My first weekend in Nairobi, I went out with my coworker and his wife. They are young and intelligent recent graduates with good jobs and the potential for very successful careers. We went to an Indian restaurant with a several page wine list, formal servers, and a décor that could be found in any of the finest restaurants in Washington, D.C. I looked at the tables around us and realized that a new generation of Kenyans surrounded us. This new generation has opportunities in education and business that weren’t available to their parents’ generation. They own cars, ipods, fancy cell phones, and will probably own homes in the near future if they don’t already. They are a sign of the economic development in Kenya.
I made comments about the new, young, successful middle class in Kenya to friends and family in e-mails and phone conversations. Then, two days ago, the Washington Post confirmed my observations with its article, “Kenya’s Middle Class Home-Buying Boom” For the first time in history, Kenyans are buying homes with all the modern conveniences, fashions, and status that can be found in any developed country. I’m seeing this everywhere I go. Kenya’s economy is developing and people–especially the young, recently educated–are reaping the benefits. It’s a wonderful thing. But, with all this important and critical development of a new middle class is the constant reminder of the immense poverty that still penetrates Kenya.
Such dichotomy between rich and poor exists everywhere in the world. At home, In Washington, D.C., the dichotomy aligns with the boundaries between the Northwest quadrant and the Southeast quadrant. When I lived in Utah, the dichotomy split between those who lived east of the valley and those who lived west of the valley. In high school, it was the numbered streets and lettered streets vs. the streets with names like Wisteria Lane.
In Nairobi, the separation is less distinct. Slums butt up against gated communities and street children weave in and out of young professionals in stilettos and suits commuting to and from salaried jobs. The poverty in Nairobi is evident everywhere and you can’t avoid it, even if you do live in a new up-scale housing development. In my opinion, visibility of poverty is a wonderful thing. If Kenyans–and the world–are going to help the poorest of the poor, they have to feel poverty slap them in the face. Last night, the hand of poverty slapped me.
The evening began when I met up with a group of American law students studying/working in Nairobi for the summer. We went to an upscale restaurant with prices that much to the dismay of my wallet, matched prices in the United States. The restaurant was classy; the food was delicious; the service was perfect; and the evening was comfortable. Some of the other students pointed out their Kenyan law professors from the University of Nairobi at the next table. Once again, the nouveau riche of Kenya surrounded us.
After paying the bill, we strolled into the Nairobi night as we walked back to the apartment complex where most of them are living. It’s an apartment complex that I have dubbed the “green zone” of Nairobi. It is a complex mostly populated by foreigners walled in by intense security so that they can enjoy their manicured lawns, well-kept swimming pool, and Wi-fi signal.
Halfway through our walk, street children with open palms overtook us. They pointed to their mouths and in English and Swahili begged for our pocket change. There was 10 of us and about 15 of them. Their ages seemed to range between 8 and 12. One of them was a girl who kept to the fringes of the group while she balanced a baby on her hip. I have seen street children in many parts of the world. But, these street children were different. Usually, after giving a few coins to a begging child, they leave. But not these children. They continued to beg. A couple of them wailed with wide-open mouths in an attempt to grab our attention. They weaved between us as they tugged at our jackets and reached up to grab our arms. They aggressively cut us off and stared at our faces. They felt the outsides of our pockets for contents and they put us in a general state of confusion. These children were desperate.
As a group, we collectively tried to tell the children in plain English and basic Swahili, “We’re sorry,” “Hakuna pesa,” “Please, Leave us, now,” and on and on. Two of the girls in our group linked arms securely as they helped each other hold back tears that developed into sobs. When we approached the gate of the “green zone” apartments, the security guards appeared and the kids scrammed! Poverty had just slapped us. As we regained composure and reeled from the slapping, many of us agreed that though it was not a pleasant experience, it was a valuable experience.
People who come to Nairobi see poverty. It affects how they feel and pings at their hearts. Nobody is comfortable seeing it. So, what do we do about it? Do we simply let the slums become more insular and enclosed? Do we allow the rich and poor to comfortably separate and disassociate? Or, do we support changes and policies that actually address the roots of poverty? Do we just hand a shilling to a street child or do we elect politicians that will make healthcare for his single mother dieing of AIDS affordable and obtainable? The answers to these questions are obvious, but putting those answers into actions takes dedication. I hope the new class of Kenyans with education, opportunity, and bank accounts will have that dedication. And for the rest of us in the world who might live on the developed side of the international dichotomy, I hope that we will join the new class of Kenyans in helping those still living in poverty.
Posted By Jonathan Homer
Posted Jul 29th, 2007