Nourishing hope in Kibera

Maureen - Inspirational Chairperson of Uzima Foundation
Maureen, Inspirational Chairperson of the Uzima Foundation.

When I met her, nothing in the lovely smile that never seems to leave her face betrayed the things that she has experienced. Yet something, maybe her dry wit, gives her the ability to let go of wounds and wake up each day with fresh enthusiasm.

I stumbled into Uzima Foundation in Kibera by coincidence and listened with mounting curiosity as the charismatic team took me through the ways they encourage youthful minds to build their self esteem and hone their skills and talent. I was very keen on meeting a product of this labor of love.

Enter Maureen, a girl born and brought up in a Kibera “village” called Kisumu Ndogo twenty-six years ago.

Maureen’s brief stint in Kisumu in a school called Pand Pieri (Hide Your Behind—a warning against hungry hyenas on the prowl) was followed by high school in Nairobi. Maureen was involved in drama, dancing, and sports and during Sunday mass was one of the graceful dancer-singers. Her free-time visits to the sick and the old drew her to join Uzima Foundation while still in school.

Maureen is the chairperson of Kibera Uzima Youth Group, plays football for the Kibera Uzima girls’ team (as striker, doubling up as goalie), weaves hats and baskets to make money, still dances, acts and sings to send out positive messages. She is a peer educator, a friend, a daughter, a lady, she is just . . . Maureen.

Maureen In Kibera, gang wars, landlord-tenant standoffs, and more everyday madness periodically break the peace, but the post-electoral violence that rocked the nation at the end of 2007 ushered in the 3rd World War. Maureen was at a friend’s place watching TV. As the election result was announced, Kibera cried out. People left their houses crying and wailing like they had lost a relative.

Kibera began to burn that night.

Maureen watched as smoke and screams rose in the diminishing light of dusk. Her phone rang: her worried father wondering if she were safe. The killing had started, and no one sane left any kind of a safe haven that night. Maureen stayed up mulling over the violence outside and wondering whether her friends and family were going to live through it.

Before long, Kibera had no food. With the violence escalating, the settlement was cut off from the rest of the world, save for a few courageous humanitarian organizations. Bitter fights broke out as nerves grew raw with pain, frustration, and hunger. Long queues for rations wrapped the fields surrounding the District Officer’s headquarters. Maureen could not stop thinking about those who had neither youth nor energy to fight.

Uzima Foundation called up their youth leaders to assist, and Maureen made a case for the bedridden and weak. She walked door to door for two days through Soweto West and East, Raila, Mashimoni, and most of the twelve villages of Kibera. She identified households in distress, and Uzima put in place a voucher system to enable relatives or friends to collect food supplies for 120 homes.

Many were bedridden due to HIV and had missed doses of life-saving antiretroviral medication. On visits with Uzima field officers, Maureen tried to leave each household with a handful of hope—for a solution, a miracle, or even just the realization that they were not alone. The task was physically and emotionally draining, yet Maureen’s steps did not falter.

One sick lady hadn’t eaten for days, and her five children watched their mother disintegrate as she tried to wash a pile of raggedy teddy bears outside their house. One of the children told her mother that the rice a neighbor had donated was cooked. The child was too young or perhaps too scared to turn off the stove, and the mother was too weak to get up. A kind neighbor quietly came to help, a role Maureen suspected she may have been playing for some time.

Maureen’s lowest point came when she met a young man walking ever so slowly, obviously in a lot of pain. Initially, as the bullets rained and everyone took cover, he didn’t even realize he had been shot. Then he saw the blood, a lot of it, and mercifully lost consciousness. Good Samaritans rushed him to hospital and paid for his emergency treatment—he still did not know who. His leg now seemed infected and had lost most of its functionality. As he balanced on one leg, tears filled his eyes. He had just returned from the hospital, he told her, but could not afford the medication prescribed. He was just glad to be alive, if barely.

Maureen was key to a forum Uzima set up to provide counseling and enable people to express their fears, hopes, pains, and sorrows without fear of retribution or rejection. One man felt that he had seen enough policemen for a lifetime. He broke down as he shared how his son had been shot dead, and how he had now lost his son’s soul by burying him in Langata Public Cemetery instead of in his ancestral home—impossible to reach due to the volatile situation.

A younger man impishly suggested that mass-action marches in Kenya ought to be staged with children at the front, followed by naked women with babies on their backs and men at the back. This way, there would be no bullets, no violence—or so he hoped.

One lady did her best to exorcize the past for all who had suffered in Kibera and around Kenya, sinking to her knees and crying out,

“For those who stole votes,
Kneel and repent!
For those who killed and chased their neighbours,
Kneel and repent!
For those who burnt people, homes and shambas,
For those who did shopping [looting], vandalized and broke the law,
All tribes of Kenya get down on your knees and pray. . . .
Shame the Devil. . . .
Ishindwe [He will not win]!”

As people began to pick up their lives, their painful burdens lightened once they shared them. They returned to Kibera with a new resolve to find peace amongst each other. After all, we have to start somewhere.

And so Maureen, one of Uzima Foundation’s buzzy bees, helped set an inspiring precedent, endlessly trying, endlessly vying for sustained peace in Kenya. Forgetting her own fears and her own tears, she stayed steadfast and true to the words of our Kenyan anthem: “Natukae na udugu,/Amani na uhuru./Raha tupate na ustawi—May we dwell in unity,/Peace and liberty./Plenty be found within our borders . . . ”.

Maureen, a true shujaa [heroine], is a brilliant flicker of hope for this wonderful nation.

Sikiliza is a Nakuru-based Writer and Photographer who has a passion for Africa and writes in her blog

Article originally from Generation Kenya


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