Saturday, July 8, 2017


Editor’s note: This post is over a year overdue! Writing it even now, the story remains fresh and near to my heart and I’m excited to share it. It is about my friend Jesús and the work he is doing in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

UPDATE: If your moved by Jesús and his story and want to do something to support, please vote for the school project here.

Jesús and I met in Ahmedabad in 2010 when he arrived as a volunteer with Architects Without Frontiers to build Anganwadi schools with Manav Sadhna. Among several projects, he was involved in building Patangyu. In his spare time he and I held a regular football practice with some of the MS children. That later grew into the MS Sports Program that continues on today. 

After leaving India in 2012 and traveling to Peru in 2013 to build another school in a slum area there, in January 2015 Jesús moved to Nairobi, Kenya to work with an NGO doing educational work in Kibera. At the time he made the decision to move, details about this NGO and the project he would be doing were vague. But it was Jesús’ experiment to bravely jump in and, in his own words, “lose myself in service of others.” In fact Jesús nature is to serve however and wherever he is called.

As it turned out, the NGO he had originally come to Kibera for didn’t pan out. At that point most of us would have patted ourselves on the back for the effort, tuck-tailed and run back home. But not Jesús. He kept digging and came to know about another organization, KDI, also doing education and community-related work in Kibera. Despite no formal introduction or partnership in place, Jesús decided to stay on and work with KDI on their various projects building bridges, public toilet facilities, community gathering spaces, shops, playgrounds, and more within Kibera. Essentially, creating open spaces by and for the community. Jesús had no funding or clear project, just a desire to serve. After some time a vision for a school, KDI’s biggest project yet, took shape and Jesús was appointed to lead it. Along with support from a German Architecture NGO, Jesús began the journey of building a multi-story school in the middle of dense Kibera.

If you've been to Kibera, you would say the notion of building a pukka school in the belly of this dusty dense and dubious place is impossible. There is an endless list of challenges. At the first level there is securing the will of the community, the resources, and the know-how. Jesús had to convince the community of the design (including details like whether to build the toilet facing the main road with a public entrance or inside only for the children or for pay), the materials to be used (in the middle of construction, the local Nubian community demanded that the concrete structure be replaced by mud), and the timeline (the children were re-located temporarily to a church during construction, but its distance and lack of facilities caused attendance to drop). After that there are an enormous number of logistical hurdles. Here’s one story Jesús told, in one of his regular emails to friends since construction began in 2016, on transporting materials from the main road down to the site by hand:

The poor accessibility to the site, means that materials (sand, gravel, stone...) have to be carried all the way from the main road to the site (around 300meters) by foot with sacks or wheelbarrows.  Kibera is full of "porters", who are young people waiting on the side of the road to carry materials in exchange for a bunch of shillings. What happened was, some porters got "distracted" and ended up with the sacks of cement in their houses instead of on the site. So, to make sure all the materials reach safe and sound, the teachers are doing this: every time materials reach the road, the teachers leave their classes, and stand along the path (from road to site) 50 meters apart monitoring the materials entire trip...So far, none of the porters have been distracted again. ;)
Even once the materials are at the site, they have to prevent them from theft by keeping security 24 hours a day. At one point, the security guard had to be fired because he was himself stealing bags of cement! In another episode, Jesús had to demolish and shift a pillar by 30cms so a neighbor could squeeze a couch through the narrow common road. During construction a pit latrine was discovered under the building site which caused the another part of the school to be demolished and rebuilt as it was to risky to build on top of the latrine. Most recently, in order to connect the schools toilets to the main sewage line they had to open up 200 meters of roads in the slum.
Classes have commenced without teachers and a completed building!
The school is not complete yet, but Jesús can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Still, the parents of the children have decided they do not want to wait to get out of the tunnel and launched a rebellion to allow the children to start coming to the half-completed school! Classes have commenced and Jesús had to roll with another unexpected turn in the journey. Humbly, he writes how this was a reminder that this project was not about the finished product but the journey, with the community. And what a journey it is!

I am continuously inspired by Jesús and his humble work all around the world. He works deeply embedded in the most challenging contexts and is able to observe and delight in both the ugliness and and beauty of life around him. I am always thrilled to get his every-few-months email photo diary entries where he shares about small and beautiful things about life and culture in Kenya with such rich vivid detail. The way he lives and works is truly humble, powerful, impactful, and exceptional and gives me tremendous hope for humanity to build connections and serve with a truly open heart.

Thank you, hermano, for who you are and the work you do continue to do in quiet corners of the world that touches and inspires so many all around the world.

Last year, I was able to visit Jesús and Lily in Nairobi and see Jesús’ work first hand. Here is a short photo diary of that visit (photos with captions).

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