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Love is the Answer Redux

Miss the previous reflection about my year living in Africa? Read it here.

Within days of arriving in Nairobi, I was taken to the Kitui Ndogo slum—the filthiest, most unsanitary slum I’ve seen, with heartbreaking challenge stacked one on top of the other. Children unable to afford a basic education. Women turning to prostitution. Drug abuse. Violence. Unannounced government demolitions of structures. Corruption.

Sewage streams into Kitui Ndogo

Sewage streams into Kitui Ndogo

I remember being completely overwhelmed by what I saw after my visit and then being asked by two community leaders, "What should we do?" In response I said, "I don’t know. But, I do know that love is the answer."

Sewage build up outside of a home.

Sewage build up outside of a home.

What ensued following that meeting was truly amazing and beautiful, and detailed here.

To refresh your memory, we all agreed on a project to clean up a hazardous sewage problem that was affecting around 6,000 residents.

You had a situation where, at the doorstep of somebody’s home, was a river of toxic, raw sewage. A result of a crudely constructed, densely populated slum with no sanitation or drainage systems, and few toilets you would want to use. The waste has nowhere to go and just piles up.

I created a video of the problem with our proposed solution (creating 1,000 ft. of drainage trenches) and posted it online.

Within a few days, the video was picked up on by three young ladies who I had never met before, who, without being asked, decided to raise all the money for the project (over $6k), and even traveled to Nairobi to be present for the inauguration of the first completed drainage trench.

I had little hope in the idea finding funding because my networks are small and leverage quite minimal, nevertheless, it happened.

With Eli, Sonali, and Ziba

With Eli, Sonali, and Ziba

There are a number of themes to zoom in on, but since this is a personal reflection, in looking back, I realize now I was in something of a facilitator role throughout this process.

Specifically, in demonstrating the kind of love and relationship-based intervention I grew so accustomed to in India. For example, I remember Eli telling me how “overwhelming” it was holding hands with the community leaders and project laborers in a circle, as we held a moment of silence and prayer before inspecting the work. And Chryspin relaying to me how much he learned from the perspective that the project could be used to encourage self-care and responsibility amongst the residents.

As a result, I can safely say cleaning up this sewage had a powerful, transformative effect on all of us that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

I always make the point about this project that the real work, to me, was after the construction—the need for daily maintenance of the trenches by the residents. It’s easy to build something, harder to ensure others will take care of it, especially given the kind of environment we were dealing with.

My partners and I checked in a few times after the construction, and sure enough, the trenches were being cared for just fine, no further intervention on our part was needed.

This had to do not only with the labor being performed by community residents who were overseeing the care of their work, but also because of the goodwill and love that went into the project, especially by Eli, Sonali, and Ziba.

One example is the large donation we received after the project was funded, from a woman whose brother-in-law was undergoing 10+ hours of potentially lifesaving surgery—she felt as if the donation was a prayer for him. Her note read, “Hopefully, with this, we can help 6,001 lives.”

To loosely paraphrase Vinoba Bhave, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi: "If you can find the door to somebody’s heart, then you can go wherever you like." There is no question to me that the goodwill going into the project touched the residents. They could sense this was not a social organization or corporation coming in for a photo opportunity, but a gift on behalf of people who care. When something is received as a genuine gift, the care for it naturally follows.

This is kind of what I was getting at when I said, "Love is the answer" to the problems in the slum. It's a very practical concept.

Continue to the final reflection about my year living in Africa.