On Tuesday we went with a group of church volunteers to Kuwinda, a slum in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi. By comparison, Kibera seemed well-off.
The story goes that Karen was a wealthy British woman living in Nairobi during the colonial era. When visitors would head her way, they’d say they were going to Karen’s. As more and more Brits moved into the area, Karen’s name became the default title of the whole area. Today, Karen refers to a wealthy, traditionally expat community in the southwestern corner of the city. Interestingly, it also encompasses one of the poorest areas in the city – and, frankly, the most impoverished place I’ve ever seen – which is where the house-help live. People who serve as caretakers and babysitters and washers and driers for Karen’s wealthy had to plant themselves within walking distance, so they set up a little dilapidated settlement, now called Kuwinda Karen.
It was strange driving past what were clearly luxurious, upscale schools and housing, then turning down a mud-slicked road flocking with chickens and on either side decked with tiny shanties. The discrepancy of class was even clearer here than on the borders of Kibera.
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I have never been much of a picture-taker. And it felt particularly uncomfortable taking any photographs in this place, though for some reason I wanted to, if only to record for myself and for others what I was seeing. It just doesn’t feel right taking pictures of poverty, even if the children are enamored with the cameras. At one point a group of children grabbed the camera string out of my pocket and started playing with it. I told them in a mix of English, Swahili, and crude sign language how to operate it, but this is about all we could get.
Anyway, we certainly didn’t go to Nairobi, Kenya, to get photographs. We came to see and to serve, which is exactly what we did.
The first thing we did was set up another clinic. This time, it was arranged in an otherwise empty church building that was about the side of a dorm room. I’m not sure if it was planned this way or not, but all of the children were in school, so at first the nurses just saw a slew of babies and older people. However, once word got out that we were there with medicine, some parents ran to pull their children out of their classrooms so they could come see the nurses. Fortunately, even with the sporadic waves of visitors, this clinic was much less overwhelming than the one at Magoso.
There are about 15,000 people living in Kuwinda (I was told). I was able to go on about a dozen house-visits, and actually spend a lot more time talking to people about their lives and Kenya and America and God.
The first two people I chatted with were Nancy and Chegi. Nancy said she went to the PCEA (Presbyterian Church of East Africa) that was the only tall building around, right at the entrance to the slum. Chegi, however, was rasta. It was really fascinating hearing about his beliefs, which he was happy to talk about. Nancy wasn’t so impressed – she laughed off a lot of what he said. I asked them if they ever talk about their faiths to each other. Nancy said, “No, because we see each other every day and we don’t want to fight about it.”
I thought that was really true, and really similar to the story of diverse beliefs anywhere. It also crossed my mind that, as a foreigner, it may actually have been easier for me to talk about beliefs and faith because I was approaching it with a genuinely curious, listening spirit, whereas we often are preemptive and argumentative with our friends. I don’t know; still something I’m thinking about.
As happened on numerous occasions, unsurprisingly, Nancy really wanted me to find someone to sponsor her child to go to a good school. She said it would cost a few hundred dollars USD, and it would allow her daughter to continue schooling in a town by Lake Victoria, an opportunity she could not afford on her own. It’s difficult to know what to do in these situations (it’s like being asked for change on Michigan Avenue multiplied many times over). The best we could do, especially on such a large scale, is tell their stories and connect them with resources in the area: the church, the schools, and NGOs.
Unlike in Kibera, the people in Kuwinda seemed much more skeptical at seeing us. What were these Americans and these more well-off Nairobians doing here? Why did they bring a clinic? What were they peddling?
I think after opening the clinic and having a few conversations, they were satisfied that we weren’t going to make trouble or take advantage, but the welcome was considerably less warm than in Kibera and Rongai.
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After the clinic was up and running, I spent most of my time making home visits to widows – about a dozen in all, many of whom could not leave their homes, which were about the size of bathrooms or sheds.
Two young women from Kuwinda led me, C. Jaye, and two volunteers from Nairobi Baptist around to the appropriate doorways – again, places we’d never be able to find or identify on our own. This was the first time I actually entered any of the homes, and it was really very eye-opening.
There was no electricity (or at least the lights were always off) inside. No windows. The walls were made of aluminum, mudbricks, or cardboard. Almost all of the homes we entered were small rectangles with some kind of coffee table-like feature in the middle, surrounded by various kinds of seats (plastic chairs, old couches, upturned buckets, etc.). The rooms were also cut in half by a curtain, on the other side of which, presumably, was some kind of bed. Often, fitting more than six people into a home was snug, and sometimes one or two of us stayed standing at the door looking in.
None of the women spoke English, so the folks from NBC spoke to them in Swahili or their mother tongues. As such, I don’t know everything that was said, but generally the talk was about their needs and their stories and Jesus. Some of the women were clearly pleased to have guests – “Don’t bring us anything; your presence is enough” – and others were emotionless. I’m no psychologist, but it seemed obvious that some of the women were depressed, and almost all of them were suffering from health problems for which they could not access doctors to help them (though we helped them to our own makeshift clinic as needed).
I’ll tell you, it was probably the best and the hardest thing I did in Kenya. The best because it was so enlightening to me to see and hear these women, awe-inspiring to hear them talk about their faith in God’s goodness despite their circumstances, but also very difficult because, really, what could we do? We gave them food and materials, and we helped them to the clinic, but I can’t help but think, What happens in a week when they get sick again, or when this food runs out? Sanitation, clean water, balanced diet, good schools or churches, even light itself, was lacking for all of these women, many of them cooped up in their little rooms and, tragically, no one to visit some of them except these girls who were guiding us – saints who’d taken it upon themselves to look after the widows in their community.
In my short time in Nairobi, any heartbreak or sadness I felt was outweighed by hopefulness and joy, but spending a morning and afternoon with these women, it was hard not to feel pity.
I wrote down little notes about the first five women we visited, before I could not do it anymore.
- Virginia was a widow and the first to say she didn’t want anything from us except our company. She had pain in her legs and had a hard time walking.
- Mariam was an elderly single woman who had lived in Kuwinda since Kenya was a colony (that means before 1963). She was very old and felt lonely because she had no one to come visit her.
- Esther was mobile and had, I think, three children, though they had left the slum and, I gather, didn’t return to see her very much (if at all). She had problems with her breathing.
- Priscilla was severely physically and mentally challenged. She could not communicate very well, even in Swahili, so we simply sat with her and prayed. When we passed by her later, she was sitting outside her doorway, plopped down in the mud, just sitting and staring straight ahead, not paying attention to anything.
- Margaret was old and ill. The thing I jotted down about her was that when she introduced herself (in Swahili) she said, “I’m Margaret and I’m born again.” I found out later this is a common way for Christians to introduce themselves, but it stuck with me.
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After packing up from Kuwinda, we went to dinner with one of NBC’s pastors and his family. He told me lots of interesting stories, some of which I’m sure I’ll write down later, but one thing in particular struck me. After we left, he was going to go up to the border of Kenya and Sudan to celebrate the completion of a translation of the New Testament into a new language.
Of course I know there are thousands of languages and some of them still don’t have the gospel, but it hit home to me to see a man who spent time and energy supporting the translation of scripture into a language spoken by, frankly, probably not too many people, now going to celebrate the fruits of that labor.
So, just this past weekend, for the first time, the New Testament of the Bible — something Western Christians taken entirely for granted, as though it were initially written in English and freely available for all of time — was unveiled to an African tribe that, till then, could not read it in their own language. Praise God for that!