Touchdown in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s my first time in Africa and to say the least I am quite nervous. As a sheltered 25 year old from an upper middle class family the thought of visiting the slums of Kibera was a bit daunting. I prepared myself mentally for seeing people in terrible distress and sadness. News stories of African babies fighting to survive flashed through my head as we drove to the slum with our liaison for UN Habitat.
Kibera is one of the largest slums in Africa with estimates of anywhere from 200,000-700,000 people crammed in less than a two square kilometer radius. It’s also the site for the Block by Block pilot project. The people in the area have a sports field and public grounds in need of a revival. The idea is to use Minecraft to help the community visualize the changes for the area. Instead of looking at a 2D architectural drawing which can be hard for people to visualize they will be able to move within the game and get a feel for what it would be like there when things are changed. It also allows youth, a usually unheard portion of the community, give their input.
I’d seen the area already within the game. I felt ready. Scared and nervous, but ready. We arrived, waited for our security guards (a necessary precaution), and then started walking towards the middle of Kibera. Then something happened for which I was entirely unprepared. Yes, there were children playing in unsanitary conditions. Yes, I never felt completely safe. Yes, I knew many people there had difficult lives and had experiences beyond what I could ever comprehend. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the hope.
I walked by two little girls hula hooping, something my younger sister and I had done many times together as children. Laughing and smiling, the girls swung their bodies to keep the hula hoops off the ground, hoops made of wire. Wires had been twisted together to form the toys these two small girls used. And there it was… ingenuity. Ingenuity became the theme of everything I saw from that point on. The people were inventive, creative, resourceful, far beyond what I consider myself to be. They use everything they possibly can. Coming from the wastefulness of the United States it was incredible to see how even scraps were repurposed. Could I make a working hula hoop? Probably not. I’ve been trained in a consumerist culture. Buy. Don’t make. On my walk through the slums of Kibera my perception was quickly changed.
Instantly, the Block by Block project became more real to me. Not only because I was able to stand in the exact area I had seen within Minecraft, but because I saw our purpose. Not to come in and change something to our own accord, but to empower an already incredibly community to have their visions for the area realized.
[Block by Block aims to involve youth in the planning process in urban areas by giving them the opportunity to show planners and decision makers how they would like to see their cities in the future. Minecraft has turned out to be the perfect tool to facilitate this process. The three-year partnership will support UN-Habitat to upgrade 300 public spaces by 2016.]