The Poverty that Exhausts

Today as I sit in the early morning sun streaming through the Dubai airport windows, I am feeling tired. Tired of the scenes I have just experienced for the past 2 weeks in Africa and specifically Kenya. As I watch the huge jets and airliners speeding on the tarmac and launching themselves up into the sky past the rich sky-scrapers and desert below, it is a far cry from what I saw in Kenya. There were no skyscrapers there – but thousands of miserable shacks and millions of people struggling to survive in the dirt and dust of the slums of Nairobi. And – many of them are my friends.

The animals and beautiful scenes I went to see and share with my friends, were all spectacular. Nakuru Lake with its dense bush and wild animals thrilled me. The Thompson’s waterfall and old colonial hotel, with carefully tended gardens, reminded me of better times. Mt Kenya, hidden in the mists but quietly brooding above the game park is an inspiring example of permanence and stability. The wide swollen Ewasi Ngiro River in the Samburu Park with its rich wildlife and the elegant antelope and finely striped zebra is a thrilling place to visit. Masai Mara with its teeming numbers of wildebeest, zebra and antelope is a fantastic sight.

But outside the parks where rich tourists ride and roam, the majority of the 48 million Kenyans, almost half under the age of 15, live in squalor and often hunger. They all seem to be rushing about trying to find work and food anxious to procure my attention and money. Education is elusive and although most appear to be trying hard to survive, there are some who just have to beg and keep asking for more.

When I visited my friend’s lodging down a dusty rough and pot-holed track, worn by the tyres of the many trucks and cars that force their way through narrow openings and over rocks, I was overwhelmed. He, with his wife and family live in 2 rooms facing another 2 rooms with a narrow track and muddy water in a gutter between them. The solid stone structure has tiny windows facing into the track and iron sheets at either end of the track to keep out intruders. There is no kitchen or place to prepare food. There is no bathroom. There is no privacy. There is nothing pretty or attractive to invite people to stay awhile.

The lodgers go outside the building to a corrugated iron stall and stand on a cracked concrete slab with a container of water, which they have fetched from far away, to wash. They walk further down the track, across an open rubbish littered field, to another corrugated iron stall with a hole in the ground covered by rotting boards, to defecate. Many people share this.

I was overwhelmed and wanted to cry.

Having known my friend for many years now, I have watched and listened to his pleas for help. I have visited his previous residence, which was no better than this. His children have grown – they are all teenagers now and trying to get a good education. Meshack has been an ADRA worker. He has been a faithful gardener. He has tried to sell books. He is always cheerful and genuinely polite and gracious to everyone. He has provided a few shillings for a young neighbour so she can go to primary school. He encourages the mother with the three children who lives on the opposite side of his room, and they look to him for help. He has been very sick and so have some of his children. His wife is discouraged having lost two of her brothers in a lightning strike. I don’t know what they all eat.

I don’t know what to do. Africa has tired me.

Lucy and her young son Arnold came to see me. Lucy has a chronic sickness and needs medication. Arnold is doing well at school and thankfully kind donors enable him to do that. Lucy’s husband has been a gentle man and hard worker but he lost his job some time ago due to attending too many funerals for his family members. No new prospects are in sight although he keeps searching. Poverty has sent him mad and he has turned to drugs and alcohol to escape and mask his deep discouragement and hopelessness. He throws stones at people, he beats his wife, he burns his boy’s books. Lucy has chased him away because he is dangerous. This gentle, kind man is exhausted and ruined because of poverty.

Poverty has exhausted me too.

The road on which I travel to and from Nairobi passes through Ongata Rongai where my friends live. Both sides of the road are littered with rubbish, rotten cabbages, plastic bags and through it all rummage hungry donkeys, goats, cows, dogs and sheep. Thousands of people are everywhere – in the shops, selling their wares at ramshackle stalls, on bikes, pulling carts, piling onto the noisy buses and matatus. Amidst the dirty scene these people walk and ride with dignity. The men are dressed well in clean shirts and suits. The black tall elegant women with their elaborate plaited hairstyles and smart suits look as if they have stepped out of a Vogue magazine. And any white item of clothing shines brilliantly. How do they do it?

The poor inspire me. They encourage me and I look at them with admiration and deep respect.

This is not the way I want to or could live. Yet I have been exposed to the poverty of Africa and somehow I am caught up in it and can’t escape the impressions and calls on my capacity to give something of myself.

Brenda accompanied me to the slums and as I lamented and held back the tears, she reminded me that the poor will always be with us. We can’t escape that reality. But I want to escape it. I want to fix it. I want to get all the money from the rich and share it around. I want to help all those children go to school. I want to teach the women that contraception is okay – it is safe and can work. I want to show the children and the youth that they can rise above this. I want to tell them there is a better way. I want to tell them there is hope.

But – I am inadequate. I am overwhelmed and I am sorry. I am glad I was born elsewhere.

Poverty is exhausting and never-ending.

Florence, who works with the poor, told us that we must just do our best in our corner – “Clean the corner where you are and if everyone does that, the whole world will be clean,” she says. I want to believe her and I will try.

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