They offer workshops in visual art, dance sessions, music, and even have a wonderful Karate expert who gently but firmly mentors these abused and unwanted young people. In my brief involvement I’ve already met several young people who, through Alfajiri’s guidance, earn their path out of the unspeakable poverty of the Mathare slum. It’s very hard to articulate in words the depth and richness of these experiences. For sure, it’s a two way exchange that benefits both sides.
Although the arts are the vehicle used to begin the connection, it is far more complex than teaching art. It’s impossible to fully know the kids’ stories, but the amazing and patient Alfajiri staff has a sense of the violence the kids have endured, abuses they try to evade, the daily hungers, the allure of glue-sniffing and other addictions that mostly begin to make emotional traumas and life in general tolerable. Those engaged and “in the trenches” with the circumstances of these kid’s lives get a small glimpse of their reality. If the children attend the Alfajiri workshops, behave, are open to taking ownership in improving their situation, the skilled and compassionate staff work to offer them paths out of the slum. The importance of education, so taken for granted in the US can not be overstated here.
On the first visit of this Kenyan trip I had a great discussion with the staff and founder Lenore Boyd. I learned more details about their many challenges, and tried to offer an objective perspective as they aimed toward the best paths forward. They updated me on some new directions they are headed, including working with juvenile correction centers and women’s empowerment, as well as a sustainable farming operation. The latter will be a teaching tool while allowing the organization to become more self-sufficient.
We then went to an art workshop Alfajiri offers within a Catholic Church campus in Mathare where the organization began. These weekly gatherings provide a brief oasis from the survivalist mode most kids are obliged to adopt 24/7 in order to stay alive. Respectful adults are not turned away, often seeking a few hours of peace. Harsh as their circumstances are, I’m always struck by the kids’ joyful spirit, and the incredible attitude most of them embody. It always recalibrates my own petty troubles. Beyond that, they remind me through their curious questions, their smiles and teasing, and the sparkle in their eyes that despite everything they face on a daily basis, they’re still just kids who simply want to be happy—and in this way they literally pierce and melt one’s heart, as we recognize our shared being.
I’m convinced it’s far easier to ignore such poverty (or worse, blame those caught in its snare) when we never allow ourselves to actually meet it, face to face, eye to eye. Doing so is still not the same as experiencing it, nor does it “solve” anything in the future, but it’s the start of the unveiling of our bond and our interwoven energies. Put simply, the exchange awakens profound love, in the now.
As an extra bonus, on our return to the Alfajiri campus outside of the slum, a soft-spoken, passionate young man was using their spartan set-up to dig into a painting he’s been working on. Ann Lenore suggested I offer him some guidance; this was a very different thing from the therapeutic workshops. We had a wonderful couple of hours, one on one. At first shy, he quietly asked me questions about the painting he was working on, I offered some gentle suggestions, showed him several techniques, we sensed our common love of color, and the time flew.
At some point I began pulling up images by masters I felt might be of interest to him. I shared Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse, and wrote each name down for him to continue to study. As he peered intently at his cracked-screen, borrowed old iPhone, opening each photo and enlarging details, moving slowly from image to image, he softly uttered in complete sincerity: “Oh wow… Oh wow!… Oh this is great! Really great!”
Few things are more moving to an art teacher than revealing the work of a great master to a student who has a similar sensibilities. It was absolutely delightful for us both—he was an ideal student, enthusiastic, curious, and very focused. By the end he was proudly taking me to the storage closets to show me his paintings, stacks of which were everywhere. He was very polite, and thanked me several times for my suggestions, and again as we parted. He reminded me how much I loved teaching, and in this way, taught me something very important as well. It was a very good first day back at Alfajiri.