Escape from the slum

When you grow up in the slums (61% of people in Nairobi do), life is hard.  No job, no schooling, no future. Unemployment is high (youth around 70 %!), as is crime, alcoholism, and child prostitution. Skills and simple, I call it common sense, isn’t developed. They learn at best basic skills for a ‘profession’ – on the job training; a plumber, a carpenter, a painter. No theory, no other subjects, only a very small window of learning to paint a wall. No newspapers, often no electricity, no water, no sewer, no Internet.

The mentality of poverty it’s called. Your family and those around you are unemployed. Dad has probably left by now, your family and friends try to cope, but sit around a lot. A lot! You’re often hungry; the diet is often corn meal ugali (similar to grits, if I remember correctly) and a kind of spinach, only less nutritious. It’s cheap, but very one-sided. Meat (often chicken left-overs, chew off the bone) is a luxury.

So do something about it. Get an education. Primary school is free. Yeah, the school itself, not the uniforms, shoes, books, meals at school, etc. An awful lot of people can’t afford; it’s that simple. And those hands could be home working. High school is even more expensive, not to mention college. And if you make it that far, there is a huge number (almost 50%) of unemployed college graduates.

Then how do you cope? It gets easier to understand why people want to escape for a while with any means available. There’s a lot of glue-sniffing among the younger kids. And the ever present, often homemade, alcohol. It causes a lot of deaths; very lethal, but relatively cheap.

Escape from reality for a while maybe, but there is no escape from their situation. Education? Usually not once you missed that boot and/or just can’t afford it.

And then there’s grass, marijuana. It’s cheap, plentiful, and gets used a lot by younger people. I sometimes see, or smell, them smoking at 9.00 AM. They don’t have any work to go to anyway, although I’ve also seem them smoking during work. Apparently they have enough money to buy it, although it’s often communal. Whoever is working is expected to do something for the others. There have probably been studies done on why they smoke, although I haven’t found them. Use is definitely on the increase. There is even a movement here to legalize it.

Escape, feeling good, making it all bearable? Still I don’t see depressed people, sitting desperate along the way. These people seem happy enough and love making jokes. They’re very social, with everyone in the streets. Kim had gone to school in a richer area in the past and said it was terribly boring; no one was outside. He was happy to be back home and doesn’t really want to leave.

In spite of the impression we often get, these are not people to be pitied (although education and a job wouldn’t hurt). They are social beings; happy, intelligent, normal people. I always have the feeling that if we could put a happiness meter on them, they would win hands down.