It was one of those defining moments, where the world turns on its axis, and everything I thought I knew and believed in started to crumble.
I was standing on a railway track looking down on the Kibera slum, just outside Nairobi, where it’s estimated that anything from 200,000 to 1m people live in a maze of corrugated iron shacks and cardboard boxes.
I had recently handed in my notice at the place I had worked for nearly 16 years, supporting the accountancy profession. I had loved the job for a long time, I liked my colleagues, and had had a fulfilling and satisfying career. I could have stayed longer, no one was pushing me out the door, but I had come to question whether the work had any meaning for me.
The train track runs alongside the slum at Kibera, so close that the children play on the tracks, and people often get killed by the trains. There is an overwhelming smell of sewerage and rotting rubbish. A woman sat turning what looked like cockroaches in a pan over an open fire. The mud is ankle deep, and it doesn’t do to think too much about what it comprises.
I had gone to Africa as part of a group visiting sites helped by an overseas development agency. I think the idea was that seeing the work they did for developing countries (which is impressive!) would help me to be more invested in the work of their organisation. And in part it worked. When I first took up their invitation to help, I had lofty ideas of helping the poor and the underprivileged. I had even considered working overseas in the future, so it seemed like an ideal opportunity to test out that idea. Of course, up until then, my help had consisted in the main of sitting in an office outside Dublin, warm and well fed.
Alas, my ego was running away with me, painting pictures of the heroic helper, handing out patronage to the less well off. Even in this age of instant access to pictures from the other side of the world, nothing had prepared me for that day.
As I looked down on that sea of corrugated iron and drank in the stench of human misery, I became overwhelmed by the suffering and the tears poured from me. One of my companions put his hand on my shoulder and said kindly, “It’s not your fault.” He had intuited what I had never realised till then, that my desire to help was rooted in a guilt and shame that I had been born into a comfortable middle class family, in a comfortable western country, very far removed from open sewers and cockroaches for dinner. Yes, we’d had our struggles, but by comparison, they were small, and I felt the burden of being blessed with wealth and strength. My desire to help was less to do with the plight of those people, and more about making me feel better about myself.
I don’t know if it’s a peculiarly Catholic or perhaps Irish thing, this guilt about other people’s suffering, but it carries with it a sense that I owe a debt to those who are less well off than I, as if I had brought about not just my own circumstances, but that in doing so, I had also brought about theirs. As someone who tries to take responsibility (though in fairness, sometimes I fail miserably!), more often than not it seemed easier just to give in, and accept that that debt is owed because my upbringing tells me it is. And somewhere in there is a belief that I do not deserve the good fortune that I have.
What became clear to me, standing on the edge of Kibera, was that even if I gave up everything I owned, then and for the rest of my life, it would go nowhere to solving the problems of that troubled place. If I owed a debt, it was one I could never, ever pay.
I faced my utter and complete powerlessness in that moment, and overwhelming as it was, it was also freeing.
I know that years into an examination of my own values and beliefs, I’m clearer about a lot of these things, but some of the tangled contradictions remain hard to shift. The more I do this work, the more I uncover the twists and turns of my own mind, as I seek to hide from myself the dark corners of my psyche.
That experience has been in large part responsible for my starting This Business of Therapy. I became aware that I was not the only one who struggled with trying to sort through the complexity of messages I had received growing up, around money, worthiness and deserving, so I designed a workshop to help therapists explore their own values and beliefs around money.
And it just grew from that.
You can read elsewhere on this site some of the ideas that I have been sorting through on this journey to find some clarity and freedom of choice for myself. Many of them have common themes: self-worth, balancing my needs and those of others, responsibility for others. And usually, there’s an inner conflict between the “Good Girl” who wants to do the right thing and avoid criticism and judgement, and the “Rebel” who hates being told what to do.
Always, it comes down to a question of where to draw the line. Like the train track through Kibera, the lines I grew up with were fixed and immovable, and consequently, changing them has been very painful at times. It has also been worthwhile. One of the things I learnt from the Kibera experience was that I can continue to live with the lines that have been drawn for me or I can re draw them for myself, in a way that suits me.
I choose the latter. And in that, I honour the people of Kibera.
If you would like to explore your relationship with money and wealth, perhaps I can help you. You can contact me here for a free 20 minute consultation or you might like to join me for a workshop. You can get the details here.