How Are You?

Kenya 2012

By Juliana Resende

June 19, 2012

Also published in Portuguese at BR Press

Expecting social, political and economic degradation in an African slum is akin to saying it’s wet when it rains. Everyone knows the continent is the poorest, most abused, and most underdeveloped on the planet. But Kibera, the largest sub-Saharan slum, embedded in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, frightens even the most prepared visitors. It is a hell under the open sky and was, significantly, the first site visited by a delegation of eleven bloggers with International Reporting Project (IRP).

Kibera is for Kenya and all of Africa like HIV and AIDS: an internal devastation of the body in the same proportion that is seen in the environment, like a poignant biological response to centuries of mistreatment. Thus, Kibera is like a nightmare created 100 years ago, during the period of British colonization of Kenya, when the English brought workers from neighboring Sudan to settle the region. It became an accumulation of misery, filth and illness, mixed with sadness, resistance, apathy and, believe it or not, hope.

Yesterday we were introduced to Kibera, with its decades upon decades of intermittent occupation, without electricity, running water, sewers or trash collection, and with an estimated population of 30,000 living under the poverty line--in this case significantly less than US$1 per day. The putrefying stench of the place is still with me. One will never forget the memory of Kibera and her children, with lively eyes, seeking a little attention, hurrying to ask: “How are you?”

They repeat this expression to the visitors without pause, playing, jumping and taunting, still with the innocence inherent in their youth to the conditions to which they are submitted. “How are you?” Yes, this sounds unexpected, heartbreaking, bleak. It is an English phrase that is taught in schools (Swahili is the official local language), a polite way to greet someone else. Who else? Who, ultimately, would have the courage to ask a child playing in the sludge of fecal coliform and pollution, in that repulsive and foul-smelling place, without any condition or prospect of survival, “How are you?” It can only be a joke.

The response shames us more than saddens us. The abject poverty that these children--not to mention their parents and grandparents--are submitted to is, indeed, an issue for all of us. It is a collective error of a civilization that usurps the basic rights of a vulnerable and hopelessly condemned portion of the world’s population, concentrated in Africa in a shocking, desperate way. The culprit is not AIDS. It is a consequence of hunger, neglect, lack of hygiene, immoral corruption.

Rose Cangua, 40, lost her husband to AIDS three years ago, which is when she began to be treated. She takes “free” antiretroviral drugs but doesn’t eat every day. Of her three children, the youngest, age 4, is also HIV positive. They live alongside a rancid stream in a dark and dirty mud hut.

Are those familiar with favelas in Brazil, where 28 million people have left absolute poverty, but 16 million remain in extreme poverty, prepared for Kibera? No. No one would be or should be prepared to witness this, much less to live in those subhuman conditions. The government of Kenya--with its 38 million residents, about 50 percent without access to US$1 per day--is hardly prepared. Doctors Without Borders? They do what they can in Kibera, while the people use “flying toilets,” the practice of simply throwing away excrement. The Ministry of Health? “We don’t have the budget.” The international community? Ask Obama--the United States is one of the biggest donors of humanitarian programs in Kenya, where the president has family--or complain to a bishop. And still, a child smiles in Kibera.

How are you about it?

Juliana Resende, writer/editor for BR Press, is blogging from the International Reporting Project's reproductive health-themed trip to Kenya. This article was translated from Portuguese by Dominique Mack.