I walked into the hall where breakfast was going to be held, not knowing what to expect. When we got here last night, my eyes were barely staying open after the 27 hours of travel time… plus it was almost pitch black dark. I definitely remember tripping on some rocks in the grass while trying to get to my room. But now that it’s light and I got a few winks of sleep, I am bursting with excitement and can’t wait to see what’s outside the door. There’s a garden right across where our rooms are where they’re growing fruits and vegetables. A few stray cats wander around and a gray wall topped with barbed wire surrounds us (the guys started to play baseball and hit one over the wall and Isaac had to maneuver around the barbed wire to get it; I’m pretty sure he fell and the other guys ran to make sure he didn’t die. He’s fine.). The courtyard sort of sparkles in the early morning light, and one unexpected gift is how many rosebushes line the paths. Roses are my favorite flower, and they’re everywhere here; it’s like a kiss on the cheek from the Lord, right from the start.
Breakfast is papaya, small sausages, and bread with butter and red plum jelly. I’ve never tried papaya up until this point, and I guess it’s okay except for the odd aftertaste. Being in Kenya, you would expect there to be brewed coffee (or at least I did!), but the big thing here is actually milk tea: it’s a sort of black tea steeped in hot milk. If you want coffee, instant coffee is your only option (or in my case, two or three packets of instant coffee per cup!). The sisters who prepared it and brought it to us are probably some of the most selfless and kind people I’ve ever met. Everyone says hello to you as they pass by.
Breakfast is a buzz of excitement about the fact that we are actually here; we are halfway around the world and finally here. All those months of fundraising and preparation and shots and doctor’s appointments and meetings and we are finally here. We all gather in that same hall for several hours of orientation; Swahili lessons (Bwana Asifiwe means ‘Praise the Lord!’ and is a very common greeting here), an idea of what to expect over the next several days, cultural differences to be aware of, things like that. Even with the excitement and adrenaline and coffee all pumping through my veins, the jet lag is putting up a fight and I find myself excited for sleep by noon.
The town right outside of our compound is called Kasarani, and one of the tasks we are given for the day to sort of throw us into the new culture head first is finding several items on a list by shopping and asking the locals what the items are and where to find them. I can’t say being thrust into new cultures has ever really intimidated me… but for some reason this does!
Walking out the gates of the compound, we begin trekking up a dirt path on the side of the road, and already it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Trash lines the streets, and most everywhere smells like stagnant water or garbage. The best way I can describe it is like a child wanted to build a city from the scraps he could find laying around, so he found a few small sheets of metal and some wood, maybe a few old boxes he could carve some holes into. If he stacked all of these random objects on top of each other with just enough glue that it would hold together without toppling, that’s kind of what Kasarani is. Small shacks and four-five story unfinished cement blocks that people live in, all piled on top of each other and looking somewhat clumsy to an American eye that’s used to structure, and yet it’s beautiful in it’s own way. There’s bursts of color in the way some of the small store fronts are painted and also in the plethora of laundry hanging out to dry everywhere. Chickens and goats roam around, the sides of the streets are fairly full with people and produce and car tires. Skinned animals hang in the windows of the butcher shops, and Will Smith’s profile adorns the front of the many barber shops. It’s a flurry of sights and sounds.
And while there is immense beauty here, I already am feeling the beginning cracks of heartbreak. I see a man on the side of the road begging for scraps of food. Young women who appear very clean and put together riding off on mopeds- I later find out they’re on their way to sell themselves to survive. Kids playing in the trash along the side of the streets. And yet they smile. This is life to them, and they find joy in it.
What’s more, I finally understand at least a little bit what it is to be a minority- white people here are called “mzungu”, and we must be a rare sighting, because every bus and car that passes by honks and waves at us, and many of the kids point at us with glee and shout “mzungu!” before running over and trying to shake our hands. One thing I am quickly learning about the Kenyans is that they are experts at making the person right in front of them the center of their universe- a skill most of us would do good to try to learn.
Yet the highlight of the day by far (and what woke me up!) was finally getting to meet the legendary Pastor and Mama Karau. I’d heard so much about them up to this point, and they’d become spiritual giants in my head even before I met them. And this was rightly so, because the instant they walked through those double doors into that room, I could feel the joy and peace of the Lord radiating off of them. You know those people that you almost feel you can’t do a justice trying to describe to someone because they are just that warm and that loving, much more than words can say? That’s Pastor and Mama. Mama’s smile lights up every room she is in and her laugh echoes, and Pastor gives off such a quiet, humble confidence that you can’t help but feel that you are in the presence of deep wisdom and should pay close attention to every word that comes out of his mouth.
They tell us the story of how they started Sanctuary of Hope- after all, that’s the whole reason we are in Kenya in the first place. Pastor and Mama started a church in Mathare, the second largest slum in Africa, and Mama’s heart began to ache for the many children who would come into the church hungry. She knew she had to do something and began feeding them here and there as she could. Soon after that, a young mother who was dying of AIDS brought her child to Mama, asking her to take care of her after she had passed away. From there, one by one, more pieces fell into place and Sanctuary of Hope was born- a home where at risk orphans are taken in, loved, and cared for by being placed in a permanent family. Mama and Pastor were the first parents of one of these houses, and although they could have easily left Nairobi and retired in the home Pastor was brought up in (their own biological kids are already grown), they decided to take in several more and call them their own. Talk about sacrifice, and loving like Christ. I already found myself bursting with respect and awe at how they emanate Jesus so well, and I just met them.
This is only day one and I’m already bursting. What a week is ahead.