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Ordinary Heroes: Surviving Critical Strikes in Kenya's Urban Slums

06/14/2010 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How would you define the word "resilience"? In my role as Advocacy Officer for Concern Kenya, in which I am exposed daily to the life and death struggles of people living in absolute poverty, I realize that for me and the people for whom I am trying to give a voice, this word has a significance that it might not have for others.

An engineer would probably define resilience as "the quality of buoyancy or elasticity." A psychologist might describe it as "the capacity to cope with stress and catastrophe." I began considering the different ways people understand this word after seeing it defined on a video game website as "an attribute that reduces a character's chances of receiving a 'critical strike' or 'spells of critical strikes.'"

In the game, the characters must face life-and-death duels with dragons and trolls trying to reach a treasure trove, and the threat of "critical strikes" lies around every corner. To survive, the "heroes" in this game must acquire "resilience" by finding and consuming elixirs and other enchantments secretly hidden along their path. These give them power to recover from "critical strikes."

Surviving in the overcrowded, vast slums of Nairobi is no game, but I meet many heroes in these communities. Everyday life for most people requires extraordinary coping skills and resilience, and even the most basic resource can become the armor that allows them to survive "critical strikes."

Anne Muchemi and her daughter Lucy at the family soap business in Nairobi. Photo: Bessie Nikhozi, Kenya , Concern Worldwide

Consider the true story of Anne Wairimu, a 42-year-old grandmother of six living in Korogocho, one of worst slums in Nairobi. Anne receives $20 from Concern Worldwide each month through an emergency cash transfer initiative that targets the poorest, most vulnerable women in urban slums, giving them installments of emergency cash to allow them to meet their basic needs. Through this program, I saw just what that $20 means to Anne.

Anne's story is harsh, but not unusual, unfortunately. She is a widow, and thus the sole source of support for her family. As she explained, "Losing my husband was a big blow to me, as he was the only breadwinner in my family. That he died during my pregnancy made it particularly difficult for me to cope. Worse still, I discovered he died of AIDS, which led me into depression. My worst fears were confirmed when my newly born daughter and I both tested positive for HIV."

Anne told Concern that she was full of despair: "Wanting to drown my sorrows, I took to drinking cheap alcohol, and my older children followed suit. It was not long before my eldest daughter Esther, herself still a child, became pregnant. She left her baby with me to continue her work at an illicit alcohol den. Yet again, she got pregnant, and once more left the baby for me to support."

But Anne turned her life around. She told Concern, "The prospect of raising six young children made me choose to quit alcohol and forage the city garbage dumps for food because I did not have enough income to buy enough for all of us. However, my situation worsened when my eldest son, John, also died, leaving with me his two children to care for. I had almost given up when I heard about the Concern Cash Transfer Program."

Concern's program helped Anne buy food at the market for her family, but she had the strength and will to do more. She said: "I know this cash transfer will not last forever, so I am saving part of the money and now I have started a small business selling soap bars that have been 'rejected' from a nearby soap factory. It is not much, but it is so much more than I have had before."

Anne's story is about resilience and transformation. The $20 cash transfers she receives through Concern's emergency program are no magic elixir to save her from the threats she is facing, but they have given her the power to endure and to improve her quality of life, step by step.

Concern is targeting thousands of other extremely vulnerable families like Anne's -- providing them with a safety net in emergencies and working to improve their self reliance in the long term through access to food, water, education, health services, and opportunities to earn income.