The other night I shaved by lantern light for the first time.  I set up a little mirror on a stool, filled a basin with cold water from a jerry can and leaned as close as I could to the light.

Our electricity was out again.  My gracious hosts had given me one of their two kerosene lanterns, and I was feeling very pioneer-ish and quaint in in the warm glow of the light.

Shaving by lantern light...

Shaving by lantern light...

Slowly but surely I shaved off the stubble, stooping inches away from the mirror to see the spots I had missed.  When I finished, I rinsed my face, stood up and poured the dirty water into the alley outside my door.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little cool and rustic at that moment.  I felt the urge to go rustle up some cattle or something.

But as I was getting ready for bed that night, it hit me.

For a suburban kid like me, shaving by lantern light was fun.  Something to tell people about back home.  One more thing to add to my list of “strange stuff I’ve done in foreign countries.”  But for people living in Kibera, inconveniences and discomforts like that are a part of everyday life.

As I crawled into bed, I realized that my neighbors here don’t feel rustic when they have to use a lantern.  They don’t find it quaint that they eat the same types of food every day.

For m0st of the million and a half inhabitants of Kibera, life is a struggle.  Life is pain.  The only reason they even have lanterns is because their electricity goes out so often.

Obviously, after realizing all this, my feelings of rustic manliness were sort of squashed a little bit. But over the next few days, this amazingly basic realization helped me to understand something far more profound about the people of Kibera… They are survivors.

And when I say they are survivors, I don’t mean that that simply scratch out a living inches away from death.  I mean that they adapt.  They overcome.  They thrive.

To use a very American expression, people here are troopers.  I have never heard a person here complain about their life.  They don’t groan and whine when the power goes out.  Sure, most people here would love to live somewhere else, but that feeling doesn’t cause them to sit around in apathetic resignation.

The ubiquitous plastic basins here are put to use in every conceivable way.

The ubiquitous plastic basins here are put to use in every conceivable way.

Everywhere you look in Kibera you can see images of ingenuity, creativity and adaptation.  Lanterns made out of old soup cans, walls made out of the ends of barrels, basins that are used for everything from washing dishes to doing laundry to bathing.

Folks here are not content to just get by.  They want to make this place a home.

You can see it in the thin coats of paint that cover window frames and doorways (like the top image in this article). You can see it in the crumbling layer of cheap cement that covers the mud walls of our dwelling.  You can see it in the bed sheets hanging on every wall (improvised wallpaper).

People here may not have much, but everywhere you look, the message is clear.  “We won’t just lay down and die.  This is our home!”

Here’s another great example… A few years ago, Tumaini Church decided to try tackling two of the problems in their community: a lack of space and a lack of food.  After a bit of research, they came up with an elegant solution: veggie sacks.

Sukuma wiki sacks: ingenuity at work.

Sukuma wiki sacks: ingenuity at work.

Ok, they don’t call them “veggie sacks,” but that’s what they are.  Sacks filled with nutrient-rich soil and seedlings of sukuma wiki plants (a staple vegetable similar to collard greens).  Each sack holds 15 seedlings that grow into fully mature plants in just a few months.

And get this… With a few two-week breaks here and there, a single “sukuma sack” can feed a family of three every other day for 2 years!!!

The sacks are small enough to fit on a family’s front step or to hang from their roof, and all they require to keep going is sun and water (even water left over from bathing).

It’s an amazingly simple solution to two huge and seemingly insurmountable problems.  Wow.

So… Obviously a lot has been going through my head since my night of shaving by lantern light.

I’ve been humbled by the realization that “funny” inconveniences are actually a way of life here, but I have also been amazed at the perseverance and tenacity of my neighbors.

People here are survivors.  Something I would do well to remember the next time I break out my razor…

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Next Steps
    • Next time you need to run to the store for some new gadget or tool, try thinking of ways to use what you already have.
    • Consider sponsoring a few "Sukuma Sacks." Email for more info.
    • Pray that the systems of oppression keeping Kibera in poverty would be broken!
    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... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 10:51 am  

    I am overwhelmed at how much we (I) have to learn from the poor. This image of survivors and the desire to make their place a home overwhelms me. I look at my surroundings, people rich in means and so apathetic on life. We think we’re good stewards if we have a budget and tithe 10% regularly. I think you’ve just shown us a better picture of stewardship….using all that you have for many purposes. Thanks Barry.

  2. Penny said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 10:57 am  

    WOW!! This was such a good article…thought provoking, poignant, but also very funny! And I loved the practical “next steps” section.

  3. Blake Anderson said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 12:31 pm  

    I love ingenuity like that. I wish I could go and just learn from them.

  4. Shem Odhiambo said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 1:21 pm  

    There’s dedication, the there’s commitment. I think it take commitment to a cause to endure what you have chosen to endure; taking time to learn and understand. Thanks for sharing the experience man this is a great forum:-)

  5. Bee said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 4:17 pm  

    It’s really interesting to learn about the “sukuma sacks”. When I was in Kenya, my coworkers taught me the sukuma wiki means “to push the week,” it’s the food that gets the family through the week when they have nothing else. This innovation that allows them to always have enough food to push through the week is remarkable!

  6. Dave Rod said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 8:57 pm  

    OK… let me throw this out into the WND community…

    I’ve been really getting wrecked again by a lot of the stuff the team has been posting. And Barry and the team have included some excellent next step ideas for us to try. Love it.

    But…what do we “do” with the ache we feel after reading the truth like this? How do we “share” the ache with our clueless friends, family and neighbors? (without becoming insufferable)


  7. Amy Sorrells said... 


    July 3rd, 2009 at 9:42 pm  

    Your words on surviving and thriving and overcoming and adapting are beautiful. So many responses I could write this evening. So many times I’ve been grateful to use “thin coats of paint” or “sheets” God has given me to decorate the shanty parts of my heart.

    And an idea for Dave: veggie sacks. Human veggie sacks. Find “15 seedlings” ripe with a hunger for the hurting. Pour the stories and faces of the people on this website and like in The Hole in Our Gospel into them. Those “15” will grow into fully mature plants in just a few months. Their passion will germinate and produce fruit and “feed” other hearts–even families for months and years to come! Veggie sacks = human sacks = a crumpled bag of loaves and fishes in the Hands of the Master. “All they require to keep going is [Son] and [The Word].” Even “leftover” joy overflowing from others’ acts of service can do amazing things.

    Like Barry says, sometimes it’s the “amazingly simple solutions” that overcome “insurmountable problems.”

    And I’ve had the privilege of discovering that the joy of bringing hope to even one captive never runs the risk of being insufferable. It only spreads more joy and releases all the more.

    Welcome the ache. Embrace it. Then use it as “Miracle Grow” to tell others about the miracles of Peter and all the others on this site and around the world.

  8. John caves said... 


    July 5th, 2009 at 7:25 am  

    What strikes me in Barry’s message is the concept of home. I took my first mission trip to NY recently and visited the “homes” of people living outside a church on 5th avenue. Every night they built a home from cardboard, only to take their home apart in the morning. Ironically, each home owner took pride in the quality of their home even though it was temporary, just like Kibera residents.

    The simple solution for me is to build my home on the foundation of Jesus and continue to have Him shape me for my contribution to building God’s kingdom here on Earth.

    I believe that I share my ache with others through the actions I take to share my food with the hungry, provide the wanderer with shelter, and not turn away from my own flesh and blood no matter where God leads me.

  9. Denise said... 


    July 5th, 2009 at 4:40 pm  

    I think getting more people over to third world countries via short-term trips or WND opportunities, etc… helps. My personal opinion after visiting a few places and wanting to share, most still do not “get it”- until they experience it firsthand for themselves. It would be really cool if there were some type of organization whose main goal was to work hand-in-hand with Churches and other Social Justice- mission minded organizations like WND to help raise money and try to supply up to 50 percent of the costs for individuals who would like to go– but cannot seem to raise the funds for themselves. Getting people over there to “see it for themselves” is powerful!

  10. Kitty Stoeppelwerth said... 


    July 6th, 2009 at 7:52 pm  

    For those of us that can not be there, thanks for helping us “get it”. Well done.

  11. rob said... 


    July 9th, 2009 at 11:54 am  

    Creating and adapting with ingenious solutions to thrive in unbelievable conditions – without complaining. Just like me, er not.
    I am struck again by what you see and what I miss. I love Dave’s question as to how we can communicate this to others, in order to see change, without being insufferable. I guess that calls for creativity and ingenuity.

  12. Breanna Sipple said... 


    February 15th, 2011 at 3:17 am  

    wow, that’s amazing!
    I really appreciate the “Next Steps” at the end of each article. So I will pray right now that the systems of oppression keeping Kibera in poverty would be broken! I believe God has even been doing a lot in Kibera and will continue to!

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