Out in Africa

Imagine living in a slum that houses over 800,000 people. There is no drinkable running water. Garbage is piled everywhere. People sell secondhand clothes from other parts of the world to make a living.

Now imagine the poverty, lack of education, and lack of opportunity the residents of this slum would face.

This is reality in Kiberia; a place located in Nairobi, Kenya. Kiberia is said to be the largest slum in all of Africa – possibly the world.

Within Kiberia’s slum live a large number of young women who have hopes and dreams for the future. They talk about being teachers – with dreams of educating the poor for free, and hopes of being a doctor to help people in need. They crave freedom from all the pain and suffering that they currently endure, and yet their smile (when found) could change one’s life.

These girls, Kenya’s future, have little chances of fulfilling their visions unless they go to school and work much harder than any one of us. Their living conditions, lack of family finances and costly school fees are distressing, and the pressures for prostitution, drugs, and pregnancy are high. Most families have a hard time affording their rent, let alone their daughter’s feminine products that are essential for her education.

Most of us have seen Proctor and Gamble’s ad campaign for the Always brand of sanitary products, and are aware that girls in Africa don’t go to school if they don’t have such products. Most girls lose 12 weeks of school a year, which they can not make up, and so drop out at an early age.

Old towels and blankets are often used during their menstruation, but are not appropriate for school. It’s an extremely sad affair. Some girls will even go as far as stealing and offering sexual favors to men in order to get feminine products so school is not missed. My heart broke the first time I heard a young girl tell me that.

At the end of April, I boarded a plane bound for Kenya to work with a small grassroots organization to assist them in developing programming for marginalized young women in leadership and empowerment. Before I left I heard the Always campaign and couldn’t imagine how they could possibly believe that more garbage was good for Africa! A little fire was lit, and I decided to take action. Our amazing fundraising event at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver raised enough money to make a world a difference in over twenty girls’ lives in Kiberia.

I had the privilege of working with so many amazing people in and around Kiberia. Two weeks into my trip I had the opportunity to do a workshop for 22 young women in a small tin-built hall in the middle of Kiberia; smack in the middle of the post-election violence zone. As Natalia, my contact and roommate in Nairobi, and I made our way in to Kiberia my eyes were wide and watered as I watched children play in an old tire on the side of the dirt road.

People watched us closely and came to see us as we pulled up and unpacked our stuff. We had the guard at the compound gate open the doors and quickly cleaned up the hall from garbage and set up the plastic chairs and old wooden tables. Our contact, a local youth worker called Milcah, met us while bringing in all the school-aged girls that live in neighborhood.

We began the full day workshop with Natalia’s HIV/AIDS education books and after the lunch we provided, I began my workshop on Self Awareness and Self Care. Introducing the new materials was a little challenging but within a short time the girls were working away and brainstorming ideas on how they could better meet their needs and wants in life.

It was exhilarating and horrifying at times listening to their responses and answers. The number one need and want the girls had was to continue their education. Out of those 22 girls only a third will likely complete their high school education, while most are more likely to end up having to work and be married off because of financial issues. Thanks to Lunapads and some quick thinking I was able to offer all the girls there a Goods 4 Girls package, and the girls were ecstatic!

Each one of the girls present now had one less worry about life. For the next five years the girls were guaranteed not missing 12 weeks a year from school and have a greater chance of avoiding the temptations of stealing and prostitution.

It was one of the most amazing afternoons in my life; where I truly believed I was making a difference in a big way. We encouraged the girls to break up the packages with a sister or friend so we could help a little more. At the end of the day the girls and their high school youth workers walked away with amazing life education and products to move them one step closer to their hopes and dreams.

Each one of these girls gave continuous thanks and appreciation, though smiles were hard to see. Most of the girls present have extremely challenging lives facing them – daily obstacles from lack of food, housing, clothing, and abuse in all its forms.

The stories they shared with us that day changed my life and gave me the will to do more work there in the future. So much so, that I have put on my list of career goals to eventually open a centre for girls in Kiberia; a place to feel safe, to learn, to have fun and hopefully to bring smiles back into those girls’ lives on a daily basis.

During my month in Nairobi the young women I worked with in my volunteer placement asked me if I could help them start a business in Kenya manufacturing washable pads, and with the help of Madeleine at Lunapads we are going to make it happen! Over the next six months the girls and I will correspond via email as they develop the business plan and make contacts there in Kenya.

They will look to run the business side of the company and then hire other young women to work with them to manufacture the sustainable products. What an amazing road ahead for these girls! Stella, Brenda, Eva, and Joy from Africa Youth Trust, the organization I dedicated myself to for the month, believe so much in the product that they want to make it an African fashion trend using African culture patterns and market it to NGOs while making it affordable for all those in need.