This blog has sagged. There’s no denying it. Here’s a somewhat more formal story that you might enjoy.
“We are alive and kicking,” Daniel Ogola smiled. “Kibaki couldn’t kill us.” In his office he had stored several pieces of luggage below a misty mural of a waterfall. “I’m an internally displaced person.”
Ogola, 31, a short handsome man with close hair and a perpetual grin that can be joyful or bitter, was sort of exaggerating. Days after the December 27 election, he and his family escaped their small but sturdy home on the edge of Kibera, a Nairobi slum where political protests ignited weeks of ethnic clashes. Like most of Kibera and opposition candidate Raila Odinga, Ogola is from the Luo tribe. President Mwai Kibaki, who has agreed to share power with Odinga, is a Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest and wealthiest. Unlike thousands of Kenyans who have been displaced to refugee camps, Ogola, his wife and two sons, one born days before the election, stayed at a guesthouse and in the apartments of expatriate friends. They might have been the luckiest refugees in Kenya.
About ten years ago, a student on a study abroad program in Nairobi with the Vermont-based School for International Training asked Ogola for directions. After the chance meeting, Ogola maintained a relationship with the school, sometimes giving students tours of Kibera. In 2003 he met another SIT student, Laura Wagner, who normally studied at Yale. Her mother, a Bay Area doctor with Kaiser Permanente remembered Laura telling her that Ogola “needs to be running an NGO.” “He has this ability to inspire people,” said Dr. Gail Wagner, who is now president of The Matibabu Foundation, which she founded after a trip to East Africa. “I have a full time job. I have a life and I’m spending half of it worrying about Kenya.”
Ogola was born in Ugenya, a remote area of western Kenya’s Nyanza Province, the fifth of seven children to his father’s first wife. Luos traditionally practice polygamy and his father, a surveyor, married a second woman and had children by her as well, struggling to feed the large family, Ogola said.
After finishing high school, in 1995 he moved to Kibera, a labyrinth of shacks with brown mud walls and brown metal roofs. In Kibera, sewage and trash flow through the steep twisty alleys and humidify the air. Home, at the very least, to 500,000, it’s sometimes called the biggest slum in Africa. Staying with a brother, Ogola worked informally, at one point selling used shoes in Toi Market, an ant farm of thousands of stalls pieced together from wood and rippled metal, which was destroyed after the election. After about two years he found a job inspecting medicines for a pharmaceutical company, commuting on foot, almost three hours each way, he said. (If only it snowed in Nairobi, he’d have unbeatable stories for his grandchildren.) After a few months, an aerosol can injured him when it exploded on his face and chest. Pitying him, a friend found him work polishing cars.
Over the next few years, Ogola worked a series of jobs picking up mentors as well as office and accounting skills. By 2001, he had moved to the more stable Fort Jesus neighborhood and started Community Support Group, a Kibera organization where he said “young people could explore their talents since no one was employing them.” Hustling for money and volunteers, Ogola has expanded the group into activities including a school and a safari company to help pay for it. The students’ mothers string beadwork to sell in a program he calls “Out of Kibera.”
One day in February, more people were rebuilding Toi Market than selling anything. Central Kibera, which blankets a valley on either side of a thin filthy stream, is mostly intact, if that’s the right word. But around the perimeter, shopping centers were hollowed out, the skeletons of burned minibuses idling in front of them. Rioters had somehow torn down the roof on one church and tiles covered the floor like a scene from the Blitz. Now that Kibaki and Odinga have agreed to a power sharing agreement, tensions in Kibera could subside.
Dr. Wagner founded Matibabu in 2004 (“treatment” in Swahili) and the group now runs two clinics in Ugenya manned by a Kenyan doctor and a staff of about 8. Ogola draws a salary as country director. Matibabu also sends American doctors on medical holidays to treat patients and train local staff. (Avoiding the conflict, this year they have routed doctors to a different organization in Rwanda.)
According to Matibabu, 40% of people in Ugenya have HIV/AIDS, abetted by polygamy and the Luo custom of levirate marriage – when a woman’s husband dies she marries his brother. In December, the foundation received a $1.5 million grant from President Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which he touted on the recent Africa trip. The grant is strictly for prevention, which to the White House often means faith-based abstinence education. Even Dr. Wagner seemed surprised that a secular group from northern California could win one.
When it was preparing the application last year, Matibabu brought Dan to San Francisco to assist with the work and see the city. He called it a “great place” and especially liked Alcatraz. Now that Matibabu is paying Ogola what Dr. Wagner called “a princely sum for Kenya,” he’s found a place for his family outside the slum and will have to focus on Matibabu. “I love Kibera but this situation is making it impossible.”