One of my more embarrassing gaffes occurred while walking through the Nairobi neighbourhood of Kibera. Kibera is home to two and a half million people and is often described as the biggest slum in Africa. My escort was a woman who had lived there with her children all her life. At the end of our walkabout, I made a banal comment that there were a lot of poor people living there. “No,” she said. “We are not poor. We just don’t earn enough money.”

My word association probably went something like this: slum equals poverty equals unemployment – incapability – helplessness -dependency – neediness…

Perfect conditions for a ‘clever’ outsider like me to come to the rescue.

What I missed was the entrepreneurial current running through the place. Ingenuity like that of Ashoka fellow Peter Wahome who, from a very young age, stowed pigeons under his shirt and suffered their scratching and clawing on the way to his home in Kibera. There he bred and sold them to finance his education through elementary, high school and university. He made enough money to rent his own room where he could study in quiet away from his noisy siblings. He now runs  People to People Tourism and Crafts of Africa two thriving social enterprises employing and benefitting both urban and rural Kenyans. And he teaches at the university where he once studied.

Peter’s work is a great example of The Economist’s observation that Kibera “may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet” and that “to equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them”.

Now the Brazilian favelas are in the public eye.

Don’t make the same mistake that I did in Kibera. Don’t miss the fact that the favelas consist of homes lovingly built by skilled workers. Workers seeking a better life for their families. Workers who cannot afford to live anywhere else. Workers creating with what they have.

According to Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, “The thing to understand about a favela is that, more often than not, someone’s grandfather laid the ground floor 40 or so years ago… What looks like a shanty represents decades of precious labor.”

In fact, Brazilian favelas are hotspots of entrepreneurial activity. The country’s 12 million favela residents generate $20 billion annually through commerce – the equivalent of the GDP of Iceland.

One great example is “Asta Network co-founded by another Ashoka fellow, Alice Freitas. Similar to Crafts of Africa “Asta Network” provides a marketing and distribution network for cooperatives of Brazilian craftswomen. As a result, the women get more of the financial and social benefit of their work counteracting the disproportionate share of profits usually taken by middlemen.

Adversity breeds two stories. One is about helplessness and hopelessness. The other is about innovation, ambition and fierce pride. I now know which one to pay attention to.

NOTE:

Peter’s remarkable work with People to People Tourism and Crafts of Africa are the subject of an upcoming Face of Africa documentary, which will be aired worldwide on Al Jazzera this fall. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime should a safari in East Africa beckon, you won’t get a more authentic experience than that provided by People to People tourism. I can attest to that.

EH!

“Beauty comes and goes. Strength, you keep forever.”

– Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes

Musical accompaniment this post by T. Dot Batu an Afro-Brazilian band based in Toronto. The next best thing to being there.

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