Fall 2012: “Your Dream House” College Winner Chris Harrell

Read Chris's essay about how growing up in Kenya influenced his conscious choice to live intentionally here in the States.

Chris Harrell, a student of Professor Courtney Baines’ at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, “Living Large in a Tiny House,” by Carol Estes, a story about Dee Williams downsizing from a three-bedroom bungalow to an 84-square-foot house. He is our College winner for the Fall 2012 writing competition.

Writing prompt: “If you had the choice, what size house would you live in? What are important features your house would have, and what would you intentionally avoid?”

Downsizing Our Consumer Culture

By Chris Harrell

If you were to take a 30-minute drive from my home on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, you would encounter a small patch of land, less than two square miles in size. Rising above the landscape, to the top of a hill in the heart of this area, you would face a sea of rusted metal roofs stretching into the horizon. This informal settlement is known as Kibera Slum, the largest slum in Africa and one of the largest urban slums in the world. Within its tight confines, Kibera is said to house well over half a million residents, although this estimate has been as high as one million. Understandably, it is a difficult task to comprehend the entire population of Seattle living on a piece of land smaller than the university campus where I am currently enrolled. The majority of Kibera is comprised of row after row of 12×12-square-foot shacks crammed with up to eight inhabitants each.

Most people have probably never heard of Kibera, apart from a possible glimpse of it in international news during the horror of the 2007-2008 Kenyan post-election violence. The amazing thing about Kibera is not its size, nor its impoverished population. It is not the fact that much of it does not contain basic infrastructure like toilets, running water, or electricity. The truly astonishing thing about Kibera is the abundance of life that can be found there. For hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, extreme poverty is a reality, and one that they live with day to day. Even after 18 years in Kenya, and having seen life in Kibera with my own eyes, it never ceases to amaze me the sense of normalcy and indeed the joy of its people who can somehow call a 12×12 shack their home.

Carol Estes’ YES! Magazine article “Living Large in a Tiny House” illustrates the drastic lifestyle changes of Dee Williams after her realization that the majority of the world lives with much less than the privileged West. Dee downsized her home to an 84-square-foot wagon, containing only the bare essentials needed for her to live comfortably. As much as I admire Dee, the thought of living in a house no bigger than my dorm room is a frightening prospect. If I had the choice, and taking into account my desire for a family, I would lean more towards a 1,500-square-foot house. Like Dee, I would want to utilize green energy sources like solar water heating, and photovoltaic, wherever possible. One of the most appealing aspects of the article to me was not the size of Dee’s house, but her admitting that purging her life of junk was liberating. If nothing else, I would intentionally avoid the accumulation of, in Dee’s words, “all that crap that you have because it reminds you of who you used to be.”

For me to say that moving to the United States was a life adjustment would be a drastic understatement. I am often asked, “What is the biggest difference between the U.S and Kenya?” Not wanting to alienate myself, or sound conceited, I usually reply with something trivial like the differences in food or the fact that I am no longer an ethnic minority. What I long to describe to people is what I feel when I turn on the television and see MTV cribs displaying 10,000-square-foot mansions, priced in the tens of millions of dollars. Reading articles about the $5.8 billion price tag on the recent U.S elections, I can’t help but ask myself what that money truly accomplished.

One of the things that I have noticed, living in a “developed” country for the first time, is the pervasive feeling that “we” are here, and “those people” are there. A common sentiment is the belief that to live with less is to forfeit happiness. It seems that an essential component of any materialistic society is the unfortunate delusion that we are living in a vacuum, and that our ethical and financial choices cannot possibly affect someone thousands of miles away.

Hearing Dee’s story inspires me to challenge myself and those around me, and to reject the paradigm of excessive consumerism. I hope, even now, that I can follow Dee’s lead and begin to downsize the surplus of material wealth in my own life. Not because it is easy, but because it is the right thing to do. I applaud Dee Williams and the efforts of countless other individuals all around the world who are challenging this misconception by making the choice to live intentionally. 

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