*1* Welcome to Kibera, the world’s third largest slum, in Nairobi, Kenya.
*2* There are no bathrooms here. This is a bathroom. Yet it is also a play area…and a sidewalk…and a porch, and a backyard, and a front yard.
*3* The camera that took this photo is worth more than all three houses in this alley. Does that make the photo wrong in some way?
*4* It felt like a giant nursery. It seemed like more than 50% of the people I saw were under the age of 5.
*5* Little toddlers roam the streets alone.
*6* They have no idea what they are missing—fish who have not once thought of water.
*7* I should never complain.
*8* In Africa they think money grows on trees in America. It does. The laziest American slob makes more money with one year of welfare than these people will make working hard their whole lives.
*9* Apparently there is a place in this slum called the valley which is worse than this. I just don’t understand.
*10* There are pictures that I didn’t take—images that I cannot show you but are frozen in my mind. These pictures couldn’t be captured with a camera. Avatar is a completely different movie in 3D than in 2D—the disparity between these photos and the reality they scratch at is even greater.
I remember one man whose photo I couldn’t get myself to take, one scene I don’t foresee forgetting. I couldn’t take the photo because I was stunned, and because it didn’t feel right to freeze that moment in time, cage misery and show it around like a trophy of what I got to see. The man reminded me of “The Valley of Ashes” that Fitzgerald describes in The Great Gatsby, only worse, and real.
He was laying under the hot sun, surrounded by brittle charcoal. Black and gray suit covered him, piles of ash built up around him, and hot dust filled the air he breathed. He looked out at me blankly, like a fire had gone out. I stopped walking and stared back, camera dangling around my neck. Quickly I looked away, imagining what Fitzgerald would think if he knew that his writing was more than a metaphor. This man was literally gray. He lived in soot, selling homemade charcoal as his livelihood.
In Kibera, many people make charcoal. They dig holes in the ground and burn chunks of wood until they become brittle sticks of charcoal. They sell it for people to use for cooking. They spend entire days under the hot sun, building small fires around them, digging through ash and sorting soot.
Kibera is a different world from ours. I guess that’s all I can say.