The first time I walked through a slum was jarring. The sights, the smells, the expanse – it was all so much to absorb for someone who had been raised in middle class America. My tour of the Kibera slum, in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, started with the warning to look out for things flying. I was cautioned that the lack of a place to urinate and defecate forced people to expel in unlikely places, most commonly into a paper bag that was then thrown through the air. As if my attentiveness to my surroundings wasn’t already shockingly high, this warning made it even more so.
We walked through sewage where people were getting their daily water because it was their only water source. We saw children selling items just to make enough money to buy food for the day. We saw people running around with no shoes because they could not afford them. But what was the most shocking thing I saw? It was the rock at the food stand.
The first couple days roaming through Kibera was sensory overload. There were so many new things I was learning through simple observation but I kept coming back to the same image. This image of rocks being sold at food stands. These were just little food stands all over the slum, people just trying to sell produce to get by. But I couldn’t get over these rocks and why were they being sold along with food? So, I finally asked.
The answer I received changed my perception of world poverty immediately and forever. It was explained to me that the rocks being sold for only one shilling a piece, that’s less than a penny, were bought by those who did not have adequate money to buy food. Instead, the rocks were bought by people who would then lick them to absorb the rock’s nutrients, since they were unable to afford food. Most often, these rocks were consumed by pregnant women lacking financial support.
Talk about culture shock! Something inside me changed. My soul instantly became older and wiser. My eyes began to swell. A lump formed in my throat. Everything went blank. Where was I again? What were we doing here? But none of that really mattered in that moment. That moment was meant to be reflective, just as I hope this moment is for you.