Friday, May 29, 2009

May 28


This morning, several women who utilize the Ray of Hope’s feeding program and/or HIV support group sang, danced, and performed theatre for us. Elation abounded during the song, as our Glide team members were each called forth to join hands and dance with various women. 

Here, I’m not a “white girl” in the sense that I am in my home of San Francisco, where friends are often shocked that I can dance with soul. In Kawangware, as far as I’ve seen, dancing and screaming and clapping are ways of daily life. Passersby seem to think nothing of a crowd gathered in loud song and dance. Why would they, when that’s just what people do?

In Kawangware, I’m a “white girl,” all right … or, more accurately, a “mzungu, ” the Swahili term for “white person.” It is a word I’ve come to know well, as I hear it repeatedly each time I walk through the Kawangware roads, just before throngs of children run out to see the spectacle that is my white skin and blonde hair, and adults stare and wave. The children almost always say, “How are you?” instead of “hello,” and the adults say “hello” and sometimes follow it with, “Asante” – the Swahili word for “thank you.”

After today’s song, dance, and community theatre production (the women in the HIV support group performed a play to educate the audience about how HIV is spread), each of my Glide team members and I spoke to the women gathered in front of us. We all expressed some variation on the theme that we are blessed to be here with them, celebrating life, and that we love them and feel loved by them as well. 

While speaking, I had held a camera in my hand, as my backpack was tucked away upstairs. A beautiful woman from the crowd approached me and placed a strapped, black canvas bag around my neck. She has no money and no food, yet she gave me her bag, and I didn’t know why – but I thanked her anyway, as I knew it was one of very few possessions she had.

When I turned around, my teammate and friend Robin said, “Oh, it’s because you’re the only woman on our team not holding a purse.” Upon realizing Robin was right, I quickly placed my camera in my new purse, my heart unable to bear the woman’s outrageously kind gesture. I’m not a Bible person, but I do know the one about the woman with only a few pennies, who gave all she had, which also featured a man with lots of gold (or something … I’m improvising!), who gave nothing. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare myself to the gold man, but I will say that my life would be far richer than it is now, if I could only figure out how to bottle this woman’s grace and lock it in the black canvas bag.

When I told my teammate and friend Mark the story of the bag, he said, “Oh my god. Did you see what the purse says?” He pointed to a small leather rectangle sewn into the front of the bag. In the rectangle were the words, “Sport good health.” My modification on the above-referenced Bible story goes, “A woman in an HIV support group in an African slum, with no money, no work, and no food to eat outside of a medical clinic’s feeding program, shared one of her last possessions with a physically healthy American lawyer.”

Arrangements may need to be made for this mzungu to move to Nairobi.

Pastor Karen:

This afternoon, Robin and I walked with Hendrika as she made her rounds, along with two women from the women’s HIV support group. It had rained hard the night before, and the paths and roads we took were quite muddy. I can’t say I have a great sense of balance, and I confess I was a little nervous that I would slip on the mud and slide right into the sewage that flowed beside us. We went from home to home, to speak in hushed voices about their medical condition (hushed because if their HIV status became known, they would most likely be kicked out of their living quarters). The women we visited were all a part of the support group, so everyone knew one another. We learned of their status, of their history since becoming positive, of their struggle due to either widowhood or abandonment by their husbands once they became positive. We sat in close circles, woman to woman, talking, crying, laughing together. The bonds of womanhood transcend culture, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality. I returned to Ray of Hope marveling at the power of women to survive—often for the sake of their children—against all odds.

Hendrika and I walked much of the trip together, and I asked her how she had come to do the work that she does. She spoke of how she had met a nun from America, Sister Bridget. They developed a friendship and Sister Bridget had noticed something within Hendrika. She encouraged her to go to college in order to prepare to be a community health care worker. Hendrika said that when Sister Bridget said this, she felt the power of the Holy Spirit encouraging her to pursue this work. She said, “This is a calling from God.” Because she feels called to this work, she is able to withstand the long hours, many miles of walking each day, and facing the despair of those struggling with disease and poverty. “The Holy Spirit gives me the strength each day. God is good.”


It’s so hard to be brief when my emotions are being tugged in different directions. But today I was joyful, and here are some quick points that reflect why;

About 100 or so HIV positive clients came to Ray of Hope today for their regular HIV Support group, most are woman, but several men also attended. We danced with them, and they entertained us with a play about how HIV effects the families in the slum.

I feel good because after I shared my HIV status with all of them, I was able to find time to shake each of their hands, hug them, and kiss several babies. I came here to provide them hope that they could survive HIV, and at least 10 (who’s counting?) told me that they felt like they received hope from me. I can’t tell you how many asked for my email address (not for money, but just to connect with someone outside the slums). Many handed me phone numbers.

As our group purchased wares from a number of them that have small roadside businesses (they brought their wares with them today), I connected with another HIV positive man who told me he has know he is positive for three years, and that he is open about his status……it’s rare for anyone to be open about their status in the slums, and even more rare for a man to accept his status. Of course I emptied my wallet on the fabulous merchandise he was selling so that he could afford to eat!

Two different women expressed surprised that white men in the United States could have HIV, as it is not considered a “gay” disease in Kenya.

As part of my pharmacy inventory management project, I traveled in the afternoon with Peninah by bus to the Centre Center (downtown Nairobi)……what a sharp contrast…..not as many smiles in the big city that what I see in the million person slum……..Peninah told me she feels that the people that have nothing appreciate life more than the people that have material goods…..This is so easy to understand.

Lastly, I have made a new lifelong friend in Peninah. We have connected on so many levels. We took a cab ride back to the Guest House, and during the cab ride, Peninah talked to my Babycake for a minute by telephone. I think he will love as I am starting to.

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