The Poorest of the Poor

Wow, today was intense. We began with a trip into the heart of Korogocha, one of Africa’s largest (~400k people, but no one really knows how many) slums. As we bussed in, many had to close their windows as the stench was revolting. We caused quite a spectacle traveling along the narrow, make-shift streets as we passed shanty after shanty. Many kids climbed onto the back of the bus and hitched a ride. Outsiders don’t often visit the slums, where crime and disease are rampant.

Korogocha is located next to Nairobi’s only landfill. A major industry within the slum is for kids to rifle through dumped trash, finding used goods than can be sold for a few shillings on the “street.” We passed such a “market” and it was amazing how many odds and ends had been collected and categorized: combs, mirrors (broken), sunglasses, toothbrushes . . . I suddenly felt extremely guilty for everything I had ever thrown away. Much of the trash in the landfill is burned, emitting fumes that penetrate Korogocha and cause respiratory illness in its inhabitants.

We finally arrived at our destination: St. Peter’s Catholic Church, a heavily fortified compound in the middle of the slum. The moment we stepped down from the bus, all of the churchgoing children came to greet us; we were instant celebrities. I think Roberto (Mexican) and Steffen (Danish) were the most popular. While the rest of us were listening to Father Daniel tell us about the history of the mission, they were chasing the kids around, instigating giggles and squeals of glee. At one point Roberto practically incited a riot; he had all the kids shouting in unison, “MEX-I-CO! MEX-I-CO!”

Church service began at 10:30 AM. We spread out and sat with local churchgoers. As is my way, I made my way to the front and center. After a few minutes, others arrived and informed me that this was the choir’s section. They invited me to stay but I assured them that they did NOT want that! I made my way back a few rows and sat between two nice men who helped me adhere to the local customs throughout the service.

The “church” was an amphitheater with cement stadium-style seating plus a few benches in the middle. The service was in Swahili but the men around me translated some of the important parts for me. It was the day of saints Peter and Paul, so the homily was about Peter and the rock and was pretty easily understood regardless of the language. At one point my classmate, Martin (Czech), was invited up to lift a heavy rock as part of an interactive demonstration. He elicited wild applause from the audience.

The service was something akin to the Pentecostal service I attended once in Washington DC. There was lots of singing, clapping, dancing/swaying, handholding, smiling, and laughing. At one point we all held hands and cast the darkness out of our lives with emphatic chanting, gesturing, and dancing. Each time I thought I had the hang of it, the steps changed. Fortunately the men on either side of me where gracious and patient and helped me figure it out.

At one point I was about to sit back down when the man to my left pointed out that a boy behind me had urinated on the ground and I was about to sit in it—thanks for the heads-up! And toward the end of the service the wind changed such that the smell of the fetid, baking landfill next door came over; it was nauseating. But the smiles continued and spirits were high; it was inspiring.

The service ended at 12:30 and we had a few minutes to explore the church compound on our own. I had heard about their sports programs so I went immediately to their gym. It could hardly be called a gym; it was a shack with a bunch of broken down equipment haphazardly scattered around. Those who used it had no instruction and just kind of did what others, who had in turn learned from others before them, did. It was almost definitely suboptimal and probably unsafe, but the dedication was inspiring. Here were people living on less than $1 per day and they were still making time to lift weights and train for sport. Rocky would have been so proud. I wish we had stayed longer; I gladly would have organized a training session.

Our lunch was set up intentionally to show the stark contrast within the city. We dined at the Safari Club, a country club just a few minutes drive away from the slum. It had a swimming pool with waterfalls and slide, elegant cuisine, and a fitness center that was everything St. Peter’s gym wasn’t: pristine equipment, LCD TVs, clean water . . . Lunch was pretty quiet. Even the singing of “Happy Birthday” to Sidney (French) was barely audible.

After lunch we returned to Korogocha, this time heading to another fortified compound: the orphanage of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity. No one knew quite what to expect here; I, for one, didn’t even know what the order did. Its mission is to reach out to “the poorest of the poor,” and that is exactly what these sisters did. They had four main charges there: rescue orphaned babies and give them a place to live, take care of mentally and physically disabled children who are unwanted by their families, take care of mentally and physically disabled adults who are unwanted by their families, and take care of HIV-positive children/adults.

This appointment wasn’t like any other. We didn’t meet with any administrators or attend any presentation. We just split up, walked around, and met with the occupants. My group’s first visit was to the disabled children. Some of them stared listlessly at an unseen horizon; some spoke unintelligibly; some showed off by playing with toys . Most of them wanted to hold hands, share their stuffed animals, or just chit chat and laugh and squeal. The listless children had flies crawling all over them. No matter how feverishly the flies were shooed away, they invariably came right back. It was heart breaking.

When it was time for us to move on, the children didn’t want to let go. Our next stop was with the disabled adults. They were sitting around the perimeter of a room finishing lunch. We walked around the circle and introduced ourselves to each. One spoke really excellent English. I remarked to her that she spoke much better English than Elvis (Chinese), who was just to my left. This invoked raucous laughter from many others and one woman almost choked on her food.

Our final visit was with the orphaned babies and children. The children were ecstatic to see us. Each and every one of them wanted to be picked up and held. This posed a problem since they outnumbered us 2-to-1! But it was a lot of fun throwing one kid up into the air, putting him down and grabbing another, chasing one around the room, lending sunglasses to kids who heads were way too small for them, and just generally playing with and holding them.

On the ride back to the hotel it was hard to get charged up for our closing dinner. After a full day with the poorest of the poor it was time for reflection, not celebration. These people were amazing. Despite everything they had going against them there was no shortage of will for and celebration of life. They understood the hand they had been dealt, accepted it, and made the best of it. They smiled and laughed and hoped for something better. May God bless them, Father Daniel, and the good sisters.

Closing dinner was nice, at a churrascaria called Carnivore. I vowed to eat exclusively crocodile and ostrich and, for the most part, I kept my promise. I didn’t have much of an appetite, though. We watched part of the EuroCup finals between Germany and Spain, but I caught the first bus back to the hotel and called it an early night.

The dichotomy of Kenya is strong. We have met with wildly successful entrepreneurs and we have played with those rejected and forgotten by even the poorest of society. Perhaps I am naïve in thinking Kenya is exceptional; perhaps such disparity exists everywhere. Regardless, this trip has opened my eyes very pointedly to the fact that it exists and strengthened my commitment to responsibility in leadership. Perhaps I alone can’t save the environment, the endangered animals, and the poor everywhere around the world. But I suspect that if we ALL accept the mantle of responsibility in our professional lives, we can make great strides to those ends. Sorry I don’t have anything eloquent or rousing to say tonight, but I am drained. Good night.

Published by Bryan Guido Hassin

These are the musings of a global cleantech entrepreneur. This blog began as a way to document my experience during the IMD MBA in Switzerland and now is the place where I publish eclectic thoughts on business, politics, fitness, entertainment, travel, wine, sports, and . . . whatever else is top of mind.

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