A man came from Africa to Europe looking for help. He has devoted his life to improving the lives of his fellow country men, women and especially children in his native Kenya, in the slums of Kibera, Pastor Nick Macharia is his name and help is coming. Heres his story.
“I love you all for your great concern and I wish you God’s blessing as you think about Africa and what you can do, particularly in the Kibera slum.”
These are the words Macharia left to then newly forming “Kibera support group” in Genova, Italy last September on the last day of his his risky adventure to Europe, his first time out of Africa.
It was a strange few days for many people who were lucky to meet this funny, good humoured, passionate, strong, clever and extremely hard working man who has devoted his life to bettering the lives of those around him. Those whose situation in just trying to survive is so hard to imagine living here in the luxury of Europe, where although there are many problems, seem tiny in signifigance to those who face the daily battle of staying alive. I was lucky enough to meet Macharia, after arriving back to the Buridda social centre late after a long train journey after some time working in Venice, I was told “Welcome Dunk, theres a man from Kenya in the room you will sleep in”, tired and plugging back into things I soon met a well dressed man in a light brown suit and a bright red tie with a big smiling face, little did i know then how important a friend I was going to make. We both briefly outlined what we were doing but as I was tired I soon needed to sleep, before bed I told Macharia that I worked with community and independant media and would like to do a radio interview with him the following day, he was very excited about this, as that was exactly the reason he had traveled from Africa: to tell Europe and the world about the situation in the slums of Kibera, to tell us about the work he was doing with the Tenderfeet project and try to seek assistance in what ever form it might come to assist him and his people. The following morning, we got up, made breakfast and hot chocolate and sat down on the couch in the social centre, I took out my little audio recorder and I did my first of many radio interviews with Macharia – It was a sad tale of a people living in miserable life situations, but it was also a tale of HOPE, as Macharia knows that things will change, that local people doing little things can make a difference and that this story just needed to be brought to the next level.
So heres his story and the story of Kibera…
Macharia left his job as an engineer over 20 years ago as he felt a calling to become a minister of the church, his father had been a church minister and I think tried to dissuade his son from what he knew would be a very difficult life. But the young Macharia was committed and driven and took up his religious studies and soon was out in the field of action as he saw it. His work took him to the prisons of Nairobi, as there was or perhaps still is a law that if somenone is sent to prison and they are responsible for a child, the child is put behind bars also. He set up a charity group to take children out of custody and try to give them an education and accomodation outside the prison system in the hope that their situation could be improved. He questioned the root causes of why there was so many people in prison, at that time 90% of the prison population was from Kibera, so he said to himself that he must go to and work in the slums of Kibera.
Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya is one of the largest slums in Africa with a population of over one million people (estimates range widely). The name “Kibera” is derived from kibra, a Nubian word meaning “forest” or “jungle.” (1) Although over a million people live there the government recognise it officially as as a “squat” or illegally occupied land, this allows them to basically do nothing for the inhabitants.
There are 3 public schools, no running water, no running electricity, 5 toilets and 5 water pumps which both have to payed for. As a result there is huge illeteracy and education problems, crime is seen as the only way to survive. Due to the lack of toilets, people shit in plastic bags which are then flung onto the terribe smelling pile of previous peoples work; this is known as the flying toilet. Needless to say rivers of shit and piss and who knows what else flow from these piles of waste, these rivers run into the nearby river causing massive pollution. Despite this locals still wash, drink and take fish from this river to eat. There are widespread disease epidemics, along with Aids and the other usual diseases. People from rural Kenya still come to Kibera to live, believing like so many others around the world that the city will give them the chance in life to make it, to own the big house and the big car and all the rest that “they have in the west”. Landlord exploitation and lack of basic law means profits and no justice in court should there be any issues of land use or ownership, oddly enough, although officially the government sees Kibera as an illegal settlement, many of its ministers are getting rich as they are the landlords in question. (2)
When Macharia arrived in Kibera many years ago the situation was not as bad as it is today, but it was still bad. After an early incident being mugged, he was soon respected in the community due to the work he put into bettering their situation, he set up a church mission and that has gone from strength to strength, he now walks through his area with his people and working together they do what they can to improve things. Some years ago he set up the Tenderfeet project, as he believed that the youth had a right to basic education and some food every day, he set up a school, the community rented a small shack and one of the parishinors, Mama Margeret became the main teacher. The government soon got suspicious of Macharia and felt he was trying to subvert the government, they made his life hard and examined all his work to look for unlawful activity. AAs well as Macharia´s social work, he is a very astute man and he knew what might lie in store for him, so ontop of all he was already doing, he studied law at night and became a lawyer. He soon had to defend himself and his work in the courts, he was successful though but it was a tiring time. During this time one “legal procedure” procurred the community school for “development of a road”, but once the deal was forced through the “use” changed, the school was knocked and higher priced housing units were erected. The law protected this “legal” government action.
For a long time Macharia and the Kibera community struggled to make ends meet, to provide education for the youth, to continue to survive in their harsh world. Macharia also set up job training workshops as an alternative to crime in Kibera. There is a word that escapes me now, its a word that describes someone in Kenya who chooses to stay in prison for their life rather than face the battle to exist outside in the streets, perhaps many of these people grew up as children institutionalised by the kenyan child prison law, this puts things in perspective a little bit as to how difficult things must be. A little while back though, Macharia and the Tenderfeet project got a lucky break, the US grassroots group, LAHASH, happened to visit Kibera. Lahash International was created to encourage grassroots movements of compassion providing relief for those in desperate situations in East Africa and they mostly work in Sudan and Uganda, but what they saw in Kibera shocked them and they offered to make a short film and to do what they can to highlight the situation (2).
Then a few months back Macharia proposed what he felt might have been a crazy or stupid idea: that they raise funds to send him to Europe so that he can spead the word and to seek wider assistance. They pooled together and after some time finally had the money to get Macharia to Europe for a little while.
Prior to this he had met an Italian man who told him to come to Italy sometime and that he would help him. Nick arrived in Milan airport and rang the number he had been given, he recieved bad news: his friend had “left the country and was no in France”, no invitation was given to Macharia to visit the only address outside Africa he had in his possession. What was he to do? He got a taxi from the airport outside Milan into the train station, the taxi driver took all of Macharia´s money. In the train station, Macharia went to the police for assistance. After he and all his documentation was checked out and many questions asked of him, they told him there was little they could do for him. He was feeling frightened, alone and a angry at this stage, had he wasted all the money from the community that had been spent on getting him to Europe, that money could have fed a lot of children and bought more resourses. Then the next strange part of this story happened, while Macharia was standing dejected and alone in the station a white English man approached him and asked him about his s¡tuation, Macharia told him his story. The English man responded “This is not a good place for you, Milan is not a good place, you need to try to get to Genova, thats where I´m going, there are people and groups there who will help you. There are places where you can live for free and they will take care of you.” So Macharia went back to the police in the situation and told them he had been offered a place to stay in Genova, they gave him the money for a single train journey to get there and he soon arrived in Genova.
When Macharia arrived in Genova, again he felt helpless and dejected. He arrived off the train with the name of the English man and a time to meet him in a days time outside the station. He came out of the station and sat on one of the benches, he saw what he thought to be a church and decided to call in and seek assistance. It turned out to be an old Genovese residence and no welcome was given for him. He sat back on the bench and was really feeling miserable and foolish for wasting his communities money and for also being in what was now becoming a dangerous situation. He sat and sat. Then a young Genovese girl approached his bench and asked him in English if he was ok, he explained his situation, she listened and then said that she would do what she could to help him. She called her boyfriend and when he arrived they took Macharia somewhere to eat and then sorted him out with a hostel for the night, they very generously covered all the costs. The next day they met him and talked with him about their life in Genova and Europe, what their worlds were about and soon the 3 became friends. Macharia was lucky in this situation, many people arrive in places far away from home and dont meet such luck and generousity, then again perhaps the old saying “what goes around, comes around” has some truth in it, who knows? The couple brought Macharia back to the station for his appointment with the English man who then brought him to the Buridda social centre, which is a very large squatted building that used to house the “Genova school of economics”, but that now houses young people invovled with the anti-capitalist movement.
For two weeks this was Macharias home and it was here during the second week that I met him, we spent nearly all that week in each others company exchanging stories about life and struggles in different part of the world including mostly, Kibera. I did a series of interviews with him about Kibera and his work there, one of which was played on NEAR FM, an Irish community radio station that has a great programme “majority world”. That interview went out on local Dublin radio but also over the internet, and we tuned the internet radio in Buridda into the station for people to listen to the interview. Macharia and myself did not get to listen to that interview as we had made an appointment with one of the local Catholic priests for a meeting in which Macharia was going to explain his work in the hope of some assistance, when we got to the church the priest quickly exited the scene and his secretary made appologies “Oh, we help so much in the world already”, I was livid by this, he didnt even have the decency or bravery to speak to Macharias face, another example of the church letting down the people. Macharia told me not to be so hard, he forgave. I didnt, but after I said to him that perhaps trying to find assistance from big bodies such as the Catholic Church was not going to help Kibera, and perhaps more local grassroots groups would be better at helping. From this we met up with his first friends and from this groups of friends grew the “Kibera support group” which organised for people to come and listen to Macharias story and to make a small financial contribution, being mosly students it was small but the group said that although without much money themselves they have the resourses to create events to bring in money for Kibera. At present a musical concert is being organised in Genova, as well as some more small donations sent out for the children for Christmas. Also while in Genova, his friends brought him to a small Protestant Church where he was invited by the priest to talk to the congregation, who were mostly old British expats, but they listened and they too also made a collection for the children in Kibera. So at the end of it all, did Macharia feel it was a waste of money, a foolish journey based on false hope? No, he left even more strongly committed to his work, now with the knowledge that people outside Africa knew about it. He also had a deeper faith in human kindness after going through his dark hours.
So that was Macharia´s adventure, of course there was a lot more about his views of Europe and especially what he sees as a hopelessness that forces the youth of Europe to turn to drugs. He feels that Europe can help Africa, but so too that Africa can help Europe, that it can show a way of Hope.
It was an absolute pleasure to meet Macharia, we hope now as the WSF (world social forum) approaches that the next part of the story will happen, and that his offer to let the Kibera community tell the world their story will soon become a reality.
2 – I worked with Nick on his return to Kenya from Barcelona for the project: World Social Forum Kenya, Barcelona node, at the link there is a radio interview with him and a full transcript.