The Unexpected in one of the Largest Slums in East Africa

You might not expect such vibrancy, creativity and positivity in one of the largest slums in East Africa, but that is exactly what you will find in Kibera all wrapped up in a huge heap of HOPE. I had the pleasure of spending four days at UWEZA Foundation, created by Jen Sapitro of the United States. Jen, 20 something, walks the walk, not only is she passionate about creating change through tapping into the talent and creativity of youth, she lives right in Kibera with the people she serves. All staff at UWEZA are Kenyans who grew up and live in Kibera and thus understand the many issues and challenges faced by the youth with whom they work. UWEZA offers free Art, Dance, & Journalism and Soccer clubs after school and on weekends. They also offer Sponsorship for tutoring, school fees and books and uniforms. It is a GREAT success.

The children and teens eagerly shared their life stories in a workshop; highlighting their challenges, struggles hopes and dreams. The Journalism Club burst at the seams on a Sunday afternoon with 24 participants hunkered down, pencils grasped, lips pursed, brows furrowed as they put their truth onto paper. Everyone who attended the workshop agreed to share their story and their HOPE.

What follows is a combination of all 24 stories capturing an image of intensity, perseverance, & big dreams. Dreams that can indeed come true. Kenyans are a passionate people filled with gifts and talents only needing an avenue for expression. This generation Can change Kenya, bringing it forward from corruption to greater possibility. There is so much potential here! Read on and be Inspired!

Life in Kibera

True there are many challenges living in Kibera; some similar to life anywhere and some more commonly found in a slum of nearly 800,000. Many relocate to Kibera in Nairobi in hopes of a better life outside of the villages where job opportunities and quality educational facilities may be difficult to secure. What they discover in Kibera is often another set of challenges: a lack of quality and safe housing, intermittent electricity, and people struggling daily to make ends meet. Many people work diligently selling produce, electronic items, meats, shoes, magazines, DVDS, but still cannot afford basic needs such as healthy food, clothing and proper shelter.

The students shared their personal challenges; not being able to attend school on a regular basis due to the need to work selling vegetables or charcoal on the streets or searching for scraps of iron to earn a few shillings. Several teens had to choose between leaving school to support their families or go hungry; some let school for more than a year to work in markets or as maids to assist their families many of them with single parent-mother-only households.

“Sometimes I lack access to my school needs, but I never give up! Even with struggles in a house with two working parents, I’; a member of scouts & environmental club. I’ve participated in planting trees in Ngong Forest. “ Doron Omandi

After the 2007 election violence my father died and we ;oved out of Nairobi to a village where my siblings and I worked on a shamba early morning before school without even taking breakfast. After school I worked the streets looking for small jobs until night fall. Celestine Amaria (who is an A student now)

Life for those whose father’s die or leave the family is quite difficult. In some tribes, mothers choose between being inherited by another male family member or being disowned by the entire family. Others struggle to survive as possessions are often taken back by the Father’s family of orign. Children are forced to leave school to support their mothers and siblings. Some who share their lives with a Step-Mother face mistreatment physically, verbally and emotionally including the denial of food.

Some lack food for two to three days at a time. “:y step-;other kept the money for herself rather than helping the 2nd wife’s children, my sisters and I. She did not share food with us or the money given to her by our father to care for us. We often went hungry. I sent my ill sister to a neighbor for lunches and I went to an Uncle’s home.” Cynthia

Even in the struggle there is a pervasive sense of hope. “One day a crowd of people gathered on the street. My grandmother went to the gathering to see what was happening and there she found a yellow polyeurothane bag, inside was a baby boy. My grandmother took the baby to the Police Station. No one claimed him and so she took him in as one of her own. He is now 5 years old. His name is Moses.”

How UWEZA Helps

UWEZA provides much needed services: tutoring and clubs where the children and teens are free to express themselves through dance, painting and writing. There is also a soccer club, one of the largest ones offered in the area. These clubs provide so much more than an outlet of creativity or athleticism. UWEZA provides a sense of security, belonging, peace, quality friends, inspiration, hope, mentorship and support. The creative clubs provide a place for expression enabling and encouraging youth with talents to shine.

Common threads from most participants stories were the deep appreciation for the Sponsorship in covering school fees, books and uniforms opened the door to attending school on a regular basis. The tutoring has improved reading and writing skills and helped students to excel on their examinations.

From their own hearts, this is what the participants shared:

“I’ve been able to nurture my talent at UWEZA. I’ve interacted with other people who share similar goals and learned about media through Journalism club.

“I feel protected here and now I have real friends. I thank God every day that I have friends to share my thoughts, problems, and happiness. I have a place to keep on dreaming and hoping for the future.” Samau Abdullahi

In UWEZA there are better people. Those who can help you when you are in need. Those who can give you hope when you feel everything is going in a different direction. In the community it is rare to find such people.

At UWEZA I learned bad company can ruin good morals. I decided to choose friends wisely. Now all I do runs softly (smoothly). I am never ashamed to walk with my friends side by side. Aksha

UWEZA fulfilled my dreams of passing grade 8 examinations. The teachers sacrificed their precious time to teach us so we do well.

They offered advice when we needed it. They kept my dream of becoming a Journalist ALIVE. The journalism club helped me improve my reading and writing skills through the training, materials and facilities offered. Aksha

The club FREE Talk really helped me. Teacher Becky plays a big role in making us aware of the dangers around us and how to overcome them.

Thanks to UWEZA for keeping me busy with writing. Chatting with the other girls makes me feel better and accepted by society. Snyder Mmasi

I could not live without UWEZA clubs. They helped me pass my grade 8 examinations with flying colors. Edwin Otiero.

Our Hopes and Dreams for the Future

Perhaps what is most compelling about UWEZA and Kibera itself is the persistent prevalence of Hope.

“To the people reading this, know that Everything is possible with God, my preacher tells us to be thankful for our problems, they help us learn.” Cynthia

“We want to make sure everyone’s rights are respected. We wish to teach peace so there is no conflict. We wish to help our parents live well in the future.” Vincent Omondi, Brian Kituku, Vincent Otuoma, Alphonce Otiero and Dominic Amasa

“I would like to help other people such as orphans, the blind, deaf or lame. In Kenya there are many people who walk with braces or on their hands. I would like to preach peace to help Kenya be the Star it can be.” Vincent Omondi

“I would like to be a lawyer to fight for the rights of the children.” Celestine Amaria

“I would like to become a doctor to help the children continue their studies by creating awareness of their needs and preventing and treating diseases so they are healthy enough to go to school.” Samau Abdullahi

“My hope and dream for the future is to help people living in the slums improve their poor health. I would improve hygiene, build better houses not made of mud bricks; houses that would last a long time. I would use trucks to remove the rubbish and build better roads.” Edwin Otiero

“I would like Kenya to be a country where girls will be taken seriously just like the boys. I long for that Kenya where girls will be respected and not made to feel as though they are less human.” Snyder Mmasi

“My ambition is to be a pilot, when there is a will, there is a way. I would like to see an end to robbery , corruption and the other evils and the start of integrity and justice. One of my dreams to make Kenya a better place is to encourage people to conserve the environment by planting more trees; we rely on the environment and need to restore it for the future generation.” Doron Omondi

“I will surely rise again. I want to prove to the world that there is still hope. You can still succeed after a trauma such as rape and unintended pregnancy. I believe we still have a chance. I want to be an angel of hope. I want to be successful. I believe I can for this is not the end of life. I want to dare to dream again. Anonymous

“My dream is to become a footballer so I can support my family and one day my wife and children. If I can succeed in this dream I would sponsor some of the children who live on the streets.” Maxwell Ochieng

My dream is to one day be President. I would kick out poverty and corruption in my country. I would protect all the children by giving them a good quality education. I love older people so they would work with me and be my mentors. I do not want them to suffer as they grow old. I would pay the old people to train the young ones. I would love to teach this way of being President to other countries.” Erick Omwega

“I will rise. I will help the families who are not able to help themselves. I will encourage them that they should not lose hope even if life is very difficult. Everybody knows that growing up in the slums is not easy. But Never Give Up. UWEZA has encouraged me. I don’t see myself as a person who has many problems, I really try and put myself as an able person who can do Something!” Lilian Mariachana

Students reflected on what it felt like to share their stories:

When I shared my life story I felt a sigh of relief from the secret and the idea of sharing my problems and ideas with people who can advise and help me. Doron Omondi

After sharing my story, I am sure that other people are going through the same situations as me, perhaps they will feel like they are not alone. I hope for them to keep on going on with their lives the same as people who are rich. I felt a change in my heart, I felt free because some of the things I shared, no one remembers but me. I feel free. Cynthia Oreny

When I express myself through writing it makes me feel relieved as if a heavy burden has been lifted from my back. I have noticed I shed my tears much less. Snyder Mmasi

After I shared my story, I feel more confident, it gives me courage in my life.

I hope my story encourages people to face the problems they find in life. Celestine Amaria

It is not only the children and teens who benefit from UWEZA, Teacher Steven Kyenze shared his life story with me as well.

Steven an orphan lived a hard life before his transformation a little more than a year ago. He was a cocaine dealer, a criminal in and out of prison and an addict. Always on the run and in and out of prison for years. And then one day he decided to stop running.; Steven found his transformation thorugh religion and decided to devote the rest of his life to helping others Not go down the same path as he did.

He discovered he had a talent in painting, a talent that had lain dormant for years. He shared his desire to paint with his Pastor and his need for supplies; the Pastor presented paints and paper and Steven was on his way. Today he encourages the children in Kibera to tap into their artistic talent and to express themselves through painting. He hopes they do not lose their lives to the streets and drugs as so many people he knew. He has found a family in the children, “they give me a reason to live.” Every Wednesday evening from 4pm to 6pm and Saturdays from 2pm to 4pm you can find Steven at UWEZA in the well lit room with paint splattered walls, his trunk of treasure filled with paints, paper, brushes, palettes and plastic cups await the eager hands of youth as young as 4 up to age 20 ready to express their stories on canvas. They paint scenes of nearby Maisai Mala, the National Park of elephants, giraffes, animals many of them have never seen but they know when outsiders think of Kenya this is what they envision. They paint scenes of fishermen, sunsets and serenity. When encouraged, they paint warriors dancing, skyscrapers of Nairobi, a skyline they see over the rusted roof tops of Kibera. They paint their neigborhoods, vibrant market stalls, mud and tin houses and multitudes of people bustling with business. Steven paints alongside them; peaceful palms, zebras running across the Savannah. Steven oversees, pleased. “I ran away all my life. I ran away from the police, I ran away from people I’d harmed. And I asked myself, how long can I keep running? One day I felt it in my heart to go to church and start a new life. The preacher listened as I shared my dream of becoming a painter. He bought me art supplies. I now use my hands in a positive way. I have a purpose in life. I have vowed to give back one year of service to these children for every year I have done wrong. I hope I live a long time,” Steven says, a smile on his face. We hope you do too Steven.

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