Communitarian salvation in a slum

By Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ

Anybody who has travelled to Kenya, probably has heard of one of the world’s largest slums, Kibera. I visited this slum recently, as I reflected on Pope Francis’s insightful and challenging encyclical letter Laudato Si’.

Stepping over open sewers and crossing rickety bridges over putrid waters clogged with plastic bags and assorted waste, the choking dust and emission of smoke from endless burning fires remind me that this place offers no joyful mystery of creation to be contemplated with gladness and praise. Everywhere I look there are revolting signs of the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest people and of small ecological damages that have become a part of their daily experience. Water pipes lie buried in sewers that seriously compromise the quality of water available to the poor.

If examples are needed of a place that is congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space, look no further than this miserable slum. Here we find multiple forms of environmental, social, ecological and ethical degradation, and examples of dehumanizing poverty that contrast with the opulence of the few who live just blocks away.

Overlooking the squalor of Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya (photo: AJAN).

Overlooking the squalor of Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya.
(Photo: AJAN)

Kibera is a microcosm of what the world looks like when we have abandoned our responsibility to protect “our common home.” This “immense pile of filth” (LS 21) is home to hundreds of thousands of poor and marginalized people living at the bottom of the pile. Words of condemnation and outrage come easily for someone who does not live there. But words are not enough.

Like the global ecological crisis, this combination of pollution and poverty is manmade and reversible. Kibera offers us an ideal location to dare to embrace the pope’s challenge to turn the tragedy of mass poverty and environmental degradation across the globe into a “personal suffering” (LS 19). For when we do so, we realize that all is not lost. Even in Kibera there are signs of small improvements, such as new housing projects, financed through government-private partnerships. Such initiatives need to be scaled and speeded up as viable and sustainable alternatives to quick fixes, like so-called slum clearance and demolition that end up piling misery upon misery for the poor.

The women, men and children who live in places like Kibera are created in the image and likeness of God. They clamour for justice rather than charity, even if there are few opportunities for dignifying work. Reducing their grinding poverty will reduce the pollution that chokes their existence.

As I reflect on my visit to Kibera and the people whom I encountered, it dawns on me that beneath the chaos, uncertainty and poverty of this place there is remarkable hospitality and generosity. The people who live here practise what Francis calls “commendable human ecology” (LS 148) and solidarity. Despite numerous hardships they have developed a heightened sense of “communitarian salvation” (LS 149) that converts their overcrowded and limited spaces into communities of belonging and friendliness. In this place, after all, there is something to stop and admire as beautiful.

This article by Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Africa: Communitarian salvation in a slum.” Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ is the Principal of Hekima College at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.