Yesterday, my heart was too full – and my jet lag too pronounced – for me to gather my thoughts into any discernible writings. As we raced down the unpaved, littered dirt road in our Matatu – a bus that features loud music, audacious near-collisions with passing vehicles, and men hanging off the side to spot prospective new ride sales – I grasped the reality that I’d already learned second-hand: that Kawangware is Nairobi’s second most neglected slum.
Masses of people lined the stretch of this road, many bare-footed, and none were offered shade unless they tucked themselves underneath shanties – structures that look like boxes and offer little more shelter. They shared the choppy dirt expanse with goats and piles of garbage. I saw no running water, though still water hung in the air on the sides of these roads, providing nothing but stench, mud, and likely, the occasional mosquito.
While in Kawangware yesterday, we visited a two-hour service at Kawangware Methodist Church in Kenya. I am robbing the experience of its profundity and power by summarizing it here, but I must move on to today’s events. In very short, I was moved beyond description by the soulful, spirited music and abiding faith of this congregation. As a Glide Ensemble member, I took particular interest in the choir. I marveled at the fundamental similarities and many differences between this choir and my own. I felt very much at home, and also worlds away.
On the ride to our first visit to the Ray of Hope, was a sticker on the dashboard of the van that read “I may be down, but I am not out”!
The first patient I met today at the Ray of Hope was a young woman that had just given birth. She is HIV+. She smiled and asked me several questions about the length of time that I have been positive that seemed to provide her comfort and hope. She touched me, and I think I touched her…..bringing her a Ray of Light and a Ray of Hope!
I talked to a young boy who was recently accepted into the Ray of Hope program. He is positive as well, as is both his parents and his two brothers. He is shy and perhaps scared, as he did not speak much (he really smiled when I took his picture). I promised him that he and I would get to know each other better in the couple of days, as I shared my HIV status with him…….another possible Ray of Light and Ray of Hope!!!
Oh yeah, I met an Angel named Hendrica….she is a Community Health Outreach worker……more on this Angel later……I will get to spend some time with her visiting persons living with HIV in their homes in this slum of one million people!
After a short matatu ride (a van meant to carry 14, but carries 20+ at times) we arrived at Ray of Hope. We were greeted b y old friends from a trip Craig and I took in 2007, and then I saw the face of God glowing from the staff and children.
As we toured the facility we met a young woman who had recently given birth and was breastfeeding her infant, her face aglow.
She has been HIV+ for a little under a year and realized that HIV was not a death sentence. I shared with her that I have been positive for 25 years and there is HOPE.
Fifty children then greeted us with song and dance. We learned of the many projects RoH is involved in: outreach, feeding program, testing, and so many more programs with only a few volunteers to serve.
Our first full day at Ray of Hope was filled with introductions to staff and clients, an overview of the many programs RoH provide, and a very basic primer of how a non-profit like RoH works in Kenya. We left saturated, filled with many emotions, and a bit overwhelmed.
The passion and dedication of the staff is clear. They face an infinite list of needs to address in Kawangware, a slum of 800,000 where the average wage is $1/day. There are 59 students in 2 classrooms measuring just 10x10 each, and there’s a waiting list of more than 300 children in the small radius served by RoH. Students receive two meals each day. A single community health worker serves more than 800 clients, and as she walks through the very congested slum to visit her clients, she identifies more children who do not go to school and who are hungry and left with one or no parents.
Some children leave school on Friday and do not eat again until they return to school on Monday. With the structure, love and attention each child receives, no wonder these kids look forward to school and don’t want to go home.
The day had come, we were on our way to Ray of Hope. I was so excited. I had waited for this day for so long. I could feel God’s grace within my spirit. We arrived to be greeted by the staff of RoH. The hugs, handshakes, and smiles filled my heart. I could hear the chatter of the children upstairs as we learned about the operations of the clinic. I was as present as I could be. I could only think of meeting the children. There they were, standing in front of us, adorable, smiling faces. This was REAL. The children’s smiles turned into singing and dancing.
Words cannot truly describe this moment. Our day was filled with lots of organizational information. The needs and disparities could not overpower the love of RoH. I tell you, my life has been enriched and forever changed to be a witness to this deep rooted and unconditional love!
I cannot wait to return tomorrow. That’s all for now.
Day two in Nairobi. We spent the day at the Ray of Hope Foundation and I was amazed by how much they are able to accomplish with so few resources. The entire staff is heroically dedicated and remarkably cheerful in the face of crushing poverty and devastating need. Hendrika, their community health worker, is alone responsible for making home visits to almost 800 families.
The two teachers, Alfred and Evelyn, create a thriving learning community despite the fact that for many of their students the meal they have on Friday for lunch is their last until they return to school on Monday. Similarly, Barasa, Florence, and Rosemary, the core of the foundation, admirably persevere despite recurring setbacks and rising costs. For example, this month, the 200 clients in the RoH feeding program will go without their monthly allocation. It is remarkable that they remain unwaveringly focused and committed. They are truly a testament to the human spirit and their lives of sacrifice and service are powerful models and reminders for those fortunate enough to be blessed by their presence.
I don’t know her name.
She is the school cook and she shyly yet warmly greeted us as we stopped by her “kitchen”: two small charcoal burners on a balcony upon which sat huge pots, bubbling and boiling. We saw her supply room—nearly bare—and her workspace: a room no larger than a closet, the place to wash and chop vegetables.
I don’t know her name.
She moved unobtrusively in our meeting room, bringing tea and snacks. Respecting the ebb and flow of conversation, she knew when to come in and refresh the tea or remove cups and saucers.
I don’t know her name.
We were told that she had just lost her brother in an accident the night before. This humble woman was a grieving woman who could not, would not pause to take notice of death and loss, because then, who would feed the children?
I don’t know her name.
She again returned to our meeting room, and as we continued to discuss the plans for the week, she paused with a pitcher and basin before each person. It was the same hand washing ritual from the day before, but it took on much greater meaning as this one who should be comforted remained the comforter: serving, feeding, filling others with her love.
Her name is Agneta.
The staff told how their work is a calling, not a job. Their stories showed how committed and compassionate and caring they are towards the people of Kawangware, they truly are the ray of hope. Of course, the great thrill of the day was when the children greeted us outside the clinic in their blue sweaters and shorts and with their shaved heads recited poems and sang for us. The surprise was when they took our hands to come dance with them; it was dancing with love, dancing with hope, dancing with angels.