Bev Watkinson, a ‘retiree’ from Brisbane, has already volunteered in China, Timor-Leste and on the streets of New York. Now fulfilling a lifelong dream, she is volunteering at the Ruben Centre in Nairobi.
It all started with an incredible yearning to live in Kenya….who knows maybe it was a childhood dream to see the wildlife, and this led to my now wanting to live out that dream, or maybe it was my love of living and experiencing first hand, other cultures, other lands. Whatever the reason, I contacted Palms, to enquire about their volunteer program, as they offered placements to Kenya….because, for some strange reason, I just knew that was where I would venture to next. Family, friends, and acquaintances asked – “but why Kenya?“, I didn’t have an answer! But from the moment I stepped off the plane, my senses erupted with delight, and I knew I was where I wanted to be. I was being given an opportunity to work at the Ruben Centre, a large community centre run by the Christian Brothers, in the Mukuru slum, in the middle of Nairobi.
My first impression of my new workplace was incredible. On the first morning in Nairobi, the journey into Ruben was an experience in itself. From the three-laned Mombasa highway we turned into a road crammed with people, matatus (buses) and numerous tin and canvas constructions that served as shop fronts, selling everything including the ritual morning tea and mendozas. A ramshackle market place – the gateway to Mukuru. From the roadway, I could see the alleyways, and the mishmash of structures that seemed to grow out of each other, providing housing for the hundreds of people who were out in the streets, doing their morning chores. I was surprised by all the busyness, it hadn’t occurred to me that Mukuru would be a thriving, living hub, in the heart of the Nairobi Industrial Area. There wasn’t a square of street front property unoccupied by activity: factories, butchers, market stalls, hawkers, cell phone shops. Kwa Ruben had it all.
People raced through the muddy, rocky, dirt streets at full speed, greeting each other with handshakes and enormous smiles, as they manoeuvred between food stalls, chickens, pigs and mangy dogs. Music soared out of a set of speakers at a record store, and scores of young children descended down the streets in their bright yellow and green uniforms, these were the school children of Ruben Primary School. I would later learn that 2500 children come to school at the Ruben Centre, and as many as 400 brightly dressed Mums with babies tied to their backs, also enter the gates each morning to attend the many activities that form part of the centre including the large medical clinic, the dentistry, the AIDS clinic, the physiotherapy unit, the special needs unit, etc. etc.
Overwhelming? No, I was genuinely excited to at last be meeting my new workmates and colleagues who would help me through the process of living and working in Mukuru, Kwa Ruben, for the next two years.
Six months on, the experiences have been incredible, and yes I have been on safari, been in awe of the magnificence of the large beasts that roam the Maasai Mara. Sat in contemplation, and been overwhelmed at the beauty of this land at the dawning and closing of the winter’s day. However incredible, these amazing experiences do not compare with the joy of working at Ruben. When they say, laughter is the best medicine, then I know I am blessed, because laughter and smiles are a large part of my day, but, this joy is always tempered by the reality, and the undeniable and overwhelming frustration and sadness that many have to endure on a daily basis. Words written on a page, will never adequately capture the struggles experienced by the people living in Mukuru. The sheer desperation of my fellow workers, as they contend with the daily challenges of the slum – the squalor, the health risks, the health costs, the gripping poverty, crime, fire, family tragedy, is tangible. But amidst it all, there is an overwhelming determination to make a better life for their children and themselves. Many strive to make education a focal point in their lives and their children’s lives, believing strongly that education will enable them to move forward and achieve their dreams.
Working with the staff in the Vocational Training program, our direction is to provide training that can lead to sustainable work opportunities. This in itself is a major challenge, when unemployment is believed to around 50% in Mukuru, and available employment opportunities are centred around non-skilled labour. Hence, the need to enhance training and skill based learning to ensure future secured employment is vital for this community. My hope and prayer is that whatever I am asked to do, it will result in positive changes for the people of Mukuru.