“Don’t drink the water!” “Be careful what you eat!” “Did you get your shots?” “Why not go somewhere else?’” These were the statements that I was left with before my first trip to Africa as a teenager. And I must say, the sentiments were quite different than those I heard before I left for trips to Europe and the Caribbean. But why? What makes people, who have never been to such places, say these things? Regardless of what variables add up to answer that complicated question, upon my flying into Nairobi at 18 years old, I was under the impression that I would get sick, I would not be safe by myself, and most importantly, I would have to be very cautious with everything I did.
My first day in Africa was in Nairobi, Kenya, more specifically the Kibera Slum, which is noted for being one of the most populated slums not only in Africa, but also the world. I entered the slum with a friend of a friend who was from Kibera. She gave me a great tour, describing the social, physical, and tribal dynamics of the community. But of course, as an 18-year-old American from suburban Connecticut, this was by the far the most extreme poverty my eyes had ever witnessed. I would not say that my experiences as a youth in America were sheltered at all. I had already (considering my age) traveled extensively throughout the US and globally, but again, never had witnessed the sheer volume of people in such a close proximity living with virtually nothing. I remember very little of what my tour guide said that day, but I left with my emotional cord being torn. I knew I couldn’t even rationalize thought for questions, the “shock” factor was in full effect, and was not subsiding anytime soon. I remember feeling I had never had anybody look at me the way the people in the slum looked at me that day. The looks I received were not very welcoming– in fact, very negative most times. It was definitely a new experience, as it is for any individual who has never experienced the slums first hand.
Years later, after working with people from the slums and in slum areas fairly regularly, I still think back to that day. I remember how naïve I was, how culturally ignorant I was, and how much I have learned since then. But what never left, were the looks I received in the slums.
As a Westerner, when we see areas of such poverty, we tend to focus on the negative. Honestly, how can we not? The living conditions of such an area are so alien to us that it is hard to look past the apparent lack of essential resources slum citizens are expected to survive on. But like any individual, as I continued to grow, mature, and spend more time with individuals in these areas, I began to see the positive output slums generate. Street smarts, business and sales strategies, artistic talent, excellent communication skills, and innovative ideas for solving simple problems, are just some of the positive qualities I began to witness. I began to realize, not just how much I was learning about myself, but how much people could learn from these communities. These slums are cities within cities, with markets, doctors, schools, bars and neighborhoods that any other city inhabits.
These communities are thriving with knowledge to be had, and lessons to be learned. I wanted to take this a step further. How can I enable slum inhabitants to learn from me, and breakdown the perception that “wazungu” (white people) just come, give a few things, take a lot of pictures, and then leave. How can I change the perception of the whites (mzungu) in the slum? What steps can I take, can an organization take, can a culture take to change the perceptions of Slum Citizens toward “Wazungu? Naturally, I thought about relationships. The origin of a good relationship comes from trust, the ability to relate, and a bit of risk. I thought of my days from pre-school. If I wanted to play with Johnny who was playing with blocks, I started playing with blocks. But if I wanted to be friends be Lindsay who liked to draw, and did so very well, (within the lines) I would ask her, “Lindsay can you show me how you did that?” And then, Lindsay would show me, and begin talking to me about drawing. That would be the start of a friendship.
I brought this “tactic” to the slums– I’ll try what they try, I’ll eat the food they eat, I’ll learn to speak the language they speak, I will show the effort, trust, and risk it takes to develop friendships. I erased what was going on around the conversation, and focused on the individual, asked them questions, and took a risk by showing my vulnerability. I did not focus on me, but on them. By using that basic skill I began to change the perception, not only of me, but of a society, and vice versa. I began to see from a new vantage point.
We learn something new everyday–something new about a culture, a community, and more specifically an individual. If we take the time to observe, learn, and ask questions, our opportunities are truly limitless. When someone tells me they are going to Africa, I always reply with, “What an amazing opportunity- You will enjoy every bit of it.”
~Kyle Edwards, International Director of Ignitus Worldwide