“Why Kenyans? What makes them so special? Why are we specifically focusing on people that most of us can never relate to?”
I was asked these two questions mid-speech, and the only answers I could come up with were clichés. I was speaking at a school, claiming to be a champion of the unheard Kenyan people, and the only thing I could say about them went something like, “Well – uh – they’re like – uhhh – diamonds in the rough.”
How embarrassing. I could speak on and on about how important it is to reform education in Kenya or how necessary it is to provide environmental relief in forms of organized waste management, but I could not articulate exactly why the Kenyan slum-dwellers deserved my audience’s attention.
In 2014, I attended an international summit in Nairobi where I headed a group of four students from China, New Zealand, Australia, and Kenya in creating a $10,000 scholarship-winning proposal for effective waste management. I interacted with the Kenyan people extensively, and I developed an invigorated spirit to address the environmental, economic, and medical concerns raised by the poor conditions of their slums. You can read about that experience here.
In such a short amount of time, Kenyans made me feel something that influenced me to be so passionate for their cause. But at this moment, in front of a crowd of my peers, I couldn’t point my finger to what exactly it was. I’d been so blinded by my tunnel vision for improving physical conditions in Nairobi that I failed to understand that no cliché in the world can ever do its people justice.
I realized I had to go back. And so – exactly one year after my first visit to Kenya – I did, but with a newfound desire to ask questions that would help me understand the underlying emotions, motivations, and ambitions of the Kenyan people I’ve grown to love so much.
It didn’t take much time for me to find the answers.
Mary, a 19-year-old political activist and aspiring journalist, is one of a very limited number of students to make it out of the slums into a university. I expected a brief answer when I asked her a simple question: “What motivates you to work as hard as you do?”
We ended up talking for hours, and in awe I soaked up her impassioned diatribe against the Kenyan government’s corruption.
“Political nepotism and tribalism in Kenya have existed for as long as the government has been in control. We in the slums are not getting the official recognition that we so desperately need in order to have proper public services and infrastructure,” she explained. “Discrimination… is not a new concept. But there is nothing happening against it, and it’s because the majority of Kenyans are stuck in slums where they have neither an education to advance in social influence nor access to any legitimate platform to express their voices.”
Alex, whose drug-addicted parents abandoned him at the age of three, is a singer, dancer, actor, and leader of a youth performance troupe in the Nairobi slums. All of the other kids I met on my trip had the highest praise for Alex.
I asked him, “Why are you so happy all the time?”
He stared at me with a funny look before smiling and saying, “Brother, how can I not be happy all the time? If God is for us, who can be against us? … He has allowed me to show my love to all these kids and bring joy to their hearts. They are my family. … What more can I ask for?”
He smiled the entire time he talked to me.
Paul, a fourth-year high school student, was getting ready to take his exams for a shot at university. He knew the odds were slim, but he was confident he would get there.
“Why do you want to go to university so badly and how are you so sure that you’ll get in?” I asked.
“I want to be a computer scientist and programmer, and university is the next step for me to get there. I want to change Kenya first, and revolutionize how we can use technology to our advantage. Then I want to change the world. I know that I have passion to do it, and I think passion alone can take me places far beyond what the doubters of the slums say.”
Mary, Alex, and Paul – and others I met on my second trip to Nairobi – helped me perceive just how intelligent and autonomous Kenyans can be. Even in the most desolate conditions, they are among the most spirited and spiritual people I’ve ever met. Their spirit is why education is so important, because they want to improve life in their communities and become more capable of doing so with the right guidance.
Given the right guidance, these kids will become capable of developing the slums on their own. With independence, they will no longer have to rely on charitable handouts that perpetuate the social dynamics that created the need for aid in the first place.
There’s something else this summer taught me, which is that there is no logical answer to why someone in California should care for Kenyans specifically. Personally, I care because I believe working with Kenyans and empowering them is my calling. I can’t expect others who haven’t shared my experiences to feel the same way.
Thousands may join me in the cause for slum development, or no one may. It won’t matter. I’ll fight for Kenyans because I believe that they deserve a platform to express their voices and incite change; my passion is all I’ll ever need.
So whatever cause you take up, you don’t have to justify your passion. Just do it because you believe you’re meant to do it.