There is only one way to begin this post, so here goes;
a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR and NEW DECADE to you all!
There is definitely a cut off for such cursory wishes. Not an official date but just a feeling that we all seem to discern at roughly the same time; perhaps when we reason that this year is much like the last.
I hope then that this post and my well-wishes has arrived in time?
Albeit my year to date has been far from normal which is a nice bridge to what might be my most important blog to date – and I make no apologies if it is longer than my usual efforts. And few laughs ahead either, if any?
You see, as I write, us Hollands are in Kenya, as some social media enthusiasts amongst you will know already. A family holiday (we did a 3 day safari) and a chance to be away and all-together, but principally we wanted to visit the places in Nairobi where The Lunchbowl Network (LBN) do their work; a charity that many of you will be familiar with via The Brothers Trust.
A very abbreviated history of The Lunchbowl Network…
A London couple, Sally and Stuart McGreevy visit Nairobi, Kenya in 2005 – like everyone else on their flight I expect, bound for a safari family holiday. But the McGreevy family holiday becomes the catalyst for LBN when they chance upon a Methodist missionary who runs a feeding programme in the Kibera slums of Nairobi.
How to describe Kibera?
It is a place of unimaginable deprivation. Because it is not fixed, determining its size is not easy – but a good approximation is the size of Richmond Park, close to where we live. London’s biggest park at 6 miles square; the former hunting ground of King VIII and now famously home to a herd of deer. Kibera is home to more than 1.2 million people.
Clinging to a hillside; a squashed succession of mud dwellings with tin roofs not much bigger than transit vans and home to up to eight people, most usually, a mum and her offspring. No running water. No electricity. No sanitary facilities at all. Open latrines of raw sewage being what connects them all and everyone at the mercy of the unrelenting heavens.
Toto’s famous song, Africa has the emotive lyric, “I bless the rains down in Africa”
But I wonder if the people of Kibera would agree with this sentiment as the heavens rain down misery on their porous ‘homes’ and during particularly heavy rains, can wash their homes away entirely.
These are the world’s poorest people which I reason since they have nothing. Average age is 15. Infant mortality some estimate for the under 5’s up to 50% and from the stench and the slurry we walk through, it doesn’t need a biologist to understand why.
My words and writing is inadequate to convey what Kibera truly is – so feel free to set your imaginations free and you might get an inkling of this grinding life and by contrast, our great fortune.
The great life lottery of where we are born?
And with this experience of Kibera fresh in their minds – Sally and Stuart head for the airport after their memorable safari – but unlike their fellow tourists returning home, even though they’ve done the Masai Mara and seen the lions, they are already decided that they will return to Kenya.
And before then, they resolve to begin fund raising to support this feeding programme in the slum that they have seen. It is not a comprehensive provision – remember, there are over 1m hungry ‘Kiberans!’ Just a Saturday lunch affair for some 350/400 of the most deprived children and just how such kids are discerned is anyone’s guess and not a job I would relish.
Anyway, their fundraising begins in earnest, headed up by three mums in South West London and an official charity is founded called The Lunchbowl Network which has now grown into a thriving endeavour that The Brothers Trust is proud to support.
If ever a charity fits with our hopes and intentions, it is The Lunchbowl Network.
Remarkable people tend to do unusual things and so in 2014 – Sally and Stuart sold their house in London, upped sticks and relocated to Nairobi with their four children so that they could concentrate their energies on LBN. Their goal: to make a real difference to the lives of the children of Kibera.
The Saturday feeding programme continues to this day – and I was able to experience today. The state of my career, I am not used to seeing a room quite so packed but not even in my hay-day as a stand-up comic, could I ever compete with the atmosphere created by 400 hungry kids singing their lungs out ahead of their only hot meal of the week.
But as well as this heartening spectacle, LBN under Sally and Stuart’s stewardship has now become something much bigger and more durable with the founding of two kindergartens and one mid-school, providing a vital education to these children.
Education being the most potent weapon against poverty…
How many politicians the world over do we encounter using such a line with elections pending?
Providing numeracy and literacy skills (not to mention, English language) – are the essential keys for any kid hoping for a better adulthood than that enjoyed by their parents. This is a noble longer-term aim of LBN but let’s not forget the more immediate provision of the daily respite and refuge for these kids just being out and away from the Kibera slum.
Because Kibera is a wretched place. A living hell (by our living standard) and so LBN Angel kindergarten, directly across from Kibera is literally an oasis for these kids. It is pristine and safe. It has running water and toilets. It even has a hot shower. Hot breakfast and a hot lunch is provided. A playground with toys and the children wear beautiful school uniforms to compliment smiles as broad as any I have ever seen.
And because I knew that I would write about this experience - all week, something has been troubling me.
Not just how I could adequately describe this place and this extraordinary charity but something much more unsettling in this age of Identity Politics which I believe serves only a rarefied elite and certainly not the people it purports to protect.
My troubles can be summed up in two words which I will come to shortly.
Personally, I am often persuaded by the arguments against aid.
Certainly, the mantra, Trade Not Aid resonates with me.
Give a man a fish and he feeds for a day. Teach a man to fish…
There are many ways of saying the same thing.
But such logic and sense quickly pale when walking through the slums of Kibera (with our armed guards) and experiencing the lives of the world’s poorest people. An experience as troubling as it is humbling.
Troubling because this needn’t happen, of course. It shouldn’t happen in a country like which has abundant natural resources and remarkable wealth. An elite as rich as any strata of our West…
And incidentally, the people of Kibera are not just squatters. No, they are tenants. They are paying rent for their pitiful plots and for their painful lives. But rent to whom? Who are these landlords?
Well, they are not the people you might imagine. As in, they are not the people who own the land. Kibera is just a sprawling hillside and is not owned by anyone. So these landlords are just opportunists. Inhumane Kenyans who will readily evict people if they don’t receive between $10 and $25 per month. And so Kibera is nothing more than a racket then and something that the Kenyan government doesn’t want to acknowledge nor do anything about. How utterly contemptible and depressing? Human greed out-punching human kindness.
And so because this an intractable problem, it is easy for us to ignore and do nothing.
And not just because out-of-sight is out-of-mind but even as a calculated response…
“Because, really… what is the point?”
“These people can’t be helped. There are there are millions of them. They live like animals and it’s all they know. And they seem happy, right? Well, the kids anyway”.
Certainly the children do seem happy and I write this in the context when children in the West (the Civilized world?) are said to be at their least happiest with so many markers: self-harm, prescription meds, rates of suicide and substance abuse all indicating that something is very wrong with our youngsters.
But I noticed that the smiles in Kibera are more scarce as the children became older. Harrowed looks are more common and no surprise with some of the things they might have witnessed. Kibera is a place where rape and violence is normal. Corruption is endemic and only compounds their grinding poverty. Kenya is a country with up to 70% unemployment. Alcoholism is rife. Stories of fecklessness that I hear are beyond frustrating and inevitably begs that question again.
Just what is the point?
What difference can we really make? Because these problems are cultural. These problems are intractable. Problems that are entrenched and will take generations to solve, if ever. Human failings exaggerated by a lack of infrastructure and precedent.
All these points and others I put to Stuart McGreevy, a man with a calm and soothing manner and who is boundlessly kind.
One child at a time is his repeated mantra.
“…Sure. We might just be a sticking plaster against a mortal wound, but for the kids who are directed to us, they receive a small lifeline and maybe a chance of a way out to a better life.”
Which instantly strikes a chord with me.
His response put more bluntly might be –
“So what, we do nothing, then?”
The children in the care of LBN receive an education from professional teachers who are assembled to meet us before school term begins and rarely have I been so impressed to see an array of smartly dressed men and women who clearly take immense pride in their role. Much is asked of them and they seem more than up for the task. The men in particular, dressed in suits and ties, their function as role models almost as important as their teaching skills.
These teachers are paid of course – and solely by LBN from their fund-raising efforts – which brings me to the clincher in being able to commend LBN to any readers of this blog.
A common accusation levelled at charities is the waste of resources. The poor ratio of funds raised and what is actually spent on the cause. In crude terms: how many mouths are filled.
LBN is run entirely by volunteers. None of their key Charity staff are paid, enabling a remarkable ratio of 97p in every £ raised being spent directly on the kids meals or their education.
In the slum today (Saturday, 4th Jan) – I sat in the home of two young girls while their mum was out looking for work. The girls spoke little English and struggled to make eye contact. Shy or traumatised, I don’t know, but it wasn’t an easy encounter. Irene, a resident and matriarch of Kibera and key partner for LBN translates and relays their reluctant story.
I ask their names.
Mary and Agnes and this makes me smile; namesakes of two of my many aunts who I remember so fondly from my childhood. My aunts Mary and Agnes were both kind and loving women. Only Agnes is alive now, known by her birth name, Margaret and has featured on my Instagram when I last visited Ireland for some gigs. A nun all her life – Sister Agnes - was a missionary in India and poignant for me then to meet a young Agnes in such a place and in such a plight.
And fortunate also that via LBN I am able to directly help both sisters.
No doubt, you will have heard of child sponsorship already but LBN sponsorship offers benefactors some key advantages…
Because they are a small charity (total budget last year, £170,000) – and it’s key people are here in Kenya and on the ground, all sponsorship money can be specifically directed at the child and almost in full. Of the £25 it costs to sponsor a child with LBN, £24.25 will reach the child.
I couldn’t afford to send my boys to private secondary schools (not funny enough, as I joke) – but I can afford to put Agnes and Mary of Kibera through school and for this, having been here and experienced Kibera, I am thankful that Stuart and Sally can make this possible.
Of the 374 children enrolled in LBN schools – just over 60 of them are directly sponsored by people, mostly from the UK. If you would like to join them, then please do visit www.lunchbowl.org where all the salient information and appropriate links can be found.
And finally to the matter that has been troubling me for some time now but particularly so this week and those two words…
…along with ‘privilege’ – it is now a thing to be contended with and based only on the colour of skin; the very thing that Martin Luther King dreamed one day would not happen.
But this is where we are now, a reality flagged up recently by President Obama. We live in an age where it is difficult to keep up with these vague moral arbiters who patrol our lives and our standards. What can be said and what can’t be said. How people should be referred to. Where our speech and even our thoughts (unconscious bias?) are policed and people are cancelled. Who these people are is unclear. But they are an elite and ironically themselves, most usually well-educated and ‘privileged’ people.
Being woke seems to be the new noun. Another new word to contend with?
I don’t know who coined the phrase, White Saviour but I do know who brought it to my attention. A British politician and although he is notoriously stupid and attention seeking, sadly, this does not mean that he can be dismissed.
White Saviour is now a thing – and why an incident this week bares explaining.
The Brothers Trust have purchased two 50 seat buses for LBN, which allows them to ferry kids from Kibera ‘to and fro’ their mid-school across town. School is out during our visit which means the buses are free and the kids are back in the slum – so Sally suggests we arrange a day trip for them to an elephant orphanage.
Naturally the kids are excited. The only animals they have ever seen are stray dogs, cats, goats and wild pigs feeding off the scraps from the slum.
None of them have ever seen an elephant before.
One of the children on the trip is Jackson. 8 or 9, Jackson has cerebral palsy for which there is no special provision in the slum. Unable to walk, his grandma carries him to the kindergarten which is a perilous place to walk for even the able bodied.
To see the elephants, Jackson has to be carried from the bus and he is not easy to lift. His body is stiff and his arms are fixed over his head, so he is unable to nestle in to a hold the way that healthy children do naturally. A dead weight then and too much for a single adult for very long and so Jackson carry duties are shared and we all take turns.
My children are photographed often and some more than others as you can imagine. Another – the age of the selfie.
One of my boys was photographed whilst holding Jackson and the immediate concern was ‘white saviour’ and how this photo might appear as exploitative of a disabled black child. The person who took the photo kindly deleted it but being Kenyan, probably didn’t understand the reasons I felt obliged to give.
My Auntie Breda was also a nun all her life. She was given the rather unkind name of Sister Bernard for her vocation. She spent her entire working life tending to the poor in Ireland and then on retirement, she promptly hopped on a plane for South Africa where she founded an AIDS orphanage which is still going strong today. I wonder now how she would have reacted to the accusation of being a ‘white saviour’ (because it not meant as a compliment) and I am pleased she died before she had to consider such a thing.
Whilst I understand that the only enduring changes must come from within – I am more persuaded by Stuart’s argument that we should do something where and if we can. And deferring responsibility to others and particularly to governments is not good enough.
I am leaving Kenya today – bound for London – with some extraordinary memories including two lions copulating not ten feet from me – but even this sexual prowess (every 15 mins for 7 days) pales against what I saw in Kibera and I leave knowing that I can help Agnes and Mary for the rest of their childhood at least.
And for this admission, if the accusation of ‘white saviour’ comes my way, then so-be-it. Guilty as charged.
Because I am safe in the knowledge that Agnes and Mary won’t care about some non-intellectual social point scoring as they receive two hot meals a day and learn to read and write.
This is not written as a sermon nor a plea.
Just an honest account by a man of a certain age – who life has been inordinately kind to – and feels that we can and should do more for people not so fortunate.
And finally – to you all - and for the last time this year…
HAPPY NEW YEAR.
(next week’s post will be shorter, I promise)
Should you wish to find out about sponsoring a child via The Lunchbowl Network please visit https://www.lunchbowl.org/sponsor-a-child.html
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