Sometimes I think I might be living in the world of the dead. When I got my coffee from Pi Café one morning, I looked around. I could not understand why I was living such a good life.
As a kid, I would wonder what happens to people when they die. Do they live a beautiful life in a place called “heaven?” Or do they burn in a pool of fire? Those are the questions that were disturbing this slum boy from Kenya.
I grew up in the Kibera slums, the largest slum in Africa, and the second largest on earth. Imagine: 1.5 million people living in an area the size of Central Park. That’s my home. Kibera, the life I knew before Wesleyan. I still have my single mudroom there, now occupied by my sister Elizabeth. My whole family still lives in Kibera.
Kibera, a province of Nairobi, is made up of 12 villages. I lived in Katwikira village, in an area called Mama Okinda. If you follow the path that leads you from Kamukunji ground, it will lead you to my house. I had 200 neighbors, each of whom I know by name. Each family has no less than seven children. Seven children was the least a family could have, if I remember well.
In my neighborhood, men are respected according to what they have. If you have a black and white TV set in your house that runs off of a car battery, then you are what we call “the rich family.”
Another concern for men in my community was having a baby boy as their first-born child in order to gain cultural respect. I remember some of my neighbors beating their wives for not giving birth to a boy. Some men could remarry in the name of having a baby boy. Though these behaviors were considered acceptable, I didn’t like the way women were treated in my neighborhood. I grew up in this kind of life, and I saw my own mother victimized by this violence.
My environment was noisy, and so noise became part of my life. Even today, I study better in SciLi because there is always a buzz of students talking and working, and that reminds me of my home. I remember reading my novels and old, outdated newspapers in my single room in Kibera while just outside children were crying, neighbors were playing loud music, and vendors were selling food.
A fundamental need that we only dreamed of was sanitation. My 200 neighbors all have children—some families have more than 10. In my neighborhood alone, there are over 1,260 men, women, and children, all living in an area that can be compared to the size of Foss Hill. And keep in mind that there is no “second floor.” Everything is built on the ground using mud and rusty iron sheets.
We had only two old pit-latrines. When you squat, you could see another person in the other latrine because the walls had holes. The size of the toilet stall was so small that you couldn’t stand up or move around while using it. More than 1,260 people, including children, used those two latrines.
They were not enough to serve the whole population of my neighborhood. As a result, you could find feces scattered around the small compound. I got used to bad smells, but I was shy to bring my friends where I lived.
I never imagined a world like Wesleyan, where everything is abundant. As a sophomore, sometimes I think I’ve grown used to it, but then I remember how all of the things we consider “normal” are not normal for me at all. When I arrived at Wesleyan, I laughed when I was brought to my room in 200 Church, a large room just for my roommate and me! I had never before had space of my own – I didn’t know what to do with it, because in Kibera, I used to live with my parents and my seven siblings in a room that was even smaller.
When it came time to go to the dining hall, however, I was prepared. I knew from my life that there was no way there could be enough food. I used to sneak into weddings to avoid starvation, but the food always ended quickly. I rarely could afford one meal a day. After my first day of Freshman Orientation, I sprinted to the dining hall along with another friend, determined to be first in line. I ran there for almost three consecutive days and was always the one in front. One day, my girlfriend Jessica saw me running and asked why I was going so fast. I looked at her in wonder, explaining simply that I wanted to get food before it was finished. She laughed, and told me that the food doesn’t finish – the dining hall just closes. I knew then that I had died and passed into a different universe.
One day, I was shocked to see a girl seated next to my table carry what looked like Mt. Everest on a plate. That’s how much she loaded it. She ate only a few spoonfuls, and I later saw her dumping the remaining food into the trash.
I didn’t believe my eyes. In that moment, I realized I was in yet another world: a world of unfairness, a world where they have too much and they waste too much. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I thought of Hillary, my five year-old brother, who still cries for food, and drinking water to quell the hunger pains. I wish my whole family were here.
My roommate told me one night that he wanted to take a shower. I looked around, but did not see any basins or water carrying cans. Then I walked into the bathroom and saw water coming from heaven. I’d never taken a shower with running water.
I know I was confused, and confused about everything. I didn’t understand what it meant for America when I heard the phrase, “Wall Street crashed.” I thought the walls somewhere in a street crashed, and that it might be another terrorist attack. I ran to my new friend and adviser, Professor Rob Rosenthal, to ask him about it. He was and still is my close friend. I was impressed to have a professor as my personal friend; in Kenya, anyone with education could never associate with me, a slum boy.
I was confused by, and also frightened of, American life. I convinced myself that I was dead because that was often the only way I could rationalize the difference in my life. I had to pinch myself to see if I could feel the pain, but that did not satisfy me.
Then I called my mom in Kibera. As I heard her voice while I stood outside of Pi Café, I became even more confused. If I’m dead, I thought, how is it that I can still call my past life, still talk to that other world not so far away? I knew if I was dead I couldn’t talk to the living. I accepted that this was my reality. My suffering was in many ways over, but a new kind had begun: a new struggle to reconcile my new world with my old.