Ever since I decided to stay in Kibera slum, I’ve looked forward to experiencing what the place is like at night. Many mzungus (white folks) have been in and out during the day, but because of fear, ignorance or perhaps, I don’t know… sanity?, they leave before the sun goes down.

I have now stayed in Kibera for four nights, and what I’ve already learned is blowing me away.

No such thing as peace…

One of the first things I’ve noticed during the night in Kibera is the sound. It never stops. Lying in bed writing this, I can hear my neighbor laughing and chatting in Swahili, a baby crying a few doors down and a train chugging past. KTN (Kenya Television Network) is blaring on some tiny TV somewhere and dishes are being put away after dinner.

I can hear it all, because there is a gap between the roof and the top of my wall. One of the windows of my room is just a hole stuffed full of cardboard. My ceiling is a thin sheet of corrugated metal.

And this “house” is one of the nicer ones.

In Kibera, a few square miles that is home to over 1,000,000 inhabitants (yes, million), there is always noise somewhere. Even in the dead of night.

No such thing as space…

Pastor Fred and his family in their two room home.  You can't tell in the picture, but my back is against the wall.  That room is IT.

Pastor Fred and his family in their two room home. You can't tell in the picture, but my back is against the wall. That room is IT.

Obviously, when cramming millions of people into a tiny area, space is at a premium. In the evening, when most families close themselves in for the night, everyone gathers in their tiny one or two room shacks. There is no way to find any sort of “alone time” other than in the dark and smelly outhouses, (and even there you can hear every sound made by the person in the next stall!).

My host family’s baby is just getting over some sort of illness. As a result, he has been cranky and temperamental. When he is not getting his way, his cries and shrieks practically shake the room.

And as much as I would like to just leave when he’s fussy, the fact remains… I can’t. I am stuck in the 10 foot by 15 foot room with the baby and the rest of the family watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model on their 10 inch TV.

No such thing as reliability…

Eating dinner by the light of a lantern.  A common occurance in Kibera.

Eating dinner by the light of a lantern. A common occurance in Kibera.

Electricity in Kibera is fickle (That is, even more fickle than in the rest of Nairobi!).

If it doesn’t rain enough, the hydroelectric dams don’t work and the power goes out. If it rains too much, power lines fall and the power goes out. If too many people tap into the lines illegally, the power goes out.

Since arriving on Friday night, we’ve already had two whole days without power.

It’s funny. I remember being practically paralyzed when the power went out at my apartment back in the States last year. “But without electricity, how will I check my email? Take a hot shower?? Cook my food???”

Looking back I see that perhaps I may have been taking electricity a bit for granted. I mean, in a place like Kibera, you never know if the current blackout will last two minutes or two days. It’s definitely forcing me to change my perspective on things.

Unexpected Victims

These 16 year old girls have little chance of finishing their education if they are unable to study at night.

These 16 year old girls have little chance of finishing their education if they are unable to study at night.

So looking at what I’ve written above, it’s pretty obvious that Kibera is uncomfortable. Not exactly a relaxing place. But what I’ve discovered is that what is uncomfortable for me is debilitating for another group of residents here.

That group? Students.

Skim back at the “inconveniences” above. Now imagine trying to study for an exam or write a paper in conditions like those.

Imagine trying to read your homework assignment while your little brother and his friends run around screaming just outside. Imagine trying to memorize multiplication tables five feet away from a blaring TV. Imagine sharing your family’s one lantern with everyone else while you prepare for a speech tomorrow.

The fact is, even those students lucky enough to actually go to school are facing an uphill battle when it comes to their studies. For many, their homework goes unfinished, their papers go unwritten and their test scores fall and fall.

When Pastor Fred explained all of this to me, I was shocked. I honestly never would have thought about the lack of quiet, space and reliable electricity as contributing factors to poor education in the slums.

A simple solution…

That is why I was thrilled when he took me to visit a pilot project that Tumaini is working on with two other churches in Kibera… after-school study clubs.

The study group at St. Jerome Church in Kibera.  Not a very exciting picture.  But that's the point.

The study group at St. Jerome Church in Kibera. Not a very exciting picture. But that's the point.

Every evening, the churches open their doors to students from many different primary and secondary schools in the area. The church buildings are well lit, relatively spacious and best of all, quiet. In one room they have two whole bookshelves full of textbooks for the students to borrow (saving each student’s family a lot of money).

After arriving at the church, Pastor Fred and I watched a bunch of students studying, reading and writing. As we sat there, my heart was filled with hope. These kids were being given a chance that many in the slum will never have. All because of a few light bulbs and a quiet building.

Yet again I am floored by what God is doing here. A handful of simple Christ followers are taking what little they have to provide for the next generation.

Because of their sacrifice, these students are getting a chance to make it in school, a chance to go on to higher education and a chance to get out of the slum for good. Wow.

And to think… all of this goes on after the sun goes down.

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Next Steps
    • Try spending a day without electricity. See how much you learn!
    • Consider covering the electric bill of an after-school study group for a year (it's $13 a month!). Email info@worldnextdoor.org for more information.
    • Pray that Tumaini would be able to quickly start a new study group in their church building soon.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Amy Osgood said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 8:28 am  

    Thank you for showing the hope among the darkness.

  2. Denise said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 9:57 am  

    oh my… the things we take for granted — and I complain if the electricity is off for more than 15 minutes!

  3. Dave Rod said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 10:54 am  

    Talk about practical help…light to read. Other than water, food and maybe a roof over the head is anything more basic.

    “I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was in the dark and you gave me light.”

    Maybe sometimes we think too grandly about our mission…we want to create vast movements and tackle huge issues…when maybe we should look to see where we can offer the simple life changing luxury of illumination

  4. Sharon said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 11:35 am  

    Dave, that last paragraph is profound. And, I think, by addressing simple needs we would find “huge issues” shrinking.

  5. Amy said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 12:32 pm  

    Ok, you’re right. You ARE out of your mind. But I think that’s what people said about Paul and Peter and Moses and the countless others who have decided to live radical and powerful lives surrendered to and for Him. I wish I could be there and see Jesus in the eyes you look into every day. Can I be like you, Barry, when I grow up?

  6. Rob Yonan said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 10:22 pm  

    Your writing brings me there. I can see the train tracks, millions of plastic bags strewn about (and embedded in the soil), so may faces, their stares and the smells. I remember being overwhelmed by the scope of the darkness yet gripped by the way in which light was present. Talk about the need for an Extreme Makeover…one life at a time.

  7. Annie said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 11:05 pm  

    It’s amazing the big difference such small things can make sometimes. There’s a ministry in India doing a similar thing to the churches in Kibera, and I love hearing about the domino effect there “stepping stone” program has. http://www.serve-im.org/

  8. Annie said... 


    June 23rd, 2009 at 11:06 pm  

    (Can I just add that I REALLY like that the url automatically formatted as a link. That is pretty cool.)

  9. Brad Ruggles said... 


    June 24th, 2009 at 9:31 am  

    I love the idea of the after school study program you mentioned. Programs like that continue to reap benefits long after the student is graduated.

    I also like the idea in the “Next Steps” about trying to go without electricity for a day. I think that would be a neat project to do with my kids.

  10. Leah Golland said... 


    June 24th, 2009 at 1:53 pm  

    wow… after the storm we had last weekend, my apartment complex lost power Saturday morning. I went to the mall to shop because I wanted to be in the AC…


  11. Dave Quigley said... 


    June 24th, 2009 at 11:49 pm  

    Barry – your insight on the ‘debilitating’ conditions for students young and old who just crave a place of quiet and refuge with lights – that deeply saddens me…. How do they break the cycle of povevrty then?

  12. Janelle Frazier said... 


    June 25th, 2009 at 2:10 pm  


    I love that you and your interns include “Next Steps” with every post. It’s a very pratical way to get us readers involved in the moments and lessons you are experiencing, so thanks for that.

    Very convicting about our total and utter reliance on electricity here in the States. It’s amazing what I take for granted…

  13. Breanna Sipple said... 


    February 15th, 2011 at 2:17 am  

    I am so glad to hear about that project for the students, and reading about their situation inspires me to be thankful instead of irritated for those rare times I get bothered by the little things that sometimes make studying for me hard. I want to share this with a couple of my friends, because I think it would really help their perspective right now too.

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