I am aware as I wake up today that I’ve been waking up in Africa, or somewhere over Africa, for a week now. What a week it has been! This morning began less aggressively as we took the luxury of sleeping an extra hour and a half. Our travels will take us far and wide again today; by nightfall we will be 300 miles away from here in the northern desert town of Lodwar, up in the desert region of Kenya called Turkana. It is there we will see what a water well can do, and hopefully see the proposed sites for our own WACC wells. This part of the trip is actually what we really came for, so I’m getting excited about moving from jungle to desert. That will be tonight, but our first stop today is just around the corner from our guest house hostel; it is within easy walking distance although it is philosophically still a world away. So after our first non-Bungoma breakfast in three days, we set out to visit the homes of church members and school faculty in a slum known as Kipkaren.
As we walk down the road into Kipkaren, the streets are abuzz with activity. It’s Saturday, and the 60 % of the kids who are fortunate enough to go to school are out of school; it’s Saturday, but all around us the work of survival goes on. There is a water channel on one side of the road, filled with rushing water a few inches deep, the color of detergent, kind of like dirty dishwater. Dirty dishwater may be the best thing flowing in this channel. In the same stream stand countless women bent over and washing their clothes with that water. They are focused on their labors, and do not seem daunted by the fact that they do their laundry in wastewater. They stop momentarily as we amble around the corner, looking up at the very unusual sight of a white person–a munguzu–walking into their slum. It is not an angry stare, just a curious one. Some of them even smile and wave. Most of them are too busy to be bothered with the simple curiosity we represent.
Also all along these streets are little stores and shops, some of them housed in dilapidated shacks or buildings, most smaller than a snow cone stand; many are just set up on the dirt street itself. They sell bananas, potatoes, tomatoes or onions; there is one that grinds corn. There is a butcher shop with some unknown kind of mystery meat hanging unrefrigerated out in the open air. I suppose there are customers for this meat, but I see none. There are charcoal sellers all over the slum, their little paint and coffee cans full of homemade charcoal selling for 30 shillings, which is about a quarter. There is one vendor with dried fish—tilapia–and another that will, believe it or not, sell you minutes or re-charge your cell phone, for a…charge!
The slum is vibrant, in its own way, with people milling everywhere, mostly on foot. There is an occasional pikki-pikki, or motorcycle, and a rare car. There is the cacophony of sights and sounds, and smells, as there is trash everywhere, garbage rotting in the humid tropical sun. The wastewater runs out from the shacks, collecting from these tributaries into puddles and streams that flow in channels and ditches throughout the community. At one time these concrete channels were probably a fairly ingenious British-designed system that served rudely but capably; it’s been a long time since the British left, and a long time since their infrastructures began to fail.
We are on a walking mission this cool early winter morning; we start by visiting a new apartment complex, which is nothing like what you’d expect, but nonetheless is materializing from piles of building materials on a dirt lot in the slum. One of the local CRF directors, my good friend Francis Bii, is the visionary who has taken out loans to provide these new houses for rent. The rent will be about 100 dollars a month, for a two room apartment about the size of a single car garage, maybe; but it will have electricity, concrete and tile floors, running water, a toilet and a shower and a kitchen sink. It will become home soon to some lucky slum dweller who can afford it. Not many can. But some can. This may be the first new construction in this slum area in decades; it is a reassuring sign of hope for what things can be, that lives can change for the better and cycles of poverty can be broken. It is a fragile dream, but I am thankful for people like Francis Bii who dream it nonetheless.
We trek deeper into the slum to seek out a few certain people. All along the way, ever since we started, we are attracting a following of children. Some of them attend the school we support here, and I recognize them from yesterday; most of them are just intrigued by the strange parade of white people and want to get a closer look. They speak English and Kiswahili; our conversation is slow and difficult because our ears don’t hear each other’s tongues well. The group of children following us gets larger by the minute; we come to the first house and enter; the children in the group wait patiently outside and when we leave this house, they fall back into step. We visit school children who are sponsored by some in our group, we visit the homes of pastors and teachers and assistants at the Milton Jones Academy. In Kenya it is a great honor the have guests in your home, and certainly guests who have traveled 12,000 miles over two days to come see you. We are very popular here! At each house we are invited inside; there is no standing at the door and talking in Kenya. Guests must sit down, and we do. In some places there is a soft drink and snack, which you must accept or risk being very rude. The visit must last at least 15 minutes, and it must end with a standing prayer. Then you must sit again, or, we are told, the prayer does not count! (At that point if you’re not careful and sit too long the whole process can start again, so you must quickly get back up and begin apologizing for having other business that takes you away. This is very different from life in the States!
We stop at one home of a teacher, Nelson, who is also using a micro-loan from CRF to start a small farm with chickens, sheep and a few cattle. This man could go far if he just had a chance. Others will borrow a little money to buy a sewing machine, or a maize grinder, or a cinder-block press–or even to buy bananas to resell for a tiny profit. These people are amazingly resourceful, and as little as they have, they are eager for us to see it, share it, and to show us their appreciation. I find myself feeling filthy rich, and wanting to sell all that I have and give it to these poor people who have almost nothing. Jesus once told a man to do just that, and my answer to Jesus is, perhaps too often almost the same as his: “But Lord, you are asking too much!” I will be wrestling for a long time with the fact of how much I have and how responsible that makes me for the welfare of these in Kipkaren. Maybe one day I could give it all; for now, I think it will please God if I am willing to share from my abundance; that I will begin immediately. The cure for self-centered greed and the idolatry of materialism is simple: give it away.
I will forever remember the homes of Nelson and Simon and Joel and Emily and Juma and many others; I will remember their joy in our visit, and I will remember to share from my abundance. As I’m thinking about all these things, very shortly we round the corner back at the schoolyard where we started a few hours ago; our entourage has grown from 4 to 40! We are the pied-pipers of Kipkaren. We say some good-byes then step into the gated school yard and slowly, one by one, the mice following us disperse and thread their way back into the bubbling fabric of humanity that is Kipkaren. I will remember it not as a slum, but as the homes of joyful, loving, caring, intelligent, faithful, generous, beautiful people–all just trying to survive another day. You would think that our visits today were their greatest imaginable blessing. But we are the ones who have been blessed the most.
A long time ago a visitor named Jesus traveled all the way from heaven to come into the slum of sin, not just to visit but to live with us right here in the dirt and muck and sewage. It’s remarkable that he would come so far and stoop so low and then be treated so badly. But because he came, and lived and died, and then lived again–one day I’ll be leaving the sin-slum myself. Can’t wait to see what his place is like!