Poverty, disease, and inadequate housing are characteristic of Western perceptions of African slums, especially as conditions in parts of the continent receive more attention due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Many groups, most notably the governments of African lesser developed countries (LDCs), have attempted to stray the public eye from the squalor of the slums by creating a more pleasant image to make their states attractive for tourism and business. However, when interacting with residents of some of the largest slums in the world in Nairobi, Kenya this summer, I found that the conditions there conform to, if not exceed, the horrible images we often associate with Africa.
I saw two-year-old children playing in mountains of trash in the streets while others swam in a river of mud and human waste. When I asked their parents how long the community has looked like this and why they do not to fight to improve it, they told me that this is the only way they have ever lived.
The West has begun to take notice of these conditions thanks to humanitarian aid organizations, whose touching campaigns have inspired American churches, schools, and families to help the cause of third world countries with direct service. The “Aid for Africa” movement calls for the public to take action for the evolution of African conditions by contributing funds to buy food and goods for children on the continent.
Yet, the people of Kenyan slums have become too dependent on the charitable handouts of others. Many of the efforts for the betterment of the slums only address the immediate worries of lacking resources and have done very little to actually develop the targeted regions economically and diplomatically.
“When Kenyans think of foreigners, they often perceive them as a source of money and goods,” said Alex Kasuvini, a student from the the Mathare slums in Nairobi, when I interviewed him this summer.
Another student, Mary Magdaline, added, “Some people have even come to believe that it is not their responsibility to earn their living, so they sit around, expecting the government or the ‘whites’ to provide for them.”
“An American student can go home and collect notebooks [to donate], pat themselves on the back, and say, ‘I am a good person,’” said a statement released by Kris Velasco, movement coordinator for The Supply, a nonprofit organization focused on creating sustained change for urban slums.
Velasco continued, “How has their situation in the slum changed? …Let’s think about ways in which we can provide them with the purchasing power to engage in the global economy and get a notebook for themselves.”
Instead of focusing only on contributing money, food, and supplies, we must make it our priority to educate the African students and provide citizens of African slums with a platform to spread their own opinions and methods of development. These students are the future of Africa, and they must realize they are capable of transforming their countries instead of relying on subsistence from unknown Western donors.
This summer, I experienced firsthand the passion and determination of some of the students that live through harrowing conditions to improve their homes. Let us cultivate this passion and determination through educational support to assist them in making their voices heard in the transformation of Africa.