Today we go into Mathare Valley to visit Mathare Worship Center and walk through the slums. Today specifically is one day that our entire team has been told many, many times to really try to spiritually, emotionally, and mentally prepare for, perhaps even more than the other days of this trip. Today we descend into the trenches of human existence- a few square miles of land with more than 500,000 people living there. We’ve been told to expect our hearts to be broken open and bleeding from what we see. We’ve been told to expect to feel confused and emotionally unsure of what’s happening. We’ve been told to expect to feel overwhelmed, unstable. And although I’ve been to slums before, and although I’ve prayed endlessly for the Lord to prepare me for today, waking up I honestly have absolutely no idea of what to expect. All I know is I’m not here to fix, I’m here simply to love and to learn.
Driving on the bus to Mathare, we take a left off of the highway (across which is one of the nicest malls in Nairobi), and within minutes the scenery quickly changes. It’s one of those places that I feel is almost impossible to try to explain with words. We get off the bus at Mathare Worship Center, which is the church that Pastor and Mama started in the heart of Mathare. Immediately after getting off the bus I notice the horrid smell- a mix of trash, rotting food, and feces which is made infinitely worse by the heat. After a briefing from Pastor’s son Steve, we begin our walk into Mathare Valley, surrounded by a handful of young men from the church on all sides, because even as a large group, it would be unsafe for us to travel into the valley without trusted locals. I’m still searching for words to try to communicate what today was like.
How do you explain what it’s like to not be able to breathe fully for a few minutes because it smells putrid all around you, and there’s no escaping it? How do you explain the initial shock when you’re on the edge of the valley looking down, and you see nothing but tin roofs for miles and trash and feces thrown everywhere on top? How do you explain walking down narrow, slick, muddy paths that are not only steep but are also absolutely filled on either side with trash? How do you explain passing a man squatting in the mud sniffing glue to get high, probably just so that he can manage to survive from day to day? How do you explain seeing the Mathare river running through the middle of the slum, literally black from all the human waste and sewage, and watching young children laughing and playing in it because that’s all they know?
How do you explain what it’s like to teach an art class in a very dimly lit “school room” that is maybe 10 X 10 feet (if that) and crammed with 15 kids (there’s barely room for me to stand at the front)? How do you explain visiting a dark daycare where two women do their best to care for almost thirty kids two years old and younger? There’s nothing but a few old, dirty mattresses on the floor that the kids lay on to sleep, and yet I know that they are doing the absolute best they can with the scarce resources available to them. I watch these toddlers’ faces light up and smile and giggle as some of us start to reach down and hold their hands. And as I hold one little girl in my arms, my back begins to hurt and I start to set her down, but she starts to wail and lifts her arms back up to me… I can’t help but wonder how often she is actually picked up and held when she cries, and when she’ll be held and cuddled next. I don’t think it happens often since there’s only two women to respond to thirty babies. I hold her closer.
How do you explain visiting one of the homes here, and hardly being able to fit six people inside because it is maybe less than half the size of my bedroom at home? How do you explain meeting a woman with AIDS who isn’t allowed to work but has to somehow support her three children because dad is nowhere to be found (a story, by the way, which is far too common in Kenya; what happens to all the fathers??)? Christine’s home is just like all the others in Mathare: small (there’s hardly room to turn around), tin roofs and walls, one sketchy wire running across the ceiling and lighting a single bulb, dirt floor, a small “bed”, and four people living there. There’s no running water, no plumbing, and she’s lucky to have electricity. And yet she has to pay 1500 shillings a month to live here (the equivalent of $15, which is a lot in Mathare considering the average monthly income is less than $3 a day and she has three children to support and no means of income). She relies on her sister and the church to support her since she can’t work.
How do you explain the drug and alcohol abuse that is raging here because most of them don’t know how to cope and don’t know any other way of life? How do you explain the crime rate? Steve asked the young men who were guiding us through the valley how many of them had lost dear childhood friends to murder or disease. Every single one of them raised their hands.
How do you explain hearing that young women here are encouraged- yes, ENCOURAGED- by their parents to sleep with a man if he gives them money, because that’s how economically desperate most families here are? And what’s more, they are also frequently set up by family and friends to be raped, often by someone close to them. A lot that I saw and heard of in Mathare broke me, but the extreme, inhumane, and common way in which so many of these young women are objectified and abused is probably what wrecked my heart more than anything else.
And yet, in the midst of black injustice, how do you explain the joy in the kids’ eyes when you smile at them from afar? How do you explain the light in Christine’s face as she sings to her sweet Jesus, even in the midst of her pain? Looking at her then I would have never guessed that she has AIDS, that she is abused by her drunken brother, that she has to somehow support herself and three kids single handedly. Jesus is her anchor.
How do you explain feeling joy in a place as seemingly hopeless as Mathare? I talked with one of the group leaders about how joyful all the people here are, and she said that this is likely partially due to the stigma they have around “white people” or “mzungu”; because we are white, because we are so wealthy in comparison to them, they see us somewhat as “saviors” or “heroes”… as if we are better than them. And we are the only white people for miles around here (except we saw one couple from Boulder in Mathare at the same time as us- small world!). We stick out like a sore thumb here.
The fact that they think of us as being better than them is so far beyond the truth that I can hardly stand it. But even if this is part of why they are so welcoming to us, in talking to them I also know that part of the reason is because Jesus truly is all they have and who they hold most dear. What I see here doesn’t line up with what I feel- I see poverty and hopelessness but I feel great hope and joy. You’re broken and full all at once. It’s emotional schizophrenia.
Upon returning to the compound, the reality of what I just walked through begins to hit. I let the tears fall down my face and begin to hear the sniffles and silent cries of my team around me. Today was hard.
I feel like I need to do something- I know I need to do something. But it feels so massive, so vast… far too much for any one person to solve. There’s a million different factors playing into life in Mathare. The government is corrupt and takes advantage of the weak in a way that is both despicable and common. They’ll maybe improve one thing in Mathare (like a road or some electricity) right before an election to earn votes, and then the minute they’re in office they turn their backs and go right back to not caring. There’s the habits that so many in Mathare have grown accustomed to; succumbing to violence, crime, prostitution, and drugs to make a living. There’s the culture of single motherhood and the overall lack of responsibility among the men. Change here would require a massive movement of Jesus and a massive change in culture.
Even so, the beginning whispers of change are evident. The men who guided us through the valley are all very much in love with Jesus, and many of them are pursuing godly relationships with young women whom they hope to marry (as opposed to the “sleep with her and hit the road” culture that is so prevalent here). Many of the younger people are starting to treat Mathare with a sense of ownership and pride. Instead of falling to the stereotypes around the valley, they are rising up and beginning to turn a page. The sense of community is strong. Things are a long way from being healthy and safe, but things aren’t as bad as they were even a few years ago.
As I go to sleep, I think of Beth’s words to us this morning before we even got on the bus- “If Jesus was physically here in Kenya, I don’t think he would be on a safari- I think he would be walking through the valley.” And there’s no doubt in my heart that Jesus is very much in Mathare. What an honor to walk in His footsteps there and hopefully be a bit of a light.
Now I need to figure out what on earth I’m supposed to do with all of this. Because I know deep down that I can’t just sit back and do nothing.