My favorite place to have lunch is this little buffet restaurant behind the Undugu office. One afternoon I was walking back to the office, full of rice, githeri and vegetables and saw something out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see what it was and I see a young man around my age sitting in the corner of two walls along the alley. He is covered in the ever-present dust that covers much of this city so that he blends in so well with the wall that I had to do a double take to make sure he was actually there.
He served as a real life metaphor for the fact that those living and/or working on the streets blend in too much here in Nairobi. The other morning there was another young man sitting on a bench at the bus stop with a bottle of glue hanging from his face. A nicely dressed, middle class woman was sitting right next to him and didn’t look at him, didn’t move, didn’t look upset, uncomfortable or anything. Just sat there next to him looking into the distance waiting for her matatu to arrive.
It is hard to know what she was thinking sitting next to him. Maybe she was feeling sympathy but was just unsure of how to act. Maybe she was ignoring him on purpose. Or maybe it was engrained behavior from a member of a society that is so plagued with poverty that scenes like a boy high on glue, or a boy so covered in dust that he blends in with the walls in an alleyway, are normal.
I have been told by people older and wiser than I that I have to be careful of how emotionally involved I get so that I don’t get so overcome by emotion that I start to become ineffective in my work. Keeping your distance is a defense mechanism to protect yourself and I think that is what some Kenyans have developed to the extreme so that they can cope without going through emotional breakdowns everyday. This doesn’t make them bad people, but rather people that have developed a way to shield themselves from the effects of seeing poverty everyday.
While I too have built a defense, I can still see over the wall. Disturbingly, what I have seen is that some Kenyans have built their defenses so high that they can no longer see over them. They have resigned themselves to thinking that extreme poverty is something that will always exist, something that requires the construction of a tall defense for peace of mind.
A goal of the Digital Storytelling Project is not to tear down everyone’s defense, but rather take a few bricks off the top and show that there is hope. Poverty should not be seen as a permanent condition or unsolvable problem – but rather a temporary difficulty in need of a solution. I don’t want people to lie awake at night and suffer at work because they are so emotionally distressed, but people should not sit next to a poor child at a bus stop and look as comfortable as if they were waiting for a table at a high-class restaurant. These kids have problems and need help – they don’t need people pretending that they don’t exist.
The dust has to be removed.
Posted By Kristina Rosinsky
Posted Jul 23rd, 2008