The little girl in the faded blue dress stood on a bare hillside in one of the most desperate slums in Africa, the mud-walled houses behind her packed so close together that their rusty tin roofs overlapped. She looked out across a steep ravine in Kibera, Kenya. A narrow, twisting open sewer cut along the red clay baseline. Off to the girl's left, the mottled shanty rooftops looked like an old quilt, brown and gray after too many washings.
As the land climbed away from the little dirty waterway, it became grassy and green. And just far enough away to make them seem a little unreal you could see blocks of newly built apartment buildings, one trimmed in blue, another with red balconies.
The girl, Salome, 8 years old, a little small and a little thin for her age, murmured something to the girl beside her, Faith, age, 6, also in old clothing and worn sandals. A little boy translated. "They want to move to the better houses," the boy said. He did, too.
Being poor and young in Africa does not mean that you cannot dream. But for millions upon millions of young Africans, the chances of the dreams coming true are pretty remote. There are too many people and not enough of all the things they need, not enough decent places to live, not enough schools and teachers, hospitals and doctors. If you get really sick you stand a good chance of dying.
Even the most basic things are missing in the Kibera slum on the edge of Nairobi. It is a very rare family that has even a single water faucet beside their mud-walled house. Most people buy jugs and buckets of water from slightly more well-off neighbors who put up storage tanks and buy in bulk from the city of Nairobi or simply steal city water from corroded municipal water lines. Very few people have toilets.
Wood smoke from cooking fires drifts down the dirt lanes in Kibera. Corn on the cob roasts on makeshift grills and chunks of meat and fish sizzle in pots of hot oil. Fat, indolent flies jitterbug in slow motion on the cooking food. The people with houses on the main dirt roads take advantage of their location and put out things to sell: flashlights, combs, nail clippers, shoes, old clothes, bunches of bananas, slabs of meat. The slum is a town, a very poor town.
The lack of sanitation makes diarrhea a constant. People just put up with it. Some develop immunities to the bacteria and parasites in the water and even in the air. Young children and pregnant women often do not do well. Around the world, about 2 million people, mostly children under 5 and young mothers, die each year from diarrhea and other diseases picked up from the only water available for them to drink. Many of the casualties come in places like Kibera and in distant villages where it is less crowded, but where there is no one to help when illness comes. At least in Kibera there are half a dozen clinics for a t least several hundred thousand people. The clinics often have no medicine or doctors, but nurses are usually around in the mornings.
At one of the clinics a nurse said that when there is no medicine on hand -- which is most of the time -- they write prescriptions for patients. Sometimes other clinics fill the prescriptions for free. But sometimes the only way to get medicine is to buy it.
"Many times, you don't have money," the nurse said. She seemed to be speaking from the heart and I decided that publishing her name might get her in trouble. "You have to decide, do I buy the medicine or do I buy food? You buy food."
The little girl in the faded blue dress stood on the bare hillside, maybe a mile or so from the clinic. Four scrawny goats wobbled past her, taking care not to lose their footing on the steep, red clay. The goats came close to bumping into the girl, but she did not move. She may not have even noticed the goats.
She and her friend Faith had their eyes fixed on those new apartment buildings. The girls could only imagine what it would be like to live in the new clean buildings of cement and glass, each apartment with its own running water and toilet, each freshly painted with bright trim work. The girls did not speak. They just stood there for the longest time, so close yet so far.