CARE’s beneficiaries trust Gayle, too, and she easily establishes a rapport with even the most destitute. In the Kibera slum we’re touring, women with multiple kids often make their homes in shacks that are barely six by eight feet. The men are usually absent, either away looking for work—unemployment in the area is thought to be higher than 70 percent—or dead from AIDS, or killed in the savage ethnic violence that followed Kenya’s election two years ago and is still bubbling under the surface.
Cynthia Aluoch, 39, invites Gayle into her one-room home. The only furnishings for a family of seven are a single bed, which functions as a sofa during the day, and a low table covered with a neatly hand-embroidered cloth. Aluoch talks, clearly drained, about how her husband, a day laborer, is off seeking employment but rarely finds it, how she is lucky if her family gets two meals a day.
As Aluoch speaks, Gayle gently reaches for her hand—a gesture of reassurance and support. It’s a brief moment in Gayle’s frenetic schedule but symbolic of her role as the head of CARE. For the policy makers on the learning tours, exposure to people whose poverty few Americans can imagine brings the issues up close and personal, in a way that’s very different from reading grant proposals. “We in Washington need to know what people in the field are up against,” says Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who was traveling with us in Kibera that day. “This is why such a tour is so valuable. We need accountability in funding but also flexibility if we want programs to work. How can we make these determinations shut in a hearing room in D.C.?”
What Gayle gets across to her guests is that there are many survival costs here that most Westerners never have to consider. Condoms are rarely affordable, so family size is hard if not impossible to control. In Kibera, the Aluoch family shares a latrine with dozens of shacks, and even that is a luxury. With barely enough money for the bucket of charcoal needed daily for cooking fuel, many families do not have the two Kenyan shillings (a quarter of a U.S. cent) that it costs to use the bathroom. And the facilities are locked nightly from 9 pm to 6 am anyway, because of the severe crime rate. Out of desperation, slum dwellers resort to what are known as “flying toilets”—human waste in plastic bags that are tossed as far from their homes as possible. In such unsanitary conditions, it is not surprising that diarrhea is a leading cause of death for children under five. For many who can’t afford $10 for a protective net, malaria, too, is a common problem. Aluoch is still feverish from an attack that felled her the previous week.
Gayle has devoted herself to addressing these issues. “I took on this type of work because as long as I can remember, I wanted to dedicate my life to helping bring about positive social change,” she says. “Philosophically and emotionally, I’m committed to this.” She was heavily influenced by what she saw around her as a child of the 1960s in America as the civil rights, women’s and antiapartheid movements were taking hold. But she also admits, “I feel better when I know that I make someone else feel better. This sort of work has a deep, emotionally satisfying aspect to it. It gives my life meaning.”
One of five children, Gayle grew up in Buffalo, New York. Her mother, described as brilliant by those who knew her, was one of the first black women to graduate from Columbia University’s School of Social Work; before that, she was homecoming queen at Fisk University in Nashville. Gayle’s mother also had chronic mental illness (at one point, doctors thought she was bipolar), which became worse as she got older. Eventually Gayle’s parents divorced, and Gayle and her siblings were shuttled between their parents (their father ran a beauty supply company) and other relatives.