Upon landing, I was immediately struck by how different the Kenyan culture is from our own. The people as a whole are far more religious than here in the states, which is apparent even in their conservative dress and lingo. On the way to the slum, while observing a group of women crowded around a rusty faucet, I really began to feel the culture-shock; the sight of adults in line to collect clean water in trash bags and dirty tubs was humbling. However, this was only a taste of what I would witness in the slums.
Our team of about 60 social workers, child-sponsors, and medical professionals spent the week serving one of the largest slums in northeastern Nairobi. Korogocho, which is a Swahili term for “crowded shoulder to shoulder”, is home to an estimated 200,000 people crammed within 1.5square kilometers. (Though slums comprise only 5% of Nairobi, they are home to roughly half its citizens.) Walking through the slum for the first time was a truly unforgettable experience. The crowded shacks were comprised of strips of corrugated metal and other recycled materials held together by long nails with bottle caps for washers. The first one I went inside, which belonged to a kind woman named Margaret, was home to 6 children and 2 single mothers despite being no larger in area than a queen-sized mattress. The stench inside the homes is even worse than the street, where the lack of a sewage system has resulted in an unmoving stream of garbage and excrement. The air is so thick with the odor of waste and the fumes of burning plastic that my throat actually swelled so much on our second day to the point that I couldn’t even talk. The bathrooms, which are literally just holes in the ground, are so few that pedestrians have to be wary of “flying toilets” (i.e. plastic bags full of human feces). Surprisingly, the people of Korogocho had some electricity, or at least enough to power a few light bulbs and old radios. Since all the power is stolen from the city, however, it is often shut off without warning and lost until someone can find a new way to steal it. The absence of streetlights encourages a high crime rate; even as we walked, our guide reminded us to keep our wallets in the front to protect from pick pocketing. At night, however, is when most of the frequent murders, rapes, and kidnappings occur. One of the more graphic events I witnessed in the slums was a fight that broke out just yards in front of me on the second day. Two men were throwing punches until one managed to knock the other to the ground; the standing man then picked up a rock the size of a watermelon to cave in the other’s skull. Thankfully, the rock missed by inches, and the men were both tackled and separated before the fight became a murder. A local, Kenya-based ministry called Missions of Hope International (MOHI) coordinated nearly all of the work we did. Founded by Kenya-native Mary Kamau in 2000, MOHI seeks to do away with the common mistake of “hit-and-run” relief by working with the people of the slums and training them how to care for themselves.
One teacher, Henry, described it to me as teaching a man how to fish versus just giving him one. Most of the organization’s efforts are toward education, community outreach, and business development. MOHI schools, which my friend noticed to be similar in structure to Alcatraz, vary in size but offer quality education, far superior to the public education of most of Nairobi. These schools are currently educating 2,000 slum children in everything from English and literature to biology and physics. One day I had the opportunity to teach a class a song as part of their Vacation Bible School, and I’ll never forget it. The classroom, which was smaller than my bedroom in Phoenix, was crammed with twelve desks and an astounding forty students; the room was so crowded, in fact, that I literally had to climb my way to the back when it came time to pass out crayons. Despite the lack of space and quality supplies, though, I have never seen a group of kids in my thirteen years of public education as overjoyed to be in school as these students. They were so enthusiastic about every song, activity, and concept that one couldn’t help but be enthusiastic with them.
Indeed, it seemed that the children were the life of the slums as a whole. For all the pain and suffering I witnessed, the amount of smiles and hujambo’s (hello’s) I received walking through Korogocho forced me to sit down and rethink poverty. In addition to working with the children and installing skylights in homes, our team also set up a medical clinic to address some of the more demanding, physical needs of Korogocho. The clinic was set up to begin with a triage run by nurses, who they sent the patients to either one of the consultation rooms, the eye clinic, the prayer room, or the pharmacy. Over the course of the week, our team of 20 physicians and medical professionals saw and treated over 520 patients for everything from ear infections and ringworm to pneumonia and tuberculosis. I had the opportunity to shadow and assist a brilliant doctor named Mark. Mark, who has practiced internal medicine in Sun City for over 20 years, was raised by missionaries in Peru and has been on many medical missions throughout his career. “If money wasn’t an issue,” he told me with a smile, “I’d just do this [medical mission work] fulltime.” Throughout the week, I learned how to measure a patient’s pulse, heart rate, and blood pressure in addition to checking for ear infections, pharyngitis, and a few other diseases. Some of the more memorable experiences include seeing a umbilical hernia for the first time and watching a makeshift IV save a young girl from dying of pneumonia. Witnessing the joy and life brought to patients who would otherwise go without care definitely inspired me in my goal of practicing international medicine.
As I’ve attempted to express to you throughout this letter, the trip was a truly life-altering experience. In addition to teaching me about the struggles and vision of another culture, the experience gave me a newfound gratitude and appreciation for the little things I so often take for granted on a day-to-day basis. Witnessing the paradox of extreme pain and extreme joy helped me better understand what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote to rejoice in suffering in light of the fruits it can produce (Ro. 5:3-5). As I prepare to leave for college in the next month, I consider myself truly blessed to have been able to regain this perspective on what really matters in life, namely, faith, hope, and love. “But the greatest of these is love.”
Thank you again for all your love and support, and I hope this upcoming year is as inspiring and encouraging to you as this summer has been for me.
Foxtrotter II, Nairobi Kenya.