Dichotomies and Roosters

Africa is one giant dichotomy. Or at least that’s my current impression after living here for the last month and a half. I’m an International Development student, meaning that I’ve studied the developing world almost to the point of nausea over the last year. Tribal tensions, rising food prices, government corruption, massive urban migrations and the resultant overcrowding, I’ve read a hundred different opinions on how to deal with all of these issues. But to actually see what I’ve studied in living, breathing form is a different experience entirely. And what I’ve decided is that all the books and opinions fail to convey how wide the gap actually is between the developing and the developed within a few blocks of a city.

Example 1:  upon leaving the airport, you drive down a road populated by minibuses flying by at top speed, Range Rovers with tinted windows to hide their (presumably) white and safari bound clients, motorcyclists driving in the median strip and between lanes…and then you’ll notice that your driver almost just ran over a man pulling a cart piled high with furniture, vegetables, clothes, or, my personal favorite, chickens. The chickens are part of another dichotomy, leading to

Example 2: Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya, and the city center does its best to look the part with its busy streets and tall buildings and men and women in 3 piece suits. But get outside the city center and there are the goats, grazing on whatever they can find. Chickens and roosters wander freely (I have my own personal rooster alarm clock….we wake up at 6am), and dog packs stroll through the streets. Talking about the city layout brings me to

Example 3: Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa (where Lisha Mtoto is serving), is surrounded by neighborhoods with lovely new homes and highschools that look like college campuses.  Right on the edge of the slum are modern apartments, built for the UN employees. Go down the hill just a little ways and you’ll pass a golf course, the gorgeous Safari Club Hotel, and manicured city parks. It is remarkably strange to stand on a hill in Kibera and look out across row after row of mud shacks and see in the distance modern apartments and the city skyline.  The disparities here are stark. And it seems like most of Nairobi feels that if they don’t look in the general direction of Kibera, that takes care of the problem. As long as the slum keeps its problems to itself there’s no reason to try and change anything.

Overcoming that kind of indifference is a huge challenge. But for a child born and raised in a place like Kibera, the trick will be not only to get the outside world to notice them, but to show them how to take advantage of the outside world. After all, if you’ve never left the slum, how are you supposed to understand what a better life would even look like, or know how to get there? It’s about giving them the opportunity to choose to do whatever they want to do.  Which, after all, is the underlying idea of development in the first place, right? To get rid of the invisible barriers that divide Kibera from downtown Nairobi, or the man with his cart of chickens from the guy driving the Range Rover.

My 6am rooster, however, definitely has to go.