Through Hell’s Gates and Back Again

With half of the world’s population living in urban areas as of 2008, a number that is continually on the rise, it is quite astounding to realize that of all the African cities, 90% of this urbanization occurs in the form of slums.  My roommate, Kerstin, used to work at an organization operating in Kibera called Goldmines Foundation (about discovering youth potential; no relation to mining corporations) so I went with her and some friends to visit the organization, learn more about their work, and understand from a local perspective, what it is like to live and work in the Kibera.  Also known as the ‘chocolate city’, a local name promoting positive association to the brown mud-walled homes, in the largest slum in Eastern Africa, likely still in Africa, and debatably, in the world.

I was immediately surprised by how safe I felt.  As Kerstin introduced us to her friends, and took us to her favourite place to eat, a part of me felt like I was back in Bolgatanga, Ghana.  The only difference is that you don’t get warnings in Bolgatanga about flying toilets (excrement sent flying from one’s domain in plastic bags) like you do when it’s heard you are going to Kibera.   A room 2/3rds the size of my bedroom at home houses 3 adults, one of which is desperately ill, and 7 children.  I am surprised how outright the population is to sharing their experiences of times when development organizations, large and small, entered the unofficial settlement with plans of change, without even consulting them first in the project design process. After years of development experience, have we not learned this yet?  The key to sustainable development is to have a culturally appropriate design which is fully supported by the local population.  This means they need to be involved in planning it!  This is Development 101 folks.  That is the best way of increasing the likeliness of their continued engagement in maintaining the project after the development workers have left.  We all know the phrase: community ownership.

After lunch at Kerstin’s favourite place in Kibera, we met with some of Marcus’ other friends (he just moved into the German School Boarding House too) and one of them was a Canadian who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamonds.  His hair and clothes made the description complete.  They have spent this week in Dadaab (journalists) so I am hoping to meet with them next week.  Kerstin’s friend also joined us and Kyle is certain he is the German Jake Gyllenhaal. Fairly accurate, I must say.  We were quite the mix.  Anyway, once we all met up we headed to a concert showcasing some of Kibera’s rising artists (musicians and performers).  It really is a city in itself.  We didn’t want to stay until dusk for security reasons (even those employed at Goldmines Foundation reiterated this warning to us) and we had a full day ahead of us, so it was back on a matatu we got (just like a Ghanaian trotro, but generally in better condition and with less bumper stickers).

Hell’s Gate National Park lived up to its name for the first half of the day.

After a near death encounter en route to the park, due to the rain subsiding into a layer of fog so dense our driver swerved just in time to save us from being road kill under an 18-wheeler without lights on which was overtaking another 18-wheeler on a one-way each lane road, we began to appreciate our pre-arranged and recommend driver, who frustratingly stopped to ask numerous people on the street for directions.  Needless to say we arrived, thankfully, each in one piece.

That should have been a warning of what was to come.  Our plan to see the park by bicycle was questioned numerous times as Natalia’s bicycle broke down (so did her second bicycle) while we were trying to get to the breathtaking caves, which turned out to be a pile of rocks and a dug-out.  Apparently the gorge is where we were supposed to go.  Half way through the day, Natalia on her third bicycle, we made it back to Fischer’s Tower (the site of a famous German and Maasai encounter) and were pointed in the direction we should have gone to begin with.  While we cycled under the scorching sun, which had come from nowhere, we enjoyed seeing zebras, ostriches, impalas, a giraffe, warthogs (all I could think was “Pumbas!!!” from the Lion King), baboons, and monkeys so much that we didn’t even realize we were frying ourselves.  It’s a good thing Hell’s Gate is a predator-free park, what with the way we looked that night, we would have been perfectly primed, or overdone.

After seeing the animals and Ol Njorowa Gorge, caves imbedded into the walls, we were quite happy and glad we had paid the 500 Kshs, or 5 CAD for a guide.  Really, what’s 5 loonies divided by 7?  Definitely worth not missing the one thing everyone who’s been to Hell’s Gate talks about, apart from the animals, of course.

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That night it rained and the air was chilly, as is normal here at this time of year, so you can understand our surprise at how intense the sun had really been.  Needless to say, we were glad we left the scorching Hell’s Gate sun behind when we did.

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2 thoughts on “Through Hell’s Gates and Back Again

  1. Wasn’t Hell’s Gate an amazing bike ride? I think that was one of the best trips I had in Kenya. Laura sounds like you’re having a fab time! Love your stories! xoxo – V

  2. Haha…..I have to say….singing “Hakuna Matata” while biking through a place called Hell’s Gate is totally what I would picture you doing Jag….

    Keep on writing…..Love ya!
    -Ike-

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