Hopesongs*

A Photo Essay

Hopesongs

Kibera, Kenya.
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new hope academy kibera nairobi kenya

A recent thing happened in my life a couple of months ago that inevitably happens to everyone eventually — I lost a parent. In this case it was my stepfather, Wilson, a man who’d been in my life since I was four or five years old. He was an incredible man, the standard archetype of a father-figure who did everything he could for me and never once let me down. The irony of this is the fact that on aggregate, my relationship with my parents could best be defined as OK. The absurdity of this is that I rarely saw my parents. Over the past ten years, three times to be exact. No, they didn’t live in a different country as me. No, we weren’t not talking. It just was what it was.

Alas, today’s post is not about my relationship with my parents. But the death of my stepfather matters, because it’s important for me to illustrate something that happens to people who only see their parents as infrequently as I’ve seen mine and that is this: You watch them age. Unlike say, people who see parents on a daily or weekly (or monthly) basis, or even just for the major holidays, when years go by in between visits with your parents, you notice not just that they’ve aged, but how much they’ve aged. It’s not something that dawns on you three days into a Christmas holiday when you notice your dad is slow to kneel down and pick a gift up from the floor — rather, it’s immediate, instantaneous, it slaps you in the face. Each and every time.

Wilson was born in Kenya and immigrated to America in the 1970s. He was born in a village and there was some issue about there maybe not being a birth certificate for him (different times). So for the entirety of his life, my family did not know how old he was. I never knew. By the time I reached high school, my mother would joke that he was probably 60, and he would calmly shake his head and disagree that she was being ridiculous. But I was in high school over 20 years ago. So over the past decade, in the three times that I saw him, the first thing that would scroll in my mind was, Wow, he’s getting old. The last time I visited my parents was back in October for two days, and on that visit I consciously thought that there wouldn’t be many more visits for us. Unfortunately for both of us, this proved to be the case.

The reason I’m writing this is because the natural extension of this is what matters: I’ve often thought about their mortality. But his, in particular. So, this is the framework in which my trip to Kenya happened: we returned him to the place where he was born, and buried him in his actual backyard.

I didn’t have many regrets when contemplating the reality of him being gone except for the fact that I do wish I had seen him more often. Sadly, my Centersongs project that I had worked on for six months had just completed. I shared it with my mother but am not sure if he ever got to see it. This was on my mind in Kenya.

I decided to spend a few days in Nairobi on my own before heading on to Europe. I hopped on my American Express Travel page and compared the hotels against the feedback that can be found on TripAdvisor (some of the best travelling advice on the internet). Most of the top-end hotels were about what one could expect, but I found one hotel called Acacia Tree Lodge that had an aggregate 5-star reviews. I’d never seen that before, so naturally I began to read through the reviews. It was full of your typical stuff (Great staff, beautiful property), but I happened upon one review that was quite different. The guest wrote about how the proceeds from the hotel went to fund a private school in the Kibera slum called the New Hope Academy.  The guest spoke about an assistant manager at the hotel called Collins, how amazing he was and how he was a product of both this school and the slum at large.

Thinking back on Centersongs and how it felt to work on a project involving looked-over students, I decided that this Acacia Tree Lodge was probably for me. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

This is Collins.

On the second day of my stay I met both the hotel director and an American volunteer on his way back to the States. After striking up some conversation they asked me how I found the hotel, and I told them about the review I’d read in Trip Advisor. We talked about a score of things from there — everything from Kenya’s economic and educational situation, to the charity’s work and how each of them became involved both in the work and specifically the hotel. The Director, a Kenyan man called Dunstone, provided some colourful backstory of how the hotel came to be and the work that goes on at the school. I shared my Centersongs with him. He invited me to come see the school for myself.

Collins would come along the next day and ultimately be my guide through the Kibera slum to the school. Kibera is an interesting place, to say the least. Unless you’ve been to a place like India or Sudan or a country where real slums exist, you’ve never seen a slum, and if you have seen one on TV, it will not prepare you for the real thing. The water is dirtier than you think it is. Kibera sits at a bank of a river you cannot drink from, but for most of the one million residents, there is no running water. Geographically speaking, I would venture to guess by sight that it looks to be about the size of Central Park.
Kids play on piles of trash.
You don’t know what’s in the water.
I keep returning to the water.
When I visited, it was still high rainy season, so the river ran swift and dangerous.
You don’t know what’s in the water. 

It’s one of those things that shocks me still when I think about it. In the industrial world, lots of rivers are dirty and most rivers by towns and cities contain water that isn’t drinkable. But this was different. (Quick tangent: my cousin, just the day prior, tells me that in Nairobi they started building mortuaries recently to crack down on the practice of throwing the bodies of people who died dishonerable deaths into the river. Now, the city centre river isn’t the same as the Kibera river. But if they can do it in Nairobi …)

So when we started up the steps to the New Hope Academy, I must admit I wasn’t expecting much. Some beautiful children in poverty, yes, but not much else. What I saw in front of me was starkly different to what was just behind us.

For starters, the school is much, much bigger than it appears from a distance (it can be seen from the southern outskirt of Kibera). The main courtyard was huge, carefully built, and clean. We arrived right at the recess hour, and were met by hundreds of energetic kids smiling from ear to ear. It is — at risk of being melodramatic — an oasis.

The lunch hall is converted to a study hall during the recess period for students in need to brush up on their studies. Upstairs in one of the administrative rooms, a group of women sat working away at constructing colourful, beaded necklaces. This is a program within the program, Collins explained. Called Project Biashara, the program brings in Kiberian women into a co-op that focuses on jewellery making (though they make other things too); the ultimate purpose of the project is to introduce these women to the concept of small-business ownership and entrepreneurship.

project biashara
project biashira

As we walked around the school, I got to learn a lot about Collins. He was part of New Hope’s first class of students (I’m going to get this wrong, but I think it was around 6th or 7th year). There were over 100 students in his inaugural class, but by the time he graduated his class size was just seven students. He entered college to study hospitality, amazingly, before there was ever an Acacia Tree Lodge. “Collins was one of us, so it was easy,” Dunstone said when I asked him how Collins had been recruited to join the hotel. “You see, we never lost Collins; we always knew how he was doing when he was at the university. Our hope is that when he reaches a point where he has learned all that he can from us and decided to move on to a bigger [hotel] property, when a position opens up at his new hotel, he will look first to find a worthy candidate who graduated from New Hope. That is how the initiative will ultimately be sustainable for us.”

Collins is a legitimate celebrity at New Hope Academy — not only is he their first graduate, but he made it through to a college degree and landed one of the best jobs one could have in a city with an egregious unemployment rate —  said to be around 12%, but in person that’s pretty generous, as it cannot possible include the people in Kibera who by all accounts, aren’t even fully accounted for.

While Dunstone lamented his hope that similar branches will grow in other sectors as students study a variety of things at the university level, I couldn’t stop thinking about the astronomical odds that Collins needed to land to find himself in this situation. And to the countless guests that have visited Acacia Tree Lodge and left with the utmost of fond memories of both him and his staff.

And I couldn’t stop wondering which one of these kids would be the next Collins.

For more information:
Acacia Tree Lodge 
New Hope Academy 
Project Biashara 
New Hope Initiative

 

Shot on Contax G2, Kodak Portra 400 & iPhone
Film scanned by Richard Photo Lab