As we followed the train tracks into Kibera, the smiles of people everywhere were wide and friendly. I wondered why we had been forced to hire two heavily armed guards, carrying machine guns and dressed in full Khaki combat gear on that ridiculously warm day. Sweat was pouring down their faces. We stopped at a store so we could buy everyone some soft drinks. The children who were following us pulled back off the tracks to watch us behind a pile of plastic pails that were for sale.
We had been walking along the railroad tracks because the mud from yesterday’s rainfall was not so deep there. After a while I realized that on either side of the tracks, hundreds of sandals were ground into the mud, a fight against the endless tide of brown water running through the narrow pathways of Kibera.
I started to take in the people around us. Cleanly dressed, some were already in the uniforms they would wear that day. They streamed past us along the tracks in the opposite direction, going out to work in the homes and hotels and restaurants of Nairobi. They stepped delicately, with dismay on their faces, as mud spattered their shoes and climbed up their legs.
I was with a team from Translators without Borders. Our goal that day was to bring two computers to the women’s health clinic deep within Kibera so that the sex workers we had trained as translators would be able to create health brochures in the local languages.
Located in the center of Nairobi, Kibera is Africa’s second largest slum. It is home to around 250,000 people, speaking dozens of languages. The Kibera sex workers who volunteered during the day to teach their neighbors about family health had come to us with a problem. Their brochures were only in English. When they handed them out to the local women, the minute their backs were turned the brochures, incomprehensible, would be tossed to the ground. I imagined the brochures helping the sandals to soak up the mud, much less good than they would have done if they were written in a language the residents of Kibera could understand. That information could literally have saved lives.
We were still struggling with the two computers when all of a sudden there was a loud clattering sound. The plastic pails were pulled back from the train tracks. A baby who had been playing on the tracks just in front of us, was snatched up. We jumped aside as the train rumbled through the center of Kibera, passing within inches of some of the merchant stalls and shanty houses.
When we got to the clinic, still shaken, I asked the women why they live there with a train rumbling through their midst twice a day. Wasn’t that dangerous? They shrugged. The government had been trying to settle the inhabitants of Kibera elsewhere, but the proposed accommodations were always more expensive, with rents three and four times what they pay in the slum.
Today the connection of Translators without Borders and Kibera has deepened. We have a full-time staff of translators in Nairobi – and some have come through Kibera. Our offices are not so far away as the crow flies, just a few miles, but on a day like this one, with Kibera in the news for the train that has just derailed, they seem a world away. The Translators without Borders training center is housed in stone buildings surrounded by greenery. There is no mud, no train tracks. Our trainees receive a hot meal every day and tea with biscuits in the morning and in the afternoon. We have electricity (most of the time) and a fairly good internet signal.
Thankfully, all our staff are safe. The train derailed at a time when many people in Kibera were at church, or gone back to their villages for Christmas. We don’t yet know if there were people still in those houses crushed by the derailed train. We do know that poverty forced them to live in that danger every day.
With knowledge comes better health, fewer days missed from work or school, better opportunities, less chance of dying from a preventable illness, less poverty. One of the reasons Translators without Borders is in Kenya is to build translation capacity so that brochures in a poorly-understood language won’t be thrown to the ground to try to keep people’s feet clear of mud, but that will help them to live better lives.