse of “the file is missing”.

On the wall are lists tracking the different cases, number of rescues and pending actions. 15 GBV cases have been moved to life sentences this year alone.

Few of us were dry-eyed during this visit. We were uplifted, too. Even more when we got to the Kibera School for Girls – and that’s a whole book waiting to be written on its own.

There are no entry fees, and no hassle – but the girls only get in after passing an assessment proving that they are actually residents in need and capable of studying. And they study so well that they excel when they get to the national setting.

Imagine – if you can – slum girls in Kibera whose parents own nothing, studying the piano and ‘STEM’ then breezing into high schools in the United States.

You can’t. You can’t understand how family-embedded the school system is – so much so that the girls’ parents clean the school and wash dishes and generally do work with their children as part of the system.

Only one child is taken in per home. That way the girls can go home and be actual change agents – which is what OUR own education should have been like. People who claim to be elites but do nothing much to change where they came from.

In fact, the SHOFCO Adult Literacy Programme started because the school would write letters to parents but the parents couldn’t read, let alone understand, them.

Kennedy moved out of Kibera to live elsewhere, but had to come back home to keep making it better.

“In my new home I had a wall and I didn’t know my neighbours. Here we have no walls and we help each other. I realised that getting this urban wealth is nothing. And even if Poverty makes us invisible, this material wealth makes people BLIND.”

That saddened me – Material Wealth Makes US Blind.

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