Bella, The Bomb Blast & Canada Post
Everything is connected. Sitting in the studio this morning on a holiday Tuesday waiting for Mary to come in to discuss the book, I am surprised and delighted when in walks Bella. 15 years old living only with her siblings because mum and dad both moved out on their own, she cannot afford to go to school. And she is so sweet and so quiet I jump up to shake her hand and say welcome.
She has drawn CITY HALL which I love – THE most important building in Nairobi and there she must have sat, sketching so carefully and shyly because nobody seems to like it when we draw the buildings. I asked Mary to find more girls because so far our first seven sketches have been done by boys. Except Lillian – 18 years old with 2 kids already we sat together and sketched one of my favourite little buildings in the city – the REHABILITATED PUBLIC WASHROOM. Public washrooms are a big deal for folks on the resource-poor scale of the spectrum. Someone with a big heart made sure this building came to life. Someone who cares about the average Kenyan.
Again told to move away from the security cameras so we weren’t to be seen. What chances do these kids have with policies against public sketching? Perhaps our book will help change that.
Our first little booklet KAMBUKA NAIROBI – Volume 1, The Central Business District, will feature 18 youth sketches of some of the city’s most interesting buildings. It will be sold for KSh 700 or $10 USD or 5 GBP to hopefully net us about 7 months of rent, salaries and internet all the way to next summer. We only need to sell 10,000 of them with the 10% youth license fee being dedicated to school fees. If they can sketch. If they can help us spread the word.
Waking up in the middle of the night I had a dream I was thrown in jail for earning kids more money than their parents. But who else is going to care as much as the youth than themselves about their future? Many of the parents are abandoning them or even beating them up – all they want is to go to school and be happy. Our business can do that for them and they are the very key to the success of the whole thing.
In every problem its own solution is sitting right behind it in the shadows. Thousands and thousands of youth with no access to opportunity in the current African economies. Is this a problem or is it its own brilliant masterful solution? Problems of this magnitude require a completely different set of ideas – an upside and backwards approach to empowerment with no barriers. If we can get out of the way and harness their energy the kids will do the rest themselves.
In the shadow of the Co-operative Bank Building walking through the Bomb Blast site of the old American Embassy that is no more, I think of Bella and her siblings living alone in a house in a slum. Everyone around me thinks I am an American, I can feel it. Like I am responsible for all the names on the slick dark wall behind the fountain. In my jeans, t-shirt and ponytail of course I look American and as a North American am I anything very different? The Kenyans don’t have much time for the Americans especially the ones appearing in the newspapers fundraising for Africa. When I suggest that there are Americans and British and Canadians who care about Africa the conversation runs dry. It’s like we’re not even on the radar here. Whatever, knock yourself out, their blank looks seem to say. The Africans want success stories about themselves. They know our best intentions many times never even arrive. They are tired of saying thank you. They are tired of things that do not work.
Hundreds of Kenyans died right there in that NW corner of Moi and Selassie – so what chance does Bella have living in these conditions? These were folks with jobs. But Bella can win – she’s smart and careful and she arrived today with a beautiful precise little vision for our book. She is why I am here and why I refuse to give up. I love these kids. When they smile at me in hopes of me sharing the secrets of obtaining a better life I want to share every advantage I have ever been so lucky to experience. So I buy them French fries to fill their empty stomachs and felt pens and pads of paper – the only things I can offer right now and some Shillings for artwork.
I am watching a BBC newscast about whether or not we are actually making poverty history yet while I do my accounting for my shareholder’s loan. I am going to get a return on my investment if it kills me. It seems like in some ways we have started and in others like the still enforced subsidies on agriculture, we are far far from trading fairly. Tomatoes. Sugar. Coffee. Bananas. Such simple tools to feed a nation. What are we so afraid of? We have been so rich for so long, isn’t it perhaps time to offer this up like a turn at the wheel, a run down the slide on the playground. My mother used to reprimand me for not sharing. Being selfish in our home was sternly frowned upon. But as nations we do it without a second thought. And that's why we give aid.
Looking at my receipts from the Post Office I get confused thinking I have grabbed my Canadian expense file but I am wrong, it’s from Posta – Kenya’s Post Office. And then I remember that Canada Post came and went from this place of cold water in an effort to transfer knowledge and share our ability to turn a profit from stamps, envelopes and things flying through the air. As I listen to the experts from the UN talk about aid I wonder why Canada Post left? Was it the bomb blast? Was it the overwhelming prospect of millions and millions of Bella’s who at 15 years of age are still finishing primary school? Was it the Kenyan’s stubbornness to do things their own way? Was it the exhaustion and bitterness that ensues with corruption? Perhaps they will come back.
God I hope they come back. I would give anything for self-adhesive stamps as I prepare to ship 25 shirts to Vancouver tomorrow morning. And if they sold me tape instead of giving it to me for free maybe everyone could take a little more home at night for all those little mouths to feed like Bella. Maybe we would finally see the Africans as so much like ourselves in so many many ways.
This story is for Mary Shiro who completely thrown into the massive task has begun to produce her first book and is exceeding all my expectations.