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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Turano

Transformation through experience

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

In August 2021, I traveled to Kenya to dedicate myself to a volunteering project in the second largest slum on the African continent. It's part of my personal project of traveling the world as a process of self-transformation, enhancing values, and reinforcing that education is the only path to strengthen and promote equality and income distribution, aiming for a sustainable world. Therefore, I invite you to travel with me by reading the text below:

Kenya has a population of almost 50 million people, and despite its development in the past few years, it is still considered a poor country. Two-thirds of the Kenyan population lives in poverty, below $3.20/day, and the unemployment rate has reached 40% of the population.


Paradoxically, it has the third-largest economy in Africa, behind Nigeria and South Africa, which denotes a huge concentration of money, causing inequality and corruption, growing at an average of 5.4% annually. Its economy is based on agriculture, forestry, mining, and tourism (which has been severely impacted by the pandemic).


Under a democratic system but with several corruption scandals and on the brink of electing the next president, Kenya is trying to find its way towards sustainable growth. There are 42 tribes, each with their own culture and language, making it a complex situation to navigate.


Additionally, Kenya has been rapidly increasing its population (by the way, Africa has 1 billion people, and the expectation is to reach 3 billion people by the end of this century).


If not correctly addressed, poverty will continue to rise and will be severely impacted by global warming, which will strongly affect Africa. In fact, it is already reflecting on agriculture due to the lack of rains and extreme weather conditions.

Regions that used to be quite productive with rich soil nutrients are turning into dead zones. Paradoxically, they are paying a price not caused by them but by developed countries that continue to release CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, and so far, they haven't demonstrated an interest in extinguishing it (the Earth has already reached 1.5C, surpassing the limit established by the Paris Agreement).


The capital, Nairobi, is the most populated city in Kenya, with nearly 5 million people. It's a chaotic place, extremely crowded, and dangerous for foreigners, as muggings, scams, and kidnappings often occur. Everywhere you go, you see bridges, highways, and many infrastructure constructions supported by Chinese investments. The outstanding debt goes into trillions, and it will take decades to be settled.


Nairobi is home to the first and second largest slums in the whole of Africa, namely Kibera and Mathare. Mathare slum houses nearly 1 million people living in extremely precarious, if not subhuman, conditions.

There is no sanitation, proper waste disposal, access to potable water, and electricity frequently fails. People live in cramped spaces measuring 10x10 meters with no access to a kitchen or toilet. They have been completely neglected by the government. Children play with old tires on dusty roads, alongside open sewers, surrounded by mosquitoes, flies, chickens, goats, and millions of bacteria. Diseases are quite common due to the lack of hygiene exacerbated by the environment they are living in.


The volunteering


Within this context, I decided to volunteer in an NGO based in Lea Mathare, supporting a children's school dedicated to those who cannot afford education. I lived with a Kenyan family and shared the same living conditions. We resided in a small apartment, with seven people sharing two bedrooms - five kids, the couple, and myself - all located in a poor area of Nairobi.


The quantity of insects was overwhelming, and bed nets became essential for sleeping. Even simple activities like walking on the streets turned into a challenge, as everywhere I went, people stared at me, called me "muzungo," and tried to sell me something. Being white in some areas can be synonymous with having money.


Every day, I woke up at 5 am, had a quick breakfast, and walked 1.5 km to the bus station. Public transport in Nairobi is not regulated by the government, which results in poor service quality. The old buses, produced in Japan under the brand of Isuzu, are the primary means of transportation.

Every bus was remodeled according to the driver's will, which includes playing very loud music, allowing overcapacity, and often not respecting any sort of rules. After a journey of 20 minutes heading to Lea Mathare, I walked around 2.5 km to the school in order to start my daily tasks.

I returned from the school around 6 pm, completing more than 12 hours of work. I had a quick dinner and went to bed in order to have some rest for the upcoming day.


My activities included helping in the kitchen, teaching, fundraising, painting, playing with kids, assisting the community in any way they needed help, and any other tasks that were required.


The school


Founded in 2013, the school attends to 100 children every day, ranging in age from 4 to 15 years old. It also provides support to the less fortunate, including women, the sick, and persons with disabilities (PWD). Additionally, the school offers two meals per day, providing breakfast and lunch to the students.

Many kids come to the school primarily to be fed, as they do not have regular meals at their own homes. Since the organization opened its doors for the community, over 1000 children have benefited from the education support program.


On Saturdays, there is also a feeding program sponsored by local partners, providing between 500 and 800 meals to be shared with the local community. This program plays a crucial role in addressing the hunger and food insecurity issues faced by the community.


Challenges


Considering there isn't any support from the government or Union, the organization relies on donations from various entities, including private donors, partnerships with farms, companies, and foreign organizations from all over the world. It is truly impressive how impactful their work can be with relatively low amounts of money, from a Western perspective.


For instance, the cost of renting a place inside the slum is around $20 per month, keeping a child in school costs no more than $100 per semester, and ensuring food for a community member can be achieved with just $40 per month. These amounts may seem insignificant in developed countries or BRICS nations, but they make a significant difference in the lives of the people in the slum.


The NGO's main focus is education, viewing it as a pathway to break the vicious cycle of poverty and contribute positively to the lives of the children and the community. While the impact is significant, it's important to recognize that it alone cannot change the local economic panorama. Political actions and external support from developed countries are imperative to bring about meaningful and sustainable change.

A

shift from an extractive political culture to a trustworthy democratic system is essential. Investing in education and income distribution to the population are fundamental conditions to effectively reduce poverty and inequality in the region.


The experience


TThe experience has been transformative and continues to shape my way of thinking, as it became evident that our own reality does not reflect the broader world's reality.


However, I must admit that the most important lesson I learned was the significance of charity and how small projects can have a profound impact on people's lives, bringing comfort and support to those who are disadvantaged. It is truly awe-inspiring to witness individuals dedicating their lives to helping others.


Despite living with very little, they generously share what they have without hesitation. Moreover, this experience has made it crystal clear how privileged I am to have access to education. It has been a life-changing realization. Education is indeed the singular path to transforming the world into a better place.

The alienated population often lacks the ability to push elected officials for better quality of life, including access to basic public services, healthcare, security, and education. Poverty often reinforces populism, with politicians making unrealistic promises in exchange for votes. A vigilant and educated population is more likely to question and contest such promises.


Unfortunately, lack of investment in education is not uncommon in poor countries, as it tends to favor the elites and perpetuate inequality. This situation can also be observed in the Brazilian context, where similar patterns are evident. Education plays a vital role in empowering the population to demand better governance and advocate for their rights, ultimately leading to a more equitable society.


Conclusion


Progress has brought many benefits, but it has also brought along several challenges. Issues such as the excessive use of plastic, increasing CO2 emissions, pollution, destruction of nature, and violence have become pressing concerns. Africa is on the verge of assuming a significant role in the world, but for this to happen sustainably, important changes must be made. Unfortunately, in many places, sustainability is not being prioritized.


Addressing these environmental and social challenges is crucial to ensure a prosperous and harmonious future for Africa and the world. Sustainable practices, responsible policies, and global cooperation are essential to mitigate the negative impacts of progress and create a better and more sustainable future for all.


The Founder


This opportunity was made possible solely because of a man named Reagan Waithaka. He generously opened his house to me, providing all the information and sharing his profound thoughts on the challenges of poverty. Despite facing significant hardships in life, he managed to turn things around and establish an extraordinary project, as described here.


I cannot express enough how grateful I am for having Reagan as my mentor during the 14 days we spent together (24 hours a day). He graciously shared his life story with me, which I will now share below.


Reagan's Biography


Am Reagan Waithaka, born and raised by a single mother in Mathare slum Nairobi Kenya. Am 36 years old.


My Mother passed away when I was 15 years old. My mother death pushed me to run away from school and home and start living in the streets of Nairobi. Life in the streets was not easy for me because I could even spend days without food. I used to go to the dumpsite to look for something to eat.

After living in the streets for 2 years, I met a good samaritan who took me back to school (primary school). I was thirsty for education so I worked very hard until I completed my primary education level (Grade 8).

In the year 2000 I joined secondary education level, where by I dropped out of school again on the year 2003, all this years I was staying in a missionary church.

After dropping out of school I went back to Mathare slum and start working in Mathare river where we used to prepare and sell illicit brew and other types of drugs and that become the end of my education.

I

worked there for 4 years until I met a friend of mine whome I used to play soccer with. He advised me to leave that job and focus on playing soccer, that's when my talent was identified by local football club and I was named to Play in Sweden and Qatar.

I played soccer for 6 years with no benefits.


On 2011 I went back to my community and start life again, that's when I looked back to where I came from and one thing on my mind was there is majority of children who are suffering the way I suffered.

In the year 2012 I collected data analysis to know and identified how many children were out of school and those who have never joined school and the results were very shocking, because 30% didn't attend school.


On 2013 I founded a Nonprofit community organization (LEA MATHARE FOUNDATION) to support the less fortunate children, women, the sick and PWD.

Under the organization I run a primary school with a total of 100 students between the age of 4 to 15 years.


Since the organization opened its doors for community wayback 1000+ childen had passed though the program in terms of education support.


I dedicate myself to transform, change and support the next generation because children are the future.

Sources: World Bank, Usaid, How to avoid a climate disaster (Bill Gates)

Photos

Kenyan family who hosted me

Serving lunch at Lea Mathare Foundation

Classroom at Foundation
Preparing food at Foundation kitchen

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