“He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor. For all the earth is the Lord’s, and he has set the world in order.” 1 Samuel 2:8
God is in the slums. He’s in the place where all hope seems lost and darkness seems to cover all. Let me tell you about it
On Sunday, we left Kajiado to go into Nairobi to worship in the slum of Kibera. Predictably the second largest slum in the world. The pastor we know picked us up from where we got off the mtatu and drove us to the outskirts of the slum. You can’t drive in. So from here we walked. I wish I had pictures, it still is uncomprehendable to my mind what this place is like, and this is my second time visiting. But taking pictures makes us stick out even more, more than just our white skin. And plus, as much as I want pictures to show you, it doesn’t seem right to take pictures just because their place of living seems terrible to me..it seems to strip these people of their dignity. So instead I will try to explain the best I can. For those of you who have seen Slumdog Millionaire though, picture what the kids are running through in the first couple minutes of the movie..that’s the slum in India, but the picture is similar. We walked, a long downhill walk into the slum. At first it was the normal rough footpath that is common here, full of rocks, dust, ruts, and litter. Then, the trash increased, until we were walking on paths made almost completely of garbage and waste. The path became less dusty and more muddy..only not probably really mud: waste. At one point we came to a 4-5 foot running river of sewage. We proceded to hop on rocks to get across..my heart was pounding, you don’t want to fall in. We came to another river, this one much wider and running faster, so we opted to take a probably 20 minute or more detour to get to a bridge to cross. Once we crossed the bridge, we were into the slum area. The smell in all of Kibera is overwhelming, like nothing I know. Garbage and sewage and just tons of people and pollution. We are now standing in the streets of Kibera. Where an estimated 1.2 million people live in a 2.5 square mile or less area. The government of Kenya recently did a “census” and declared that 200,000 people live in Kibera, but the people who live there told us differently. They say the government would have an impossible time counting accurately, plus, who wants the 2nd largest slum in the world in your city..not the best reputation. So they say a significantly lower number. We now weaved in and out of the tiny streets. You can reach your hands out if you are standing in the middle of the street and touch the sides of the houses on either side..though you don’t want to stand in the middle of the street because there is a rut where the sewage runs down. There are houses packed next to houses, people living on top of each other. The houses are sticks with mud and tin roofs. Some nice ones have some concrete walls. Though other houses don’t even have solid walls..just whatever scraps of tin they could find patched together on the sticks. You have to watch every step you take. It’s not an easy path..don’t imagine a flat terrain or a good sidewalk. We walked..up, down, hop left then right, squeeze here, turn sideways, watch your head there, jump here, make sure you step on this rock, avoid that stream of sewage, watch the goat, and the rooster! People sitting outside, a lot staring at us. Faces that just look blank, hopeless. Kids by themselves, playing in the dirt or garbage..yelling “mzungu! how are you?” at us. Trash everywhere, mixed with sewage in the narrow streets. Laundry hanging down strung across from one house to the next, so low that I have to bend over at a nearly 45 degree angle.
It’s hard to believe people live here. But they do. Real people, people no different than myself, or you. I’m someone who is ok being dirty or not showering everyday..but I felt thoroughly filthy after our walk. I remember thinking, I don’t know how people live here. But it is their home. They aren’t less intelligent, they don’t feel less than I do, they have dreams, they make jokes, they love. They are real people. They have stories, joys and heartbreaks, families, hopes and dreams. They are God’s people, loved and treasured and unique. I felt dirty after just walking through, which I feel ashamed of now. This is their home..and they feel just like me.
Finally at the end of our walk, we ducked through a doorway, into another street, but this one cool and dark and quiet..and remarkably clean. We turned to our left, a large wood and cement building with a tin roof. An oasis in the middle of a desert. A breath of fresh air. It was the church. The second Pastor Mkuku walked in, he was swarmed by children. It was obvious from the first seconds how big of an impact this man is making in this place. He and his wife don’t live in Kibera, they could just have pretended it doesn’t exist like most other people. But they chose to obey God and follow him into ministry into one of the most hopeless places in the world. As we said hello to the people already gathered, it was immediately evident that there was something different in these people’s faces (whether little children or adults.) An obvious difference from all the faces we had just passed to get here. It was hope. An obvious hope in the middle of hopelessness. A light in the middle of darkness. Their faces shown with life. It amazed me how quickly I saw it, how evident it was. HOPE.
“But the needy will not be ignored forever; the hopes of the poor will not always be crushed.” Psalm 9:18
We found seats and started worshipping. Maybe I wrote my blog on worship too soon..because I have more to add. Worshipping in the slums is maybe one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. The majority of the church at this point was children..and I find myself wondering if they come on their own, where their parents are, if they have parents. There were a handful of people our age, and a handful of adults. The kids run and jump and dance and sing their little hearts out. Imagine a concert, up front where everyone is jumping, pushing into eachother, pumping their arms up and down..now imagine 3-9 year olds, a little extra African dancing, and their tiny voices shouting out big to our God. It literally gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. I shut my eyes for a moment to absorb it. A little hand slipped into mine while my eyes were closed and I was just standing there. I snuck a quick glimpse at this precious one who had the courage to come up to me..a beautiful girl, maybe about 4 years old. I closed my eyes again and just absorbed the warmth from her little hand clutching mine. I prayed my heart out for this girl..there is so much I could ask God to do, so many lives I could ask him to protect, but I started with this one. I prayed that the blood I could feel pumping in her veins wouldn’t have a deadly disease coursing through them. I prayed she would be fed and loved and safe. I prayed that she wouldn’t be married off in a few short years or forced into selling herself to have enough money to eat. I prayed desperately that she would have a way out, an opportunity that most don’t have. I prayed that she would know Jesus and not be pulled away by the despair surrounding her. When I opened my eyes again our eyes met and locked. Huge smiles cautiously, slowly, spreading across both our faces. When I looked into those huge almond shaped eyes that sparkled, a deep chocolate brown, the light coffee colored face, and the breathtakingly beautiful smile she wore..I saw Jesus. She held onto my hand, just smiling a smile that is forever etched into my mind, even though I will never have a picture of her face. And she didn’t let go. I finally, after probably 30 minutes, leaned my head down and whispered, “Jina lako ni nani?” (What is your name?). “Sarah” she whispered back..then ran away to Sunday School.
We went to a bible study for adults, where they are working their way through different books of the Bible with the hopes of making it through the entire Bible. They were on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12. Talking about our calling to righteousness, being different than the world around us, and not having anything to do with sexual impurity. They talked alot about living in holiness and not in sexual impurity, which surrounds them on a daily basis, with even deadlier consequences than we see in the US. 1 in 3 people in Kibera have AIDS. 1 in 3. This obviously doesn’t all have to do with sexual impurity, but is the life and stats they are faced with daily. But these aren’t just statistics. These are the people sitting around me. Welcoming me. Praying with me. This room of people challenged me. They are choosing something drastically different than the world around them. They are choosing to hope when the world tells them all is hopeless. They are choosing to follow God is a place of darkness. The hunger for God is nearly tangible in the room around me. I want that desire.
We went back to the main church for the service. More singing and dancing. Little Sarah found her way back to me and slipped her hand into mine..slipping her heart into mine as well. And once again she didn’t let go. We are talking about hours. Hours of standing and sitting, singing and listening. All the while her little hand clenched in mine. About an hour in, she very deliberately leaned her head in so her forehead rested on mine. It was as if she had been planning this moment for the past hour. And she whispered, “How are you?”..probably the only English she knew. But the words said didn’t matter, it was the effort of connecting deeper. I answered “nzuri sana” (very good). And that was that. She still held onto my hand, and we exchanged smiles and love..but no more words. Over an hour later, her hand still holding mine, I leaned down and whispered “Uko mrembo” (you are beautiful). Her smile got even wider if possible. And that was the extent of our words. But our connection was deeper than words exchanged. We can’t speak each other’s language, but there’s a little girl with sparkling almond eyes and a smile that could win the world running around Kibera with my orange hairtie and a part of my heart.
Throughout the service, the time when Jesus said to let the little children come to him and when he explained that the greatest in heaven are those that have faith like the little children kept coming to my head. These kids’ faith astounds me. Pure, uninhibited, not-held-back faith. These are normal kids. Brothers who pick on each other, girls who needed told more than once by their mothers to be quiet, kids who got restless when the sermon went long and a little cranky when they got hungry. But their love of Jesus shines.
“Has God not chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James 2:5
God is in the slums. He is bringing hope to the hopeless. He is moving and working. The people I worshipped with that day may be poor beyond belief in the eyes of the world, but they are truly rich in faith. I have much to learn and gain.
We’ve done so much in the past week. I don’t have time to tell you all, but I will summarize. On Sunday we also went to a smaller slum called Dagoretti Corner and an orphanage there. Last week we visited a Maasai boma (homestead). Monday we went with the mobile medical clinic AIC has. Tuesday we were at AIC but got an emergency case (a man found unconcious near the clinic) that we had to take to the district hospital after he was stablized. So we got an unexpected tour of the Kajiado District hospital. Not only was I shocked, I was infuriated by the care provided there. Wednesday more clinic, with the chance to give more immunizations. Lots of invaluable time with the kids here. We managed market day on Wednesday on our own..I love that we know life here and can function in it. Today is our day off..blog updates, laundry day, playing with the kids. And Friday is back to the clinic. We only have a little over 2 weeks left, it seems like time has flown by. Larry has left..we feel safe and comfortable with life here. There are people we know and trust that are looking out for us. But prayers as we function independently in a foreign country.