Forgive me if this blog post is not as courteous or as balanced as it should be. I am processing out loud what I have just experienced in a slum in Nairobi. I was part of a team of academic advisors escorting a group of doctoral students on a field trip to the slums. Part of me found it very difficult, because I felt like I was just perpetuating the trend for slum tourism that the film Slum Dog Millionaire catalysed. In our defence we went at the invitation of a kenyan run mission agency Hope for Africa International, but on one level we did just airdrop in, walk around, take some photos and then leave.
The slums of Nairobi are a strange experience – because Kenya is a country rich with natural resources, fertile land, beautiful scenes and lots of good infrastructure compared to many African nations. It was not that long ago that Malaysia and Kenya had comparable economic futures. I walked the slum with a church leader from Burundi. Burundi is an hour’s flight away and it is a poorer country than Kenya by some margin. But there are no slums in Burundi, the reason for this is apparently the intervention of the government to restrict movement. So from what i understand from talking to people here, it is a lack of government intervention, unrestrained urbanisation, corruption in the political system that has mishandled the billions of pounds of economic aid that has come into the country that has lead to the huge slums of Nairobi. (I am very happy to be corrected on this). So my first visceral reaction to what I saw today was anger, that this slum didn’t need to exist in the first place.
The business of poverty
Talking to some church leaders here, it was reported to me that the Kibera slum – arguable Africa’s biggest slum, has over 3000 NGOs working in it. Most of them are Christian run. On the one hand this is a huge credit to the church for getting its hands dirty and getting involved. The activism the church demonstrates in some of the most difficult parts of the world is hugely encouraging and it is driven by a christian desire to respond to the love and mercy they have received by God and wanting to pass that on to others. Even Atheists like Matthew Paris writing in the Times acknowledges the impact of Christians in the world’s suffering.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
But the report of 3000 agencies makes me wonder if they could be working together better. Samson a Kenyan mission leader asked simply:
What would it be if they worked together? This slum is someone’s business – some people want it to be like this .
It is hard not to become cynical about the business of poverty, when Kenyan leaders are explaining that they feel some of the aid agencies are not doing work that will genuinely help the situation because it is more lucrative to keep the status quo. Or the amount of overlap and replication that must be going on for 3000 agencies to be working in the same slum – albeit a slum which has over 800 000 people in it. Is the reason there is replication because of the need to justify to donors back home the unique aspect of their work rather than find ways of partnering with others on joint projects? I know this is not just a Christian problem – the non faith based NGOs often have the same problems. But we Christians have got to sort this one out. I have seen in many situations that due to either tiny theological differences, large egos, nationalistic pride or often sheer pigheadedness Christians refuse to work together. Instead we fall out with each other start our own thing, don’t consult and come up with clever marketing campaigns, use “celebrities” to promote the latest project and hope no one will ask us any difficult questions because they are feeling guilty about living in prosperity while others are in poverty.
The snare of immediacy
As someone who is passionately committed to fostering and adoption it was very tempting to grab one of these gorgeous and amazingly happy Children and offer them a home in the UK where their risk of dying from preventable diseases such as diaorhea, malaria or end up being abandoned to become a street child, falling into crime, drug addiction etc are greatly reduced. I have met many people who after the experience of seeing this kind of poverty have felt motivated to get involved and start up their own aid agency, orphanage etc. In one sense this is so much better than the apathy that pervades our cultures I am loathe to critique it. On the other side well meaning people often inadvertently disempower local people, create dependence cultures, create culturally inappropriate responses or end up replicating what other people are doing.
As you can see I am feeling frustrated, angry and desperately sad. I am not offering any solutions at this stage – in one sense who am I to even dare to think I have anything to add to the conversation. But I did see cause for hope today. I saw a Kenyan run outreach centre running a school that started with 50 children in a two bedroom flat in the slum now running in 13 locations serving 6200 children. I saw micro finance programmes running with the parents of the children offering them the chance to take a loan out so they can start a business to earn their way out of poverty . I saw an empowerment programme for teaching mothers the trade of dress making over a 6 month course and then giving the graduates a sewing machine to set them up in business – and the school providing a conduit to making large orders from the newly trained up workforce. I heard testimonies from pupils and parents about how they had not only been offered hope, practical help , real loving relationships, skills and empowerment, but they also come to a living faith in God and were now very keen to share it with others.
I am thinking out loud, so please forgive the venting, there is hope and there is much we can do if we can only find ways of working better together.