I’ve been in either Tanzania or Kenya for nearly five months now, and one of the reasons I came over here was because I had spent two years studying particularly hard at university, and, sick of academic study, I wanted to ‘learn in a different way’.
Well, so what have I learned?
A Class 2 student was electrocuted and died in Mukuru kwa Ruben last week, a 6 or 7-year-old kid who was trying to get back into his home in the middle of the second-largest slum in the world. Because it was the evening and Mum was still at work, some of the teachers from the Ruben Centre rushed along to identify him. By the end of the week, most of them had rejoined the ridiculously exuberant primary school spirit and were back eagerly exploring and creating life.
As we were walking to a football game on Friday, Ruben Centre staff vs. St Mary’s Centre staff, one of the team members was pointing out several things to me along the way. “See that?” he said, pointing to a small blockhouse, boarded up and clearly unused. “We call it the million-shilling toilet ($130,00NZD).” The people around chuckled. “And this” he said, to further chuckles, and gesturing to the vaguely rectangular patch of uneven dirt with football posts, “is the seventeen-million-shilling football stadium ($230,000NZD.” He paused and smiled. “Tea money, you see?” In other words, massive bribery.
Tonight, I went to a small, celebratory dinner for a former student from Mukuru kwa Ruben, who had just graduated and become a nurse. She was 28, and had left the slum when she was around 20 years old. She had been living with her sister and her family, middle-class Kenyans with a good standard of living for the past five years, and was now about to enter into her first year in the hospital – the first in her family to gain a degree.
What do these stories have in common? How have I “learned in a different way”?
The first two are to do with acceptance. From a very young age, people in Mukuru are forced to deal with some of life’s most difficult hurdles – unexpected and undeserved death, blatant corruption and the completely unnecessary wasting of potential. They are completely aware of the fact that they control only a tiny part of their destiny – they could work hard, get good grades, and still end up electrocuted, or die of malnutrition because a corrupt official squandered the money intended for food, or find themselves moving in with an apparently generous and hitherto unknown ‘uncle’ because prostitution is one of the few reliable means of obtaining shelter and security.
Or, they could end up living a comfortable existence, as the first in the family to obtain a degree in a comfortable home with a loving family.
That is the difference, the key lesson. The people in these stories accept that they’ve been dealt a shocking hand in the game of life, but understand they can’t change the cards they’ve been dealt. What they can change is how they use them. And change that they are willing to do – I’ve never before worked with people that have such a HUNGER to learn and are willing to make the most out of any opportunity that might arise, however slight it might be. Because that might be a opportunity that leads to another opportunity that eventually leads to a life beyond basic survival.
So, for me?
Adapted for Kenya: “God grant me the good humour to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to learn whenever possible because I am the only thing I know for sure I can change, and the wisdom to know that the boundary between what I can and can’t change is always shifting.”