Dr Niamh On The Plum Tree

Childhood Imagination Sows Seeds of Future Brilliance

Insights With Dr. Niamh Clune: A Nairobi Lesson!

Recently, a friend of mine, Patricia Tilton, reviewed a lovely little book for children on her blog: My Paper House by Lois Peterson about a little girl who comes from Kibera in Nairobi.

Reading her review, memories of my first impressions of the frantic, noisy, city of Nairobi inspired me to write something for my Insights Corner. At the time, I was doing a consultancy for Oxfam. I rode in my air-conditioned Toyota Landcruiser (until it was stolen) through the then-failing traffic system with its drive-on-the-left, traffic lit, roundabouted road infrastructure ~ a testament to Pre-Uhuru British colonialism.

Heat bounced off the pot-holed, tarmacked roads, causing them to soften and shimmy.

I remember driving through the parts of town where the rich lived. Roads were lined with mansions and gated-compounds guarded by Askaris. Pepper trees and Bougainvillea grew everywhere. I knew I was in Africa because of the glaring, daring colours ~ flowers and vibrant Kangas worn by local women. Only they can wear such colour. Their blue-black skin makes that of a white person’s seem bleached, devoid of life.

The relentless sun forces everything to exude its fragrance. house nairobi

I drove to another part of town. Glinting corrugated tin roofs bounce the sun back into your eyes ~ mirroring something of the reality of contrasts in that part of the world. The Kibera slums occupy a space not quite as large as Central Park. Kibera is jammed full of ramshackle tin huts. Beneath those roofs, men, women and children live in unimaginable poverty. Urine and feces run in open ruts across the ground. There is nowhere to walk, no streets, street lights, or running water. The walking paths (if you can call them that) are filled with rubbish and human waste.MDG: Kenya : Sanitation : Toilets at Mathare slums, Nairobi

1,000,000 men, women and children live there. There are approximately 1300 people per toilet. If a toilet is occupied, a person squats over a plastic bag (which is a rare commodity) tries to tie it, then jettisons it into space (“flying toilet”).

Kibera is a breeding ground for Diptheria, Malaria and Typhus. Many children don’t live to see five years.

Kibera is an eye-sore, stinking, outrageous and offensive in every way imaginable.slums

Yet, I learned something from my visit (which does not make it right, justify its existence or create a holier-than-thou chance to evangelise in search of a raison d’etre.)

A child of about nine years old approached me. “Mama!” she said. “Give me that.” I looked at what she pointed to. I had a plastic container that I considered rubbish and would (being ecologically minded) recycle. “Give me that,” she said again in English.

I gave it her, and she smiled her thanks. She seemed delighted. I learned later that this little raggedy girl lived on rubbish. Every day of her life, she foraged in Nairobi rubbish dumps to find anything of value that she might then sell on for a few shillings. I had given her something that, for me, was worthless trash, but to her, meant she could eat Ugali that day.

Interestingly, my house-girl (I didn’t invent the terminology or the servant-driven economy) had a plastic container just like it on the window-sill of her hut (of which she was intensely proud). Once, it had been filled with succulent strawberries, now, it was Crosby’s bead box. And she thought it beautiful.

Insight? Apart from the outrage I felt/feel that this goes on in the world and we, collectively, do nothing about it, I looked into that little girl’s eyes. I saw a look of achievement, hope, pride. I did not see failure or despair. She had survived that day. She wanted to survive, thrive, live. Only 8% of girls in Kibera are educated. Just think what this child might achieve if she were given the chance!

Sometimes all we need is a chance. That little girl would grab the taken-for-granted thing and run with it ~ for years and years ~ propelled by its value.

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About Dr Niamh

When I was a little girl (a very, very long time ago), I used to love learning new, really big words like ‘discombobulate’. As I grew, my love of words grew too, until I loved them so much, I could not stop writing them down. One day, as I was scribbling a particular word, a very peculiar thing happened. The word shouted at me, “Stop! Don’t put me there!” As you can imagine, I was shocked and nearly fell off my chair. When I recovered somewhat, I said to the word, “Could you stop shouting, please? I am not used to it.” Can you guess what happened next? No! I thought not. The word said, “I might be small, but I will misbehave if you do not use me properly. I will not tell the story you would like me to tell. I will say something entirely different!” I dropped my pen. I hoped that by dropping my pen, the word would stop talking. Alas! It did not. It carried on chitterchobbling, even after the ink had dried. I was in a pickle. I could not allow my words to run away with my story, now could I? I don’t know about you, but when this sort of thing happens, there is only one thing left to do if you prefer not to spend your time arguing. “Very well,” said I. “I will do as you ask if you will just be quiet and allow me to concentrate.” Since that day, I have been paying special attention to every word I invite into my stories. After all, a story should say exactly what it means to say and not be led astray. With love from Dr. Niamh, Ph.D in Learning Through The Imagination and Founder of Dr Niamh Children's Books. www.drniamhchildrensbooks.com

12 comments on “Insights With Dr. Niamh Clune: A Nairobi Lesson!

  1. Patricia Tilton
    February 4, 2014

    Oh my, that was a very powerful article. It brought tears to my eyes. It makes me sad to know that children live in such horrible and filthy conditions. After experiencing it on a very personal level, I can only imagine how hard it is to go to bed at night and not see the faces of the children you saw in your work. It makes me angry that there is wealth and extreme poverty existing side by side. My daughter experienced the same thing in Haiti. We sponsored four children for many years so that they could attend school and receive a meal a day. You are full of experiences that would make excellent stories. And, thank you for mentioning me.

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      February 4, 2014

      It is my pleasure, Patricia. And it is true that I am worn down by the greed that dominates.

      Like

  2. davidprosser
    February 4, 2014

    Such a shameful disparity between the haves and have nots and yet I wonder which values things more.It would be good if such a value was placed on people’s quality of life that the authorities started a building programme to create permanent housing with streets which would keep people in employment and give hope for the future to a forgotten group.
    xxx Huge Hugs Niamh. xxx

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      February 4, 2014

      There are so many basic things that word governments could do. This disparity is our collective problem, but I am worn out campaigning and realise that equal opportunities is a rosemantic dream. Greed abounds and rules. Thank you David.

      Like

  3. scillagrace
    February 4, 2014

    Interesting that wealth and opportunity do not necessarily beget hope and passion and that poverty and oppression do not necessary mean defeat. What we have in our spirits is a new creation.

    Like

  4. patriciasands
    February 5, 2014

    A grim reminder of the disparities on this planet and at the same time a poignant reminder that hope survives in the worst of conditions. I, like you, am filled with despair that humankind perpetuates this shame. Keep sharing your stories, experience and insight with us. Your voice is needed and appreciated.

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      February 5, 2014

      Thank you, Patricia. I do often wonder whether there is much point in sharing these stories…so few read them, and perhaps the world is suffering from compassion fatigue. Thank you for being one of the few.

      Like

  5. Darlene
    February 5, 2014

    A thought provoking article Niamh. Thanks. I’m happy my friend Lois Peterson’s book inspired you to write about your experiences.

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      February 5, 2014

      Darlene, please say Hi! to Lois for me. She has written an important book, indeed.

      Like

  6. thiskidreviewsbooks
    February 6, 2014

    Whoa. This is sad. The ending made me smile and see hope, though. 🙂

    Like

    • ontheplumtree
      February 7, 2014

      Yes, Erik, it is sad. Thank you for your always welcome visit!

      Like

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2014 by in Special Projects and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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